By Nina Wolinsky
A little over four years ago on July 5, 2015 my friend dragged me to a bar to watch the World Cup final, with a promise of the best wings in San Francisco. She delivered on the wings, but something else happened that day: I fell in love with women’s soccer. I was 24 years old and I had just found my new passion.
Over the next several years, I learned everything I could about the sport — players, stats, history, etc. I basically became a human version of Women’s Soccer Trivial Pursuit. But I never actually learned how to play, or even something as basic as how to kick a soccer ball. I came to understand everything happening during matches, but I couldn’t fathom executing any of it myself. For context, my family wasn’t a soccer family. My older brother once joined a peewee team but ended up pretending to be a Ghostbuster on the field instead of playing, so my family never went back.
Living on the west coast, there aren’t too many opportunities to see my favorite team, the Orlando Pride. In August, I happened to be in Orlando during a home match and got to chat with Ali in person. She was as genuinely kind and warm as you can imagine.
Someone nearby brought up the next AKFC Adult Camp that was taking place in less than a month. I’d seen Instagram posts about it and thought, “This would be awesome, but I’ll never go. It’s a long way to travel just to embarrass myself.”
Ali explained: 1. You don’t need to know how to play. 2. You don’t need to be in shape. 3. Alcohol is involved (not while playing). I was pretty much sold but I had to do a little more recon – I emailed AKFC as soon as I got back to my hotel.
Cynthia, a gem who clearly runs the AKFC ship like a boss, emailed back reassuring me that Ali was not lying that no experience was required. She stood by the fact that anyone of any level can go, and Ali makes sure it’s an inclusive environment for everyone. Then she dropped the hook: what better way to learn than from the Warrior Princess herself? I impulsively pulled out my credit card and booked a flight to Orlando for September.
Some of my friends may call me un-athletic and uncoordinated, so the thought of me signing up for a soccer camp seemed wild. However, they also know how much of a fan I am of Ali Krieger, the Orlando Pride, and the USWNT so it was generally understood that this was an incredible opportunity. On paper, the camp checked off all the boxes for why I shouldn’t go:
- Not great at running and get winded easily? Check.
- Lack foot-eye coordination? Check.
- Become awkward meeting famous people? Check.
- Afraid of talking to and playing with more experienced strangers? Check.
- Petrified of driving in Florida? Big fat check.
But then I reminded myself that those are the exact reasons I needed to go. This would be an opportunity to make a dream come true and I couldn’t pass it up.
For the first time in about 10 years, I started a training regimen. Instead of my regular workouts, I went on a few walks/runs a week and started taking spin classes. I bought fancy new sneakers, cleats, shin guards and clothes. (Look good, feel good, play good, right folks?) I only had a few weeks to prepare, but I was determined to make the most of them. The camp hadn’t even started and I was already proud of myself. I set a plan and followed through. As Kriegs says, “You can control two things in life: your work ethic and attitude,” so I chose to control both.
The weekend finally arrived and I was ready to fly cross-country to Orlando, armed with just a little bit of information about what to expect.
I was shaking in my wedges in preparation for the Friday night happy hour. I reminded myself that someone as genuine as Ali must attract similarly genuine fans. When I walked into the bar, I overheard a young woman asking for directions to the AKFC meet-up, so I started following her. She introduced herself as Martine, and we made our way to the bar together. Upon deciding that we needed to be more social, we walked up to two other attendees who had also just met. This is how we met Kristen and Luis and became a little squad of four.
We were standing there chatting when someone came up behind me. I assumed I was in their way until they stopped next to me. I turned to my left, and there was Ali Krieger. First thing I noticed? She had on some really cool pants. She started asking questions while westood there trying not to be too awkward. We talked about our experience (or lack thereof), growing teams in other cities, expanding the league during World Cup years, etc. By the end of the night, we had chatted with her mom for a while, learning details that Ali probably didn’t expect her mom to share. Once we let Ali and her mom leave, the four of us exchanged numbers and parted ways for the night, ready for the next morning.
On Saturday morning, I was the first to arrive at the training facility. I was so nervous that I walked right past Ali and the staff and stood by myself off in the corner. I looked around the field, trying to absorb the fact that I was about to play on the same field that some of the world’s best players practice on — Krieger, Harris, Morgan, Marta, Leroux. It was surreal.
Campers started trickling in, looking a lot more confident than I felt. Do I need to wear shin guards? How do I even put them on? Will people judge me if I can’t kick the ball? My new friends reassured me, telling me I’d be fine and despite barely knowing them, I trusted them and reminded myself that no matter what, I had shown up. I was willing to push myself and be uncomfortable.
To get started, Ali introduced us to Ivi (strength and conditioning coach), Anton (coach), Jeremy (coach), Lloyd (goalkeeper coach), and the hundreds of love bugs flying around. We kicked off the day with Ivi, who took us through some of the dynamic warm-ups she does with the Pride. That idea alone scared the crap out of me – can I do what Krieger does? The answer was yes. Was I the best? No, but no one judged me for it – they were cheering me on!
