What Soccer Taught Me About SexAnd vice versa

For thirty years, from age 6 to 36, soccer was my entire personality—except when I went to college and came out as queer. Ever since, I have been trying to get these two parts of me to meet, vibe, and rent a U-Haul together.

Growing up, my life was shaped by the soccer seasons: Saturday mornings that smelled of fresh-cut grass or rubbery turf; the inexplicable thrill of matching jerseys and long, too-tight socks pulled over shin pads that stank perpetually of sweat; carpools and bus rides to far-flung fields. In my late twenties, while playing in an adult rec league, bags of orange quarters morphed into IPAs and curry fries back at the bar and we ventured to off-season tournaments in Vegas where we played like shit, hungover and sunburnt. My teammates and I would go to Halloween parties where ill-advised hookups sometimes blossomed into love, winter bachelorette parties, and summer weddings. In between my two soccer-playing eras, over the five years I spent at college, I realized that I was super into women.

Is it ironic or inevitable that I figured this out at a school with one of the best women’s soccer teams in the country, one whose list of alumni reads like a who’s who of the U.S. Women’s National Team? Maybe both. But I wasn’t good enough to make that team (not even close), and even the school’s intramural league was wildly competitive, so I was sidelined. I got into other things. Like dating.

In between my two soccer-playing eras, over the five years I spent at college, I realized that I was super into women.

When I got to college, I was a virgin, skilled in the art of the unrequited crush. In high school, I’d chastely pined for the boys’ team’s striker with his impeccable calves, but he was hot and heavy with my teammate, an attraction I completely understood given she was not only sexier than I was but a higher scorer, too. Oh, I was doomed—bad at love triangles, hopeless at flirting, and desperately looking forward to college where I was sure my odds would improve. And they did, though not in the way I’d expected. College was where I experienced my first requited crush—on a woman, during my senior year. She’d always known she was gay, whereas, until her, I hadn’t really thought of myself as anything but an invisible amoeba. Finally, I felt awake and alive.

My girlfriend played rugby, and it was through her that I learned about all the sexual shenanigans I was missing out on during my college sports sabbatical. She’d never played rugby before, but she figured she could pick it up quickly based on her natural athleticism and membership in the tribe. In the two years before we met, she’d had her first full-on sexual experience with one teammate and her first love affair with another. Almost everyone on the team was gay, and it’s a little bit touching now how much that fact surprised baby me. Not only that but according to my girlfriend, half the soccer team was gay, too.

a man in a red shirt

Courtesy of Alison Hart

Playing In NYC for the Central Park Rangers in the New York Metropolitan Women’s Soccer League circa 2005.

I couldn’t believe the luck some people had. To be talented enough to play sports competitively and get to make out with the same person who’d just tackled you at practice? How long had this been going on? I was consumed by thoughts of my high school squad. Had any of my teammates been gay? What about those two juniors who wore each other’s clothes and always showed up to practice late and exhausted? Were they fucking? Please, I thought, let them have been fucking. And what about me? I’d always had intense friendships with my teammates. Were they actually crushes? How could I have been so asleep at the wheel, uselessly getting down over a boy who wasn’t even on my team when I could’ve been going down on my own center mid?

The idea of falling for your teammate was—and is, still, at age 50—so romantic to me. Playing a sport together is already erotic. The mind meld that happens when you serve a perfectly timed ball and they sink it into the back of the net is not so very different than the charge that courses between sexual partners attuned to each other’s desires. How hot would it be if one form of combustion spilled into the other? How seen you must feel.

Just look at soccer icons Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, who dated for a couple of years, long before each of them paired up with other legendary women. Who can doubt the passion of their celebratory embrace after Abby scored off Megan’s assist in the final moments of the 2011 World Cup semis? Years after their breakup, they still predicted each other’s moves so well. Megan has said she didn’t “see” Abby in front of the goal, she just knew she would be there. I felt that same spark of heat whenever I played with someone who saw my effort and raised my game.

Plus, I was always such a good girl, a people pleaser of the most devoted stripe. The soccer field was the one place where it was okay, even advisable, to demonstrate not just ambition but naked aggression. For ninety minutes, the woman I marked was my nemesis. When the whistle blew, I walked off the pitch red-faced and covered in bruises, purged of that toxic niceness. At practice, the hostility I saved for game days softened into a good-natured sparring that was more like teasing. I always had an appetite to best and be bested by a player I respected. Those collisions during scrimmages or offense vs defense drills were electric.

The idea of falling for your teammate was—and is, still, at age 50—so romantic to me.

After college, I started playing soccer again with the Central Park Rangers, a New York City club with several women’s and men’s teams that socialize together. I was ready—so ready—to embark on a mad, sexual adventure or at least an emotionally fraught situationship with one of my teammates, whatever the fates had in store. A few possibles had already captured my crush-level attention. One woman broke hearts up and down the lineup but her heart was set on someone she’d met online. One was for girls, I was sure of it, but it turned out I was wrong. A third soon moved away for graduate school. Behind door number 4 was the coach, an injured player from one of the men’s teams, and why was that the door, of all possible doors, that I went through? What kind of lesbian is this person? is a thing you might be asking yourself, which is my way of telling you, reader, that around this time, I started to realize I wasn’t gay after all.

I was certainly still queer. But at some point in the future, I hope there’s a word that encompasses the complicated, rich, and sometimes slippery sexuality that many women my age inhabit, and I really hope it dials in a little tighter than bisexual. For the time being, my best friend and I just call it how we’re built. But for a while there, it did start to feel like I was chasing my unruly sexuality into several blind alleys at the exact same time. Twenty years later, I am still left wondering: What does one do with one’s unexamined soccer-tinged desires when one is a happily married, bisexual mother with a straight partner, a full plate of monogamy, and an awareness of every pivot in her sexual trajectory, planned or not? What is the “right” way to acknowledge feelings that society says should be packed up forever once you’ve made your choice, in a sort of you made your bed, now lie in it agreement? Of course, I threw them into a book.

April May June July by Alison B. Hart

April May June July by Alison B. Hart

In my novel April May June July, Juniper is a freshman phenom who falls for Hana, the junior keeper at Princeton University. I gave Juniper the chance to incubate her nascent sexuality in the hormonal hotbed of a women’s soccer team. To her, I gifted the coming-out courtship of my dreams, fueled by intense scuffles in front of the goal and a trip to the College Cup. And unlike Megan and Abby, I let my soccer stars grow up and into a deeper kind of love together, with new storms to weather.

Would it shock you to learn that I married a soccer player after all? Not someone from the club, though he’d been recruited to a Division 1 school before giving up sports to focus on other things. Perhaps it’s only surprising that we were already parents of a middle schooler before I ever actually saw him play, in the co-ed league he joined a couple years ago. His natural position is sweeper, though he likes to drift up when he can to score. Last summer, when our daughter was at sleepaway camp and my schedule was suddenly wide-open, I joined him on the pitch at left half. We’d both worn white t-shirts so we’d be sure to end up on the same team, and when our eyes and feet found each other and we connected, I burst into flames.