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In soccer and ocean life, Phallon Tullis-Joyce embraces the unknown

Phallon Tullis-Joyce earned the starting role with OL Reign this season and ran with the opportunity. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Phallon Tullis-Joyce doesn’t like unanswered questions.

She never has. If she finds herself wondering about something, Phallon doesn’t let it sit. She reads. She researches. She asks questions. So many questions.

As a kid, her intense curiosity led her to unravel one of childhood’s greatest mysteries — much to the chagrin of her mother.

Phallon was 5 when she noticed something unusual about her Christmas presents from Santa Claus. His penmanship looked suspiciously familiar.

She demanded a handwriting sample from her mother, then one from her father. And then, the young sleuth began one of her first scientific studies.

Question: Was Santa real?
Hypothesis: No, her parents were responsible for her gifts.

Phallon then compared the handwriting samples to the curved letters on “Santa’s” wrapping paper.

Her hypothesis proved true.

Conclusion: Santa was not real.

“My mom was a little bit upset because I was the first child. She said I ruined the experience of Santa for her,” Phallon says with a laugh. “I never got to believe in Santa, because I figured it out as a 5-year-old.”

In hindsight, Phallon’s refusal to accept Santa as truth shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. She spent her time watching animal documentaries and entering summer reading programs, eager to collect prizes for the books she wanted to read anyway.

And, in her defense, Phallon is a product of her environment. She would never have asked for the handwriting samples if her parents didn’t encourage her curiosity and hunger for knowledge. If their daughter had an interest, they urged her to explore it.

That inquisitive spirit helped Phallon, 26, find the two places where she feels most at home: on the field and in the water.

Phallon Tullis-Joyce is up for 2022 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year after an impressive campaign with OL Reign. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

Phallon started her soccer career as a field player. But before every practice, she and her teammates would play a game, taking turns shooting and being in net. If you stopped the shot, you stayed in goal. When it was Phallon’s turn to play keeper, the game stalled out because she never left. No one could score on her.

When that happened, her coach realized that Phallon was a goalie.

There was no hesitation on Phallon’s part when it came to making the switch.

She loved the rush of making a save, and the frustration on an opposing forward’s face when she robbed them of a goal. She loved that being a keeper meant using both her upper and lower body, and that she still had to be good with her feet.

“It was a thrill,” she says. “I really liked the challenge.”

On her 12th birthday, Phallon had her first goalkeeping lesson. She went to Kurt Kelley, a former professional soccer player, who operated KK Athletics in her hometown of Shoreham, N.Y.

It wasn’t the birthday the preteen had in mind, and it also wasn’t the easygoing goaltending she had gotten used to during pre-practice mess-arounds with her friends. But Kelley was determined to make Phallon into a real goaltender.

“I learned how to do a proper extension dive,” she says. “And I was in tears, just crying. It was scary at the start. But right then and there, it got beat out of me, that fear of hitting the ground. That was the hardest transition, letting go of those natural instincts of wanting to protect yourself.”

Despite tear-stained cheeks and developing bruises, Phallon left feeling empowered. And now, though she’s a professional, the OL Reign goalie still makes a point to train with Kelley when she’s back on Long Island.

Like Phallon, Kelley has a curious mind. He’s always looking for new, better ways to train goalies, however silly those strategies might seem.

Once, he even blindfolded Phallon, telling her to sense the ball, Mr. Miyagi style. To this day, she’s not sure if Kelley was serious or just messing with her.

Other times, he had her diving over trash cans to make saves or catching tennis balls with her bare hands. She still does a lot of her training without gloves — something Kelley taught her.

“It’s definitely entertaining to be a goalkeeper,” Phallon says.

Phallon started playing soccer when she was 4; she disproved the theory of Santa when she was 5; and that same year, she announced to her kindergarten class that she was going to be a marine biologist.

“I’m a very stubborn person,” she says, “I decide things early on and I just refuse to let go.”

Growing up on Long Island, Phallon was never more than 20 minutes away from an ocean. She learned to swim when she was young and quickly developed a fascination with everything aquatic.

“I just fell in love with how much mystery there is,” she says. “When you go underwater you will never see the same thing twice. The animals and their adaptations and how they’ve evolved to exist underwater. It just blows my mind every single time.”

