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US Soccer SheBelieves hero champions mental health, suicide prevention

Lexi Polinder started a club at her Minnesota high school focused on mental health education. (Courtesy of Lexi Polinder)

It’s been less than a year since 15-year-old Lexi Polinder lost her best friend to suicide. She still thinks of Sophie Wieland often, especially when she goes through a box of her favorite things, but Polinder knew she wanted to do even more to honor her friend — and work to possibly prevent similar tragedies.

“When I lost my best friend to suicide this summer, after that I didn’t really know what to do,” Polinder said. But soon she found herself advocating for suicide prevention and mental health awareness, volunteering with a new charity started by Sophie’s hockey coach, called Sophie’s Squad, which raises awareness around the importance of mental health issues with young athletes.

The St. Paul, Minn., teen said she was drawn to advocacy, and began working with the I’m Glad You Stayed Project, an Iowa-based nonprofit focused on teen mental health education. She also started a club focused on those issues at her high school.

“I’m really open with my story and how I’ve had really high levels of anxiety my whole life,” Polinder said. “I think that’s one of the key things: It’s OK, it’s normal. … [Mental health] is stigmatized, but it’s something that doesn’t need to be.”

In her free time, Polinder started making beaded bracelets that in Morse Code depict a semicolon, which has become a symbol of suicide prevention and mental health support. She said she’s raised more than $1,000 for Sophie’s Squad by selling the $2 bracelets, and plans to keep doing so until demand runs out.

The bracelets serve as a reminder to keep going or keep pursuing, that this isn’t the end.

“Kind of like how an author uses it in a sentence,” Polinder said. “And then it’s in Morse Code, so only you know what it means.”

For her important work, which comes at a time when teens are facing unprecedented mental health challenges and multiple suicide cases have shaken the women’s college sports world this year, Polinder was honored this month as the 2022 SheBelieves Hero, a U.S. Soccer award given to a teen who is a leader in their community and working to make a positive difference in the world.

“​​Polinder is a strong advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention,” U.S. Soccer wrote in a statement. “SheBelieves is a movement created to inspire and encourage girls and women of all ages to accomplish their goals and dreams, athletic or otherwise.”

As a lifelong soccer player and fan of the U.S. women’s national team, Polinder said she was thrilled — and shocked — to be named this year’s SheBelieves Hero, a prize that includes travel and two tickets for a VIP experience at a USWNT game this summer.

“I grew up watching the women’s national team … I’ve always dreamed of getting to win this award from a young age,” Polinder said. “It’s crazy. I did not expect to get the email back saying you made it!”

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Polinder, a lifelong fan of the USWNT, hopes to meet fellow goalkeeper Jane Campbell. (Courtesy of Lexi Polinder)

Polinder, who plays goalkeeper on a club soccer team, said she’s hoping she might get to meet one of her favorite players, goalie Jane Campbell, on the VIP trip. She’d also love to reconnect with defender Abby Dahlkemper, a player she said she met years ago in her home state and whose autograph she has kept.

Though concussions will prevent Polinder from pursuing soccer in college, she said she’s happy she can still enjoy the sport — which she used to play with Sophie — and continue to help other athletes remember to focus on their physical and mental health.

“The biggest thing is don’t burn yourself out,” Polinder said. “Make some time for yourself and understand it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to have a bad day. Not everything’s going to end all at once.”

Polinder said she plans to expand her advocacy and hopes to pursue a career in the mental health field.

“It’s very important to shine a light on some of these issues,” Polinder said. “My favorite saying is HOPE: hold on, pain ends. It’s a really easy one to keep in your head. You give yourself the night, so you’re not in immediate crisis anymore. … When you’re out of complete crisis (mode), you can go get help.”

The SheBelieves Hero Selection Committee is comprised of former Women’s World Cup and Olympic players Stephanie Cox, Leslie Osborne and Siri Mullinix, who narrowed down the SheBelieves applications to this year’s five finalists, including Polinder. The public was then asked to vote on the finalists, which helped determine the winner.

Grace Toohey is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously reported for the Orlando Sentinel and The Advocate (Baton Rouge), and has written pieces for The Marshall Project and other news outlets. Follow her on Twitter @Grace_2e.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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