By the ripe age of 19, most teenagers are merely scratching the surface of who they wish to become. The milestones achieved can be counted on one hand — things like getting a driver’s license or earning a high school diploma. For United States Women’s National Team rising star Sophia Smith, however, 19 was the age when lifelong dreams came to realization.
After two seasons spent on the pitch representing the Stanford Cardinal, Smith claimed a spot in the professional ranks in 2020, becoming the first teenager to be drafted to the NWSL. Before she knew it, Portland became home, and an illustrious career with the Thorns awaited her.
The forward from Windsor, Colorado, would soon drive her team to an NWSL title in 2022 and field a call offering her a spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team. Not long after, she made history once again as the youngest athlete to claim the title of U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year. In June, she was named to the roster for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time, and in Australia and New Zealand she’ll be the face of the young core of a U.S. team defined by both its veteran leaders and rising stars.
A journey defined by so much success at such a young age can seem like a glamorous one. But with the influx of attention comes the undoubtable surge of pressure on the back of a young professional star. It’s a weight Smith says she has struggled to bear at times.
In the case of the Colorado native, her path to the FIFA World Cup has been one of discovery, and one of balancing publicity with personal growth.
“I think anyone who says they don’t [read headlines] is lying,” Smith said regarding the press she receives. “I don’t do it deliberately, but if I come across something I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to know what it says.’”
While the accolades came quickly in Smith’s career, the lofty expectations arrived just as swiftly. And with her first World Cup appearance not far away, the pressure to perform for her country can be daunting.
“You come off a year where you feel really good — you won a championship, you won the things that you could win,” Smith said. “And now I put the pressure on myself to feel like, ‘Okay, now I have to do that all again.’”
With time has come perspective, and a focus on what is most meaningful. For Smith, perspective has also come with loss. In March of 2022, she lost her friend and Stanford teammate Katie Meyer to suicide.
“Even still to this day, it’s hard to talk about,” Smith said. “And I think the hardest part was there weren’t any signs of anything … You wouldn’t know she was hurting. So, I think that’s what makes mental health scary because you don’t know what someone’s going through.”
Meyer’s death ignited a national conversation around the unique challenges athletes, particularly student athletes, face in balancing health and wellness. Amidst that conversation, Smith found herself taking in life in a new light.
“You don’t know what someone’s going through, and you won’t always see signs of struggle,” Smith shared on My New Favorite Futbolista. “That has made me realize just how serious mental health is, especially for student athletes who feel this pressure to excel in sports.”
While the grief Smith felt in this time seemed insurmountable, it was hard for her to truly comprehend what it was like to struggle with mental health personally. The athlete always felt that she managed to maintain a good headspace, and that reaching the NWSL with the Portland Thorns as the first overall pick of the 2020 Draft would only continue that trend.
“I got to Portland. COVID-19 started,” Smith recalled of the 2020 season. “I’m in this new setting by myself. I don’t know anybody. You can’t do anything. You’re isolated in your apartment. So that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, well, I’m not okay,’ … That’s when I honestly started to struggle with my mental health. I’ve struggled with depression. I have anxiety still to this day.”
That struggle led Smith to the realization that she needed to make a change, separating her personal wellbeing from success on the pitch.
“You will not find any soccer anything in my apartment, it’s my sanctuary,” Smith said. “I’ve learned to balance loving the game, loving the sport, but not letting it be my whole entire life and learning how to make my mind just shift when I’m not playing, because I don’t need to be in that state 24/7.”
In her personal experience with the mental health landscape, she discovered the self-worth and prioritization that can lighten the load.
“I understand now that (soccer is) not who I am. It’s not the only thing I offer to this world,” Smith said.
The headlines that once weighed heavy now almost always get brushed aside. While the 22-year-old’s rise to soccer stardom came quicker than for most, the shift in mindset arrived at just the right time.
“I feel like becoming a professional,” Smith said. “Something my parents have always told me is no matter what, you can’t let someone else control your confidence. That’s the one thing that has to be consistent because when you control that, other factors don’t affect how you feel about yourself.”
And with the biggest stage of her life in front of her this summer at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the confidence of the young star is what she’s hoping will stand out on international grass.
“I’m not getting too far ahead of myself and putting too much pressure on myself until I’m in those moments that you love,” Smith said. “I love that I live for those moments, and I don’t want to think about it until it happens.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, resources are available to you, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).