Phallon’s parents always looked for ways to combine her two passions, so when they traveled for soccer tournaments, they also sought out scientific activities for their aspiring marine biologist.

She remembers going to a tournament in North Carolina and visiting the Aurora Fossil Museum, where fossils are recovered from a local phosphate mine. Across from the museum are two “spoils piles,” where visitors can dig for shells, coral and shark teeth.

Phallon curated a collection of tiny shark teeth, but always hoped for something a bit bigger.

“I was always on the hunt for a Megladon tooth,” she says. “But I never found it.”

Then, Phallon pauses and smiles.

“I’d still look,” she says. “No shame. I would still go in that pile.”

When it came time for college, Phallon chose Miami, far from her hometown but close to the ocean. And on her way to a senior season in which she led the ACC in saves and saves per game, Phallon took the next natural step in her quest to become a marine biologist.

As a freshman, she joined the university scuba diving club and got certified. Soon, she moved on from recreational diving to scientific research, studying the animals she loved so much in their natural habitats.

“I fell in love with that instantly,” she says. “Just being able to watch animals be their goofy selves. Like fish are so funny.

“You’ll be diving in California and see a Garibaldi fish, this bright orange fish. And you’re just like in this beautiful kelp forest looking around, and then you’ll see this orange fish staring you dead in the eyes. Or, you’ll go past a kelp crab, and it will literally square up with you, even though you are 100 times its size.”

Phallon can go on and on about the ocean creatures that fascinate her. She’s committed to them in the same way she’s committed to her team. For Phallon, there’s no such thing as a moderate interest, and when she’s passionate about something, she dives in head first.

After college, Phallon signed on to play with Stade de Reims in 2019. While living in France, she learned how to be a professional. She also saw a sea slug in person for the first time — both equally important occurrences in her eyes.

Phallon didn’t speak a word of French when she arrived — “That’s on me,” she says — and even basic things like shopping for groceries were a challenge.

There was a cheese aisle and a ham aisle, she says. Peanut butter was labeled as an exotic food. Phallon remembers calling her mom with “soggy eyes,” trying to fight the tears as she explained that she couldn’t read anything and had no idea what to buy.

She felt just as out of place on the field. In her very first game, she was up against French national team forward Valérie Gauvin and Montpellier.

“I remember, when the whistle blew, she was looking me dead in the eyes,” Phallon recalls. “She probably wasn’t actually looking at me. She was probably looking past me, but it felt like she was looking dead into my soul.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is real.’”

But Phallon quickly found her footing. And by the time she left France, she was her team’s captain and was speaking French proficiently thanks to a certificate course she took.

Phallon misses France — the pastries, the scenery and, of course, the aquatic life — but when her agent called last year at the end of her third season, she was ready for a new challenge: the NWSL.

The U.S. pro league was always in the back of her mind, but Phallon tries to stay flexible when it comes to setting goals.

“My goal is always to just be the best that I can be,” she says. “So that allows me to be very open to where life takes me. It’s just about where I will grow the most.”

Phallon signed with OL Reign in 2021, serving as the club’s backup goalie during her first season. This year, she earned the starting spot and ran with the opportunity, finishing the season as the NWSL leader in save percentage (81.0) and tied for first in clean sheets (nine) with Portland Thorns keeper Bella Bixby. Appearing in all 22 games, she helped her team come from behind to win the NWSL Shield and earn a place in the semifinals as the No. 1 seed.

Phallon is up for the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award, and in June she was included in the USWNT’s 59-player roster as the team prepared for the Concacaf World Cup qualifying tournament.

She didn’t make the final roster, but coach Vlatko Andonovski said in early October that she’s a player he has his eye on as the team prepares for the 2023 World Cup.

Phallon’s growth to this point didn’t happen by accident. It was a calculated progression.

Jimena López, a defender for OL Reign and Phallon’s roommate, signed with the team at the same time as Phallon last season. The NWSL was already in full swing by the time the two left their European squads to join the Reign, so most of the players already had established roles.

Phallon added extra training to her schedule. The Reign start practice at 10 a.m., and Phallon leaves the house at 8. She’s the first one in the locker room, López says, and she also stays late.

