JEREMY REPER/ISI PHOTOS

Kristen Hamilton plays as a forward for both the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL and the Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia’s W-League. Prior to helping the Courage win their second NWSL title in a row last season, Hamilton was called into the USWNT, where she recorded her first national team cap against Portugal in September.

The NWSL is entering it’s 8th season. You’ve been in the league for five years. What’s changed since you joined? 

The league has made leaps and bounds since I’ve been involved. I tore my ACL right out of college, so 2015 was technically my first full year in the league, and oh my gosh, the minimum salary was like $6,000, which is absolutely insane. The minimum this year is up to $20,000, so even just in terms of money, it’s gotten much better. We now have year-round housing. We have better medical training staff. Just all around, it’s a more professional organization. This is actually something that people can do for a living now. Before, it was almost like you had to pay to be a professional athlete.

Your own career has been on an incredible upward trajectory. Can you talk about what it was like mentally to grind for so long without seeing much of the field?  

Mentally, it was exhausting. In this league, you’re always fighting to earn your spot, because everybody’s the best of the best. If it’s not something you’re passionate about, if it’s not something you love and you’re truly willing to fight for, I don’t think it’s for you. This was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around when I first got into the league. I realized I just had to fight and be patient. I had to learn to be a different type of role player on the team. If I’m not scoring all the goals, I have to find another way to help us win. No matter the number of minutes I’m playing, I need to be the best teammate I can possibly be. I tell rookies this all the time, but you have to understand that everyone in this league was the best player on their college team. That’s why they’re here. They probably played every minute of their college career. Not everyone is going to get to do that at the next level, at least not right away.

Did you ever think about walking away? 

There were definitely times I wanted to quit. And there was a time when I wanted Paul to trade me, because, to be fair, our team is stacked. Our forwards are unbelievable. And Jessica and Lynn we’re playing so well together, I knew that it was going to be hard to take them off the field. They were just that good. It’s hard when you have coaches telling you that you could get more minutes on another team, and you’re like, do I really want to leave this environment? Because Paul and all of us really have built something special in North Carolina. I feel like I’m still getting better every day, whether I’m playing 90 minutes or zero. And I think that’s very, very rare and very unique. The fact that people still want to stay on the same team, even though they’re not playing, is a testament to Paul and a testament to all the girls on the team just making everyone feel welcome. But yeah, I wanted to be traded, and now I’m very happy that I wasn’t.

I’m playing in Australia for the first time right now, and I love it, but I definitely miss the environment in North Carolina. I’m playing every minute here, but that on its own hasn’t made me necessarily happier. It’s been a good wake up call for me, because it’s helped me realize how important the people are and the culture is. There’s so much more that goes into it than just playing a 90 minute game. I’ve been blessed to come down here and have a great time and also have this learning experience. It’s a hard gig, but I’m grateful to be playing.

JEREMY OLSON/ISI PHOTOS
You were called into the national team after this last season. What was that experience like? 

Honestly, I kind of thought that opportunity had passed. I thought that was just something that was never going to come to fruition. In my head I was just kinda like, Oh well, I’m going to continue to play because I love it, and I’ll play as long as I can because who wants to go sit at a desk and work a job when you could be out on the field doing this? But then I got an opportunity to join the team for the World Cup victory tour, and it was amazing. I had zero international experience. I was never with the youth national team. My route was very unconventional, but it worked out. It made me realize the dream isn’t dead. And it’s something that, once you get a little taste of it, it just kind of makes you want more.

Your partner, Abby Erceg, is also on the Courage. What’s it like to compete day in and day out with someone that you’re also in a relationship with?  

To be honest, it’s really good that we play different positions. Because even though we go against each other, it’s not a competitive thing where, if she started then I wouldn’t. It isn’t a positional battle, which would suck. We’re always having fun on the field, but we’re super competitive with each other. There’s a lot of banter, especially if I score on her. And if she beats me in a sprint, it’s because I wasn’t warm. Obviously, she’s starting every game because she’s a badass — I’m not biased or anything. And it’s so cool just go see somebody you love, somebody you care about, go out on the field and just be so successful. And there’s something very real about being in this together, about getting to see somebody on a daily basis live out their passions. Most people don’t get to see their partners at work. But we each get to see each other at our most authentic moments, doing what we love.

Is it hard to turn it on and off, in terms of stepping onto the field and being teammates, and then stepping off and being in a relationship?  

We’re pretty good about that stuff. It’s easy to stay focused on the field because your mind is so preoccupied. It’s not like I’m sitting there as we’re competing, thinking, you know, I’m in a relationship with her. She’s just another teammate in those moments. It’s very professional. It’s very much, when we’re at work, it’s work. We understand that and everyone else on the team knows that. And then after work, you go home and things are normal. Things might get heated at training, but you learn to leave it on the field.

The NWSL season is just around the corner. What’s your mindset like right now as you and the Courage get ready to defend your title? 

Personally, I’m just looking forward to another year of challenges and continuing to grow. I think that’s something that Pau has done really well, is instill in us that you’ve never reached your peak potential. You can always grow, you can always improve. Last season was definitely my best as a pro, so I just want to build on that. I think everyone on the team is excited to get back into the environment we’ve built. It feels like a home. It feels like family. I can’t wait to get back in that locker room and see everyone. I don’t mind missing a bit of the pre-season right now though. Paul usually kicks our ass.