We then split into three separate groups – intermediate/advanced, beginners, and goalkeepers. My beginner group worked with Jeremy to start with the basics, like how to kick the ball. Turns out there were a few others who either hadn’t played before or hadn’t played in 20 years. My group then split into smaller groups of four for a drill. My group only had three players, so Ali joined to even it out. When she says she’s competitive, she isn’t lying. “Go Go Go! Explode off the ball! At least we’re not in last place.” My overwhelmed brain couldn’t remember everything, so Ali retaught me the moves herself. This was exactly why I came to the camp – to learn from Ali Krieger.
Next up, we practiced passing drills with Anton. Krieger was part of the session as well, making me wonder if she was spending time with the other group (she was). That’s what made this camp so special: Krieger was involved in every aspect of it. She even joined us for shooting drills. When I missed my first shot on goal, Ali took me aside to correct my form…and recommended I try moving closer to the goal; I scored my next two goals.
After our next water break (there were plenty to combat the Florida humidity), it was time to scrimmage. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I even hit Anton in the butt with the ball. When Ali kicked a ball in the air towards me, I ran away. But I tried, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
After scrimmage, it was time for PKs while Ali cheered us on. When I scored my PK, I felt so accomplished. Sure, the goal was closer and no one was paying attention, but it didn’t tamper my excitement and pride in myself. I scored a PK for the first time in my life! I walked off the field with a huge smile on my face.
We wrapped up with a session with the Pride’s nutritionist to learn how Ali and the team take care of their bodies from a food/drink perspective. I’d never even heard of half of the things, but Ali made sure we knew the basics to start out with. In addition to the “right” urine color, turmeric, pea milk, and collagen are forever embedded in my mind. I got to wrap up the afternoon with a chat with Ali about Netflix, field conditions, the possibility of her dog running wild on the field, and more.
To make the most of our time in Orlando, Luis, Kristen, Martine and I met up with a larger group of players that evening for a benefit concert supporting To Write Love On Her Arms, an organization that I’m very passionate about.
Bright and early Sunday morning, I checked out of the hotel and drove to Exploria stadium for a private tour with Ali. We started in the owner’s suite, then made our way through the offices to the pressroom, discussing how players interact with fans and press right after difficult matches. Next, we moved on to the locker room, learning more about the conditions that men and women have equal access to, unlike some other teams in the league.
We made our way through the tunnel that the players walk out from before each match, words of encouragement on the right and some not-so-nice words on the left (e.g., “Enjoy your sunburn”). We ended the tour with a group photo in the section of seats dedicated to the victims of the Pulse shooting and learned more about how the Orlando City Soccer Club gives back to their community.
As we made our way to the lobby, I had the opportunity to ask Ali a question. “How do you avoid fly-aways even though your hair is always in a bun?” I appreciated that she answered the question as seriously as I asked it. “Hairspray, lots of it. Don’t be afraid. And no pre-wrap or headbands.”
We all drove over to the practice fields for some final playing time. Understandably, we were pretty sore from the day before so Ivi took us through some amazing stretches and a few more dynamic warm-ups. Every time I finished, Martine, Luis, and Kristen held their hands out for a high five. During the next water break, I saw a woman standing on the sidelines in a Pride training uniform and recognized her as the talented Alanna Kennedy. She was generous enough to stop by after her training session to say hello.
Next up: the World Cup. I was team Brazil, which when you think about it isn’t too bad. My team was made up primarily of people who had more experience than I did, so I was definitely intimidated but determined to prove myself. When it came time for my team to play, I really didn’t want to screw it up for my team, but I also didn’t have any idea what I was doing. “Stay in the middle! Cover her! Stay on her!” – I wasn’t sure which “her” they were talking about or where in the middle they wanted me. Unfortunately, we lost and America moved onto the final against Australia. If I’m being honest, I walked off the field disappointed that I let my team down. But feeling disappointed meant I cared and wanted to come back and do better.
We followed up with an open and honest Q&A, covering topics like future goals, family, and positivity. I thought the best conversation was about the Time’s Up movement. We experience gender-related issues in our everyday lives and want to be part of the movement but don’t have a platform. We threw out different ideas like newsletters and forums, all of which Ali promised to explore.
We wrapped up the camp with time to chat 1:1 with Ali and get photos/autographs. She spent time with each person, as long as they needed, looking them in the eye and listening to their stories. This was one of my favorite parts of the entire camp. She showed she cares about her fans and the impact she makes, on and off the field.
After filling my suitcase with AK11 merchandise, I said my goodbyes to the players and staff. Cynthia took a great photo of my little squad, asking if any of us knew each other before camp since we seemed so close. Nope! That was all thanks to the camp.
Riding that high, I rushed to the airport with my sweaty clothes and a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt in years.
The feeling didn’t end when I left camp, though. Two weeks later, I signed up for my company’s pick-up team. I wanted to put my skills to the test and keep pushing myself. After my second match, playing primarily right back, I was told that I’d made some good saves, which was one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten.
To wrap up this odyssey of an article, I ask you to think back to the reasons why I thought this camp might be a bad idea.
Now scratch them out.
If you’re anything like me–you’ve never played before, you’re out of shape, or intimidated for any other reason–these are the reasons why you should go:
- You’ll be reminded that it’s ok to make mistakes, just like when you were a kid.
- No one will care how you play (except Ali if she joins your drill group), and I mean that in the best way possible.
- People who barely know you will encourage you, even when you start doubting yourself.
- You’ll realize you’re stronger than you thought.
And don’t forget…..
- You’ll get to chill with Ali Krieger and learn from her on and off the field.