López watched as Phallon improved her distribution, got better with her feet and also paid attention to the mental side of soccer, seeing a sports psychologist in addition to her physical training.

“She’s a very laid-back person, but very determined,” López says. “Whenever she gets her mind on something, she practices, practices, practices until she gets it how she wants.”

Phallon has been a driving force for the Reign’s success this season, and the organization rewarded her with a contract extension through the 2024 season.

López and the rest of the OL Regin defenders are especially grateful to have Phallon in the net behind them.

“I know she’s my friend so I’m a little biased, but I think she’s the best keeper in the league right now,” López says with a laugh. “Her athleticism, her reaction, I think it’s unseen in the league. It’s awesome to know she’s back there to save our butts if we make a mistake.”

Making the move to Seattle also opened doors for Phallon as a research diver.

She’s a member of several Facebook groups devoted to scuba diving. One day, while scrolling, she saw a post about volunteer opportunities at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

Moments later, she was crafting an email to express her interest in joining the research dive team.

She excelled in the interview, and the staff persuaded her to go beyond what the role required. So in addition to doing rockfish research, Phallon gives dive talks, teaching kids about the animals they can find in the Puget Sound.

She details the 20 different species of rockfish, kelp and their importance to the ecosystem, and advises her listeners on how they can live more sustainably to help ocean life.

When she has free time, López likes to watch Phallon do her thing at Point Defiance. And like the rest of the spectators, she can’t help but get drawn in.

“I’m actually really interested in it,” López says. “Because of her, I’ve learned a lot about marine life, kind of unexpectedly.”

Phallon also teaches visitors about her favorite animals in the aquarium. She loves the rat fish because “they are the funkiest fish you’ll find.” One time, a rat fish bit her.

“It felt like a little syringe, like a needle,” she says excitedly. “It was so interesting.”

Less funky and more adorable is the Pacific spiny lump sucker, which Phallon says is the “cutest fish in the pacific sound.”

“They look like tiny golf balls, and obviously they are horrific swimmers, because just look at their bodies,” she says.

When she was living in France, Phallon decided she needed a creative release. Her head is full of thoughts and ideas, and she wanted to find a way to get them all out. She started with motivational artwork, and then moved onto cartoon comics of marine animals. Those are the drawings that populate her “Inktober” series throughout October, which she uses as a way to educate her social media followers on aquatic life.

Sometimes, after games at Lumen Field, kids and their parents will approach Phallon to discuss her dive talks or the facts she posts on social media.

OL Reign fans have embraced their goaltender’s nerdy off-field persona, which only adds to her excitement for playing in Seattle.

“One time I was doing my pregame stretches and a little girl called my name,” Phallon says. “I looked and she rolled out a sign that said ‘Octopus Army.’ It blew my mind that someone had a sign at Lumen Field of a little series I made on PowerPoint.”

(Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

So much of the ocean is unknown. Scientists have studied and charted less than 10 percent of the great abyss, and everything else is simply unanswered questions.

When she first started diving, that made Phallon uneasy.

When you dive, the water starts off clear, but eventually you’ll come to a drop-off. After that, it’s pure darkness.

“That used to get me a little bit, because you don’t know what’s right there,” she says.

But she’s no longer the little girl who had to disprove Santa. Phallon is curious. She thirsts for knowledge. And when there are answers to be had, she’ll seek them out. But when there aren’t, that’s OK, too.

Right now, Phallon is swimming out of her life’s clear water. The OL Reign are getting ready to play Kansas City in the NWSL semifinals on Sunday. Phallon will take the field as her team’s starting goaltender, like she has all season long. But the outcome won’t be known until the final whistle blows. There could be a championship game to play, or the start of an offseason to figure out. There could be USWNT appearances in her future. But right now, she just doesn’t know.

She might dive in Belize or in Mexico. There might even be a Megalodon tooth waiting to be uncovered.

“I like to keep my mind clear and not be so end-goal focused,” she says. “I guess because it is such a progression, and there never really is an endpoint. It’s just about being the best that I can be.”

Phallon isn’t afraid of the drop-off. There’s plenty to discover in the darkness.

Eden is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.