JANE GERSHOVICH/ISI PHOTOS

Stephanie Cox is a defender for OL Reign of the NWSL. As a member of the USWNT, Cox won gold at the 2008 Olympics. Following the 2015 season, she retired from the NWSL. Then, as an assistant coach for the Reign last season, she decided to lace up the cleats once more. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about her dual journey as a player and a coach, and what it’s been like to lead the Reign as they compete in the Challenge Cup bubble. 

How has life in the NWSL bubble been? What has surprised you about the whole bubble experiment? 

With OL Reign, we kind of had a unique experience. We were the only team in the tournament that had to go out of market for our preseason. Everyone was able to train at home, but because of Washington’s restrictions, we weren’t able to have full team training. So we ended up going to Montana. We’ve actually been on the road for six weeks now and have basically been in the bubble since the beginning. In Montana, things were looser. You were able to go out to eat and go to the grocery store. But I think that being in a hotel together in Montana and being away from kind of your own network, it kind of prepared us for this bubble experience. Everything you have to order in, everything has to get delivered. After the game the other day, in the middle of the day, I would have loved to stop and get ice cream with my daughters on the way back. So just not having that freedom has been just different. It’s not challenging, it has just been different.

How many daughters do you have and how has it been having them with you during this experience?

I have two daughters. Kaylee is seven and Grace is four. Fortunately, we’re at the Embassy Suites and our setup is great. We have several big meeting rooms that my girls can kind of go run around in, for better or worse. We brought scooters and bikes and all sorts of stuff. So we go out into the empty parking lot and go ride around, and they come to practice and games. They’re able to get outside and get some energy.

So we’re doing pretty good. We’re staying in a hotel that’s also open to the public, and we have the top two floors. One of the highlights definitely has been the hotel pool. They’re swimming all the time, but they know if someone else is in the pool area, that means that either we’re not going in, or yesterday when someone came in, we just stayed in the hot tub and then we kind of quickly left. It’s sad to me. I don’t want them to be scared of other people, but they’ve been trained to think like, “Oh no. Why are there other people?”

How has everyone been following the rules?

I think our team has been great. Really respectful of each other, not only our club, but just also of all the other teams. I think while we were in Montana, we got the news about Orlando having players test positive and them not being in the tournament. And that was really an eye opener for us. Like, okay, everyone needs to follow the rules.

The gameplay has been exceptional so far despite limited training. What do you think accounts for that?

I think that there’s just an energy and just an excitement and a gratitude to be on the field again. We’ve had a few months off going into this. A lot of players don’t have that kind of break usually. They go from our season to Australia and they come back again, or they’re in with the US team.

And I know when I decided to come back and play last year, I remember that first game and even just practice, I just had a big grin on my face because I loved getting to play again. And I think that you can see that joy for the game on the players’ faces in these games. And I really think that that contributes to the high level that you’re seeing across the board.

What has it been like playing without fans?

I was on the massage table yesterday for a quick flush after a game, and our massage therapist, awesome, Britney, she’s from Montana, and she just had so much energy. And we were talking about the game and I said, I felt like there were fans in that game. And she agreed. Just the intensity of it, the energy from our bench, the energy on the field. We went out there, we knew we had to win, we knew we had to put something out there on the field. And so I think sometimes when you get in the game, you’re just so intent on winning that header or winning that tackle or connecting a pass that it feels like there’s fans because you’re so dialed in. And lucky for me, at halftime, I get to look up in the stands and see my daughters and my friend, my nanny, Madison, and see my older daughter dancing to the music. It’s easy to spot them with their signs. For me, the most important fans are in the stands.

 Almost 600,000 viewers watched the opening game on CBS. What are your thoughts about what that means for the future of the league?

This is an opportunity for us to solidify the league. I played in a previous league in the WPS that folded, and so it’s so exciting to see the NWSL last so many seasons. As players, we want to continue to raise the standards higher and higher. I think that the exposure that we’re getting, the timing that we have now, when there aren’t any other women’s sports going on right now, is crucial. People are looking for something to watch. And yeah, it was a little scary being the first league to start playing, like, okay, what are we doing? But I think this bubble, you’re only having to monitor eight teams. I feel safe. We’re getting tested before every game. And I mean, my girls have gotten tested six times, so they’re making sure that just the environment is safe and all the protocols are being met. So I think that, yeah, this tournament is massive for this league and with sponsors, with viewers. And even though I don’t think our season will continue past the tournament, I think the success of the Challenge Cup is something super positive that we can take out of this crazy year of 2020.

