• Nikki Flores

Falling in Love with Soccer, and Finding a Way to Heal

The summer of 1999 was the summer before my senior year of high school, and I was spending a whole lot of time making sure I did a whole lot of nothing. But then I got a phone call, like on a real phone, because I didn't have a cell phone yet. It was my mom calling from work, but this time, she wasn't calling to nag me about loading the dishwasher. The words that came out of her mouth when I said "hello," are forever etched in my mind: “Do you want to go to the World Cup?” Do you really even have to ask a kid who’s been playing since second grade, who, months before, started in the State Final, who was aiming for a college scholarship, if she wants to go to the World Cup?


This was out of nowhere, my mom talking about getting tickets to the semi and the final in California. The quarterfinal hadn’t even been played yet. I had to ask why, and my mom said something that ended up changing my outlook on life – just not until I became an adult. Her coworker had come into her office – her coworker who knew how into soccer I was because my mom talked about me all the time – and asked my mom if she knew that the World Cup was happening on US soil. And then my mom's coworker told her she should take me, because life is short, and experiences matter more than things, and because you don’t pass up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.


We sat at home and watched the quarterfinal against Germany, the game where Chastain scored an own-goal in the 5th minute, and the USWNT went down again just before the half. I remember thinking, my mom just offered to take me to the World Cup semis and final, and we have TICKETS, and what if we lose? We could actually lose.


We didn’t lose.


My mom and I packed into her car and drove from Texas to California, arriving in Stanford the night before the match against Brazil. This was before the time of getting on the internet and booking a hotel. When we rolled into the city, the only hotel we could find looked kind of sketchy and my mom didn't want to stay there. Besides, she said, there would probably be all sorts of traffic before the game. We slept in the car in the parking lot at the stadium. Who does that? It's cold at night in California, by the way. Even in July. Even in a car.


But it's also a memory.


One week later, I sat in sweltering heat. I felt my stomach drop when Michelle Akers went down and didn't get back up. I screamed when Kristine Lilly headed the ball off the goal line, forever cementing my belief that post players matter on corners. I held my breath with 90,184 other people every single PK. As a fellow goalkeeper, I leapt out of my seat when Brianna Scurry made that save. I was crying before Brandi Chastain even got her shirt ripped off.


But that trip was about the memories I made with my mom in between games, and in the car, as much as it was about soccer; I just didn’t get it then. I didn’t get it until she lost her battle with breast cancer 13 years later, and I realized that World Cup road trip was the only mother-daughter trip we ever took. Cancer might have taken my mom, but no one can steal those memories.



In a strange twist of fate, we found out that we were pregnant with our first child the same week I lost my mom. I vowed to raise him the way she raised me. Experiences over things. Travel as many places as possible, as often as possible. Be flexible, and always believe that there is a solution for every problem. Nurture his interests even when they aren’t mine (for the record, my mom wanted to be a dance recital mom, not the mom in the cold bleachers in the middle of January, on the verge of a panic attack because she knew how crushed her daughter would be if the ball hit the back of the net). She never met him, she never got to give me her grandmotherly input on how I was raising him, but I’d like to think that she’d be proud. For what it’s worth, I’m proud.


After college, I went on to coach the sport I loved for 12 years. For a while, I didn’t think of soccer unless it was in the context of my own team. I didn’t go to a single NWSL game. I didn’t even get to watch most of the 2015 World Cup because my youngest son decided to make an early entrance into the world and was in the NICU while the USWNT was tying Sweden and winning every other match. He came home the day the we defeated Japan. Eventually, I gave up coaching to spend more time with my own children. The role the sport I loved for so long really had no place in my life anymore.


But sometimes, circumstances in life change, and you end up in a place you never thought you’d be. Sometimes, that new life seems like it might just be unbearable. I was at that unbearable place right before the start of the 2019 World Cup. Suddenly, I had time to watch games, so I did. After the World Cup ended I had time to go to NWSL games, so I got tickets for all the Dash home games, my closest market, and spent the rest of the summer and fall traveling to watch matches in other markets.

All of a sudden, the joy that this sport had brought me for so long came flooding back. I had a camera. I had no idea how to use it, other than putting it on auto and pressing the button. I started bringing it with me to games, and I found joy in photography, too. At a time I thought I would never experience happiness again, I found it, shooting from the stands and watching the beautiful game.


As 2020 rolled around and I made plans to go to the four USWNT games scheduled in Texas, a very special co-worker started chirping in my ear that I needed to get a bigger lens and shoot from down on the field. He kept telling me that my work was good, even when I didn’t see it, even when I argued with him that I had no idea what I was doing. But since the day I met him two years ago, his zest for life has reminded me of my mom, and I kept hearing him tell me that I needed to think bigger. It was like she was speaking to me through him.


I found someone to freelance for. I got media credentials (and a professional lens and a nicer camera). I couldn’t even believe any of it, to be honest. I didn’t want to go to the game in Frisco. Well, I wanted to go, I just wanted to be in the stands. But the idea of being there as a professional made me sick to my stomach. See, I’m not the kind of person who handles new situations well. I’m shy, and the unknown scares me. I didn’t know where to go, what the protocol was, or, if we’re being completely honest, how to use my camera (I still don’t). But I thought about my mom, and how she would probably tell me this was an experience. You don’t pass up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. To me, with as much love as I have for this sport and this team, photographing a game from pitch level felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


So I seized that opportunity. And even though it was as scary as I thought it would be, I don’t regret it. I love the memories soccer has given me. I love that this sport has dragged me along when I didn’t want to get out of bed, and that it has reminded me what joy is. I love that is has taken me out of my comfort zone and helped me find a new passion. I love knowing that even when I left soccer, soccer never left me, and now it’s helped me to find myself all over again. The beautiful game has helped me to heal, and I will be forever grateful for that.

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