We just completed a great mini-camp in Philadelphia, and shortly, I’ll be headed up north to Edmonton to see my girlfriend, Julie Johnston. Julie is a defender for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, which is currently playing in the Women’s World Cup.
Julie is one of the best soccer players in the world, and I have so much respect for her as an athlete because of the way she plays the game. She is just so committed to and focused on her craft.
More than anything, Julie wants to be the best at what she does. We’re very similar in that way. Like I am with football, she is putting all of her energy into soccer right now. She doesn’t want to look back in 10 years and have any regrets about her career. And her effort is paying off. Despite the fact that she turned 23 a few months ago, she not only earned a spot on the National Team — she’s a starter. It speaks to her dedication.
A CHANCE MEETING
Julie and I met about three years ago. We were both in college at the time. I was a junior at Stanford, and she was a sophomore at Santa Clara University. It was a pretty random meeting at a Stanford baseball game that she just happened to be attending. I was there with my buddies and saw her sitting in the student section, and just decided I wanted to meet her. So I went up and sat right next to her. We just hit it off from there. We hung out a few more times and after that, we just decided that we were going to be together. That was that.
It was a bit of challenge at first because the schools are about 20 minutes apart, and with us both being student athletes, there wasn’t a ton of mutually spare time. But we made it work. Luckily, I had a car, so I was the one making the commute over to see her all the time. It was worth it.
One of the first things I learned about Julie was that she played soccer, and that she was very good at it. She told me during that initial meeting that she was training to play in the Under-20 World Cup. That alone lets you know how talented a player she was. But I didn’t know at the time. It turned out she was the captain of the team. A few months later, when they won the U-20 World Cup in Japan and she was voted recipient of the bronze ball as the third best player in the tournament — that’s when I realized just how elite she is at what she does.
I saw her take it to another level late last year. She didn’t get called into a USA training camp to make the National Team, but a lot of her peers did. She used it as a wake up call. I think it helped her realize that it was going to be hard to make the team. It’s the best 23 players in the country picked to represent the U.S. in the World Cup.
When something like that happens, it shows you that there are going to be ups and downs on the road to being the best, but it’s how you respond when things get difficult that sets elite athletes apart. You’ve got to try harder, and that’s what she did. She reached out to one of her fellow players, Carli Lloyd, who is from New Jersey and trains there. Julie drove over to train with Carli on a consistent basis. She used that as an avenue, and as she continued to work, things started to break her way. The Women’s National Team had some injuries to defenders, and it opened the door for her to get some playing time in the Algarve Cup in Portugal this past March. She made the most of the opportunity, helping the USWNT capture the Algarve Cup.
TWO ELITE ATHLETES
I played soccer for several years growing up, starting all the way back at five years old. I was a good goalie and defensive player. I liked it a lot, but it just wasn’t for me in the long run. Where I grew up, soccer kind of ran side-by side with football and then basketball in terms of the seasons, so as I got older, I went in a different direction.
But ever since Julie and I got together, my interest in soccer has definitely peaked, and my knowledge of the game has grown a lot. I’m a very big fan of the FIFA video game franchise. (I think I may be one of the best in the country at that game.)
I’ve also become very interested in watching the European clubs now. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are two of the teams I watch the most, but Julie’s favorite squad is Barcelona, so I cheer for them probably the heaviest. I kind of ventured with her into that one. It’s a tradeoff because through her relationship with me she’s become an avid Eagles fan. Whenever she’s in town, she goes to our home games. She loves Philadelphia and being out here.
Athletically, we’re very different, and I think it works for our respective sports. But I like to think I could play other sports, and I’m sure she feels the same way. She’s a great athlete. In a lot of ways, she’s probably an even better athlete than I am.
Back in college, we used to go one-on-one a bit in soccer, just having some fun. But we haven’t really had the opportunity out here in Philly. She goes out and trains with Carli when she’s out here. I don’t really have the skills to be able to dribble around her anyway. The only chance I would have is kick the ball around her, and hopefully run and chase it down before she can catch up.
Julie is a really complete soccer player. She’s very dangerous on the ball when they run set pieces. But her one-on-one defense, in my opinion, is her best attribute as a player. If she’s ever one-on-one with somebody, she feels like there’s no way that they have a chance of scoring against her. I think it’s that confidence and that swagger that helps her out on the field, knowing that no one can beat her. If they do get a step on her, she has the ability to recover because she’s so quick.
It’s kind of the polar opposite of what I am as a football player. She’s a lock-down defender, and I like to think that I can’t be guarded on offense. So while we play completely different positions, we command the respect of our opponents equally.
BEYOND THE FIELD
We have a great deal of respect for each other’s athletic talent, but one of the things that’s been important to building our relationship is separating the athlete from the person.
It doesn’t matter to either of us how good the other person is at the sport that they play. We don’t just care about each other because we’re both athletes. I care about Julie because of the person that she is and what she brings to our relationship, and she feels the same. I think that’s helped us to keep each other grounded. We both know that, on the outside of our relationship, the other person is dealing with a very high stress work environment. But internally, it’s just the two of us, and that’s as important as anything I have in my life right now.
Julie has a great personality, a big personality. It’s fun to be around her. She keeps me humble, and she makes fun of me. She laughs at me. She makes me laugh. I could go on for hours about what’s so amazing about her. She’s an amazing cook, which I love. I’m convinced she makes the best tacos in the world. That’s something that people probably don’t know about her.
To be in a relationship with another elite athlete helps each of us out in many different ways.
It’s great to be able to share ideas and talk about certain things that maybe someone who isn’t in that position wouldn’t understand. There are things that I do to get focused that have helped her out, and vice versa. I think it’s going to continue throughout our careers and relationship. If I’m stressed out or something, she’s there to help me out, just like I am for her.
We’re each other’s No. 1 fan and supporter.
As far as watching her play in the World Cup goes, it’s kind of nerve-wracking, to be honest. I’ve watched her play plenty of games for her club team, the Chicago Red Stars, in the NWSL. But it’s different with the World Cup. The stakes are so high, there are so many eyes on her and she’s playing against some of the greatest goal scorers in the world.
Even though I’ve been here at Eagles OTAs and mini-camp with my teammates during the first few games of the World Cup, I’ve chosen to watch the games alone at home, just so I can focus on the game. The games have been on late enough that we’ve wrapped practice, and I kind of just want to be by myself and try to unwind. Watching it has been relaxing at times, but it’s also been stressful at times, especially when the score is tied, or the U.S. gives up a goal. But once they score a goal and the pressure is off, it kind of eases my nerves a bit.
They won their group, which is great, and Julie has been playing very well. I’m extremely proud of the way she’s performed, but I’m not at all surprised by it. I know first-hand the work she’s put in to get to this point. She’s worked her butt off for the past year to get to where she is. She was never satisfied just being on the team. She wanted to start, and knew she had the talent to do so. She just had to hone some things in, and she’s done that, so I’m really proud of her for that.
I’m headed up to Edmonton this weekend to spend some time with her before the next match on Monday, and I’m excited about it. Other than seeing her, I think it’s going to be fun to just be a fan up there. I have all my USA gear ready to wear for the trip.
Obviously, I have a lot more interest in a specific player than a lot of the true fans have, but I think it’s going to be amazing to just go up there, be in that environment and see her do what she loves. It’s a lot of fun to watch somebody that I love do what they love, and chase their dreams just as hard as I’m chasing my own.