 OL Reign has a defense first mentality. Is that the game plan for the rest of the tournament?

I think you want to get your defense right first. You don’t want to give up easy goals. And so that’s definitely been an emphasis. And I think to contrast that, I think the defense is kind of the easiest part. Offense and scoring goals is really the harder part. And I will give credit to our attackers as a defender. You have to be so precise and really make the most of your moments. I think our coaching staff and Farid [Benstiti, head coach] have been happy with the amount of chances that we’ve had attacking. We just haven’t finished those chances consistently. So during practice we’re just chipping away at these different patterns and opportunities so that we can capitalize on them in the future.

I wanted to ask you specifically about your story, which is super unique. After playing professionally for a few years, you semi-retired and during that time, you coached for a bit with the OL Reign. Now you are obviously back playing again. Can you just walk us through how this all unfolded? 

So I turned pro in 2008 and was with the Olympic team that year. The US team won the gold medal in Beijing. That was right after I graduated. I played professionally in the WPS for LA, and then two years in Boston. And then the league folded. And in 2012, I was with the US team, but I got cut from the London Olympic team. I ended up getting pregnant with my daughter, Kaylee. And then the following season is when the NWSL started.

I remember going to one of the games when she was a month old. During that time that I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to come back. So I talked to the coaches and worked really hard to come back. I was back with the team training about three months postpartum and then ended up playing in about five games at the end of the season. It was crazy to go out to train or have a game and then nurse her at halftime or something. It was just bizarre, a whole different world, which seems so far away now that she’s seven.

I ended up making the US team that fall. I got a contract again and then played the following season, and had a good 2014 with the Reign. But then I was cut from the US team, and without the national team in the picture I just decided that I was heading toward the end of my career. My husband encouraged me to play one more season with the Reign. So I played the 2015 season, but wanted to have another baby. I ended up getting pregnant, and in our championship game, I was 11 weeks pregnant with Grace.

I got to start and play the game and felt great and then had another healthy baby in April. I started assisting the Reign staff. I also started coaching my local high school team, Gig Harbor. With the Reign, I was just coaching part-time because the drive was more than an hour from my house. After one year, I was just coaching the high school team because of the commute. But then when Reign moved to Tacoma, which is just 15 minutes from my house, Bill, our owner, called me and said, “I know the drive was an issue. Would you be interested in coming back again?”

I was like, oh my goodness, heck yeah. I was so nervous when I initially turned down coaching full time with the Reign. I was like, am I burning a bridge here? Who turns down a professional job to coach a high school team? But really, coaching the high school team was huge for me and it just gave me more confidence to assert myself with the Reign.

Throughout this whole journey, I’ve just been so blessed to work for an organization that trusts me and that meets me where I’m at. I remember when I said, well, I actually want to come back and play. This was midway through last season, and I was coaching at the time. Our owner, Bill, was like, “Okay, you can play for as little or as long as you want. And then you can go back to coaching for as far as I’m concerned.” Who gives you the freedom just to do what you want to do?

Last season, I was having so much fun on the coaching staff. But when I realized I wanted to play again, I think I was a bit scared. I wanted to get back out there but I wasn’t sure if I could do it.  I read this book by Brené Brown, and it was like, “Don’t let fear hold you back.” And I’m like, why am I going to let the fear of failure stop me from trying to play? So I got out there and with the team and I just had a ball. And now, here I am, after three and a half years off. And I know this is where I want to be.

There are no expectations. There’s no pressure to make the national team. I’m playing because I love to play. I’m playing because I want to bring out the best of my teammates. I’m playing because I want to make this environment the best that it can possibly be. I want to make it excellent. I get to think about it in different ways, from a coach’s perspective, from an old player’s perspective, and from a mother’s perspective. It’s just so cool to have that experience and to get to bridge that gap a little between the coaches and the players, and to do that respectfully. And I think that maturity and time has taught me how to do that better and better. I’m just loving the role that I have with this group.