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Ashlyn Harris finds lessons in adversity: ‘I want people to know me’

Gotham FC goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris won two World Cups with the USWNT in 2015 and 2019. (Photo courtesy of Versus)

Ashlyn Harris won’t lie: It’s been a tough year.

Before the 2022 NWSL season began, she and her family moved from the familiar confines of Florida to the fast-paced lifestyle of New York City. After growing up in Florida and playing for the Orlando Pride since 2016, Harris was traded to NJ/NY Gotham FC in December alongside wife and teammate Ali Krieger. All of a sudden, they needed to find a new school for daughter Sloane (some of the schools had two-year waiting lists) and hire new nannies. Their lives got even busier in August with the adoption of their second child, Ocean.

Meanwhile, in life outside their home, emotions were running high as multiple parties conducted investigations into abuse, harassment and discrimination in the NWSL. On Oct. 1, U.S. Soccer released the Sally Yates report, which revealed new details of “systemic” sexual and emotional abuse by former NWSL coaches and attempts by club and league officials to cover it up. The NWSL and NWSLPA are expected to release their own joint investigation by the end of the year.

“I just feel like it’s been a really, really tough NWSL year for a lot of people with all of the stuff going on,” Harris recently told Just Women’s Sports. “I’m happy that we now can move forward. I’m happy that we’re building a culture where safety is the priority of the players, and I feel like a lot of players in the NSWL are just tired. So I’m happy to start anew and start a new culture moving forward where the players’ health and safety come first.

“Soccer is just the game we play. I just want to make sure that everyone’s safe and mentally OK.”

On top of all of those moving parts, Gotham FC finished dead-last in the 2022 NWSL standings with four wins, 17 losses and one draw despite making numerous high-profile additions in the offseason. Harris and Krieger have since demanded change from the franchise, knowing there’s vast potential with the new ownership group, including sports celebrities Eli Manning, Sue Bird and Kevin Durant.

“It’s definitely been tough because I love winning,” Harris said of the season. “I love competing, but also I understand that there can only be one winner. That’s why I love this sport. That’s why it’s so challenging at the highest level.

“The air is very thin at the top, and I think that’s what drives me every day to continue doing what I do and continue being the best at my craft and dedicating time and energy and effort into being the best player and person I can possibly be every day.”

Harris has never been one to let material success define her. In her home office, there aren’t medals or award plaques, or any trace of the two decades that the two-time World Cup champion has played at various levels of the U.S. women’s national team.

“That stuff collects dust,” the goalkeeper said.

Being a soccer star is only a small part of Harris’ identity. She hopes her legacy will be about much more than success on the field.

“I want people to know me, like genuinely know me, feel me, see me,” Harris said. “That I, in some small way, have changed their life on a personal level. I’ve impacted them. That when I am no longer here, people know me for the way I made them feel.”

She has 36 years of experience in life and soccer that she’s ready to share with others.

To Harris, there’s no better way to achieve that than to become a mentor to young athletes. This month, Harris launched a partnership with Versus, a sports edtech platform that trains kids on the physical and mental skills needed to succeed in sports and life. Originally offering courses in baseball and softball, Versus added a soccer vertical that Harris joined alongside Krieger and USWNT teammate Kelley O’Hara.

Known for her candidness, Harris is giving aspiring athletes the chance to get to know her and ask her personal questions about how she’s handled adversity, such as in the past year. She hopes to provide them with the tools to understand themselves off the field in a way that will help them overcome their own challenges.

One of Harris’ key points in her mentorship is the power of what happens when no one is watching. Those decisions, she says, are what separate the good from the great because, while everyone at the top is technically gifted, their mindsets aren’t always the same.

(Photo courtesy of Versus)

The toughest challenges Harris has faced are injuries. Over the course of her soccer career, she’s torn her ACL and lateral meniscus, and in September she underwent knee surgery as Gotham stumbled to last place in the standings. Recovery periods, she says, are when she makes the tough, off-field choices that shape her the most.

“It’s a really, really tough mental place to be in because you have to get fit again. You have to get played in again. You don’t just hop back in where you left off … you can’t slip or someone else will take your job,” she said. “When you get to those points in your career, where you’re at a crossroads, like, ‘Man, can I even do this? Am I going to be able to come back from this?’ That’s when you build character and that’s when you learn the most about yourself, is when you’re in the trenches.”

Harris commits to the same decision every time: She never quits.

“I think a lot of people throw the towel in when it gets too hard and I just don’t have that in me. I just have never quit at anything in my life,” she said. “Ask my wife. We compete like crazy. It’s hilarious in our household, but that’s the way we tick. That’s the difference between people who are good and people who are excellent.”

Harris spent hours filming episodes for the Versus soccer launch, which give users the ability to ask questions and receive responses through conversational video A.I. technology. She doesn’t want to “snow plow” or move obstacles for the athletes she’s mentoring, but she hopes to give them the tools to do it on their own.

“Life is tough. It’s hard, and I don’t like to sugarcoat that for people,” she said.

“I just try to continue every day to improve and be the best version of myself. I can only control my mental, physical, emotional state.”

Through the trials of the past year, Harris is finally starting to see the life that she imagined for herself and her family in New York coming together.

“It’s definitely been really great,” she said of the city. “I love the diversity. I love the culture. I love the acceptance. I love feeling safe in New York. It seems like overall, being a biracial, queer family, it’s an easier landing for us.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.