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!”

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.