USWNT's Christen Press talks Body Issue and Swedish soccer
This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2016. Subscribe today! And for more from the 2016 Body Issue, check out espn.com/bodyissue, and pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.
Don't let Christen Press' ear-to-ear grin fool you; the USWNT star is a lethal striker with her Rio sights trained squarely on gold. Body Issue reporter Morty Ain caught up with Press to discuss her obsessive training habits, her body insecurities and that deceptive game face.
Here are 11 things you need to know about the Chicago Red Stars forward.
1. Credit Pele for her skills. My mom never played soccer, but she would take me out to the field with drills from Pele's soccer videos and try to show me how to kick the ball with proper technique. I was showing up an hour early to play with the older team, or to just dribble around or juggle. I was sitting on the sidelines while my sister was playing with the ball at my feet trying to do what they were doing. Growing up in the United States, you think playing soccer just means organized practice. We go, we play soccer, and then when Coach says that practice is over, we all go home. But in different countries, they just pick up a soccer ball and they play, and they don't stop playing until they have to do something else.
2. She's obsessive about target practice. You can ask anyone that I've ever played with or talked to, I'm an obsessive shooter. I go out and shoot all the time. I used to take 200 shots every single day -- it's something that I started with my mom. In the Pele videos I would watch, he used to line up 10 balls and shoot them in a row -- so I did that exercise all the way through college. Thankfully, I always had help getting those balls back; I'd come out with my sisters and my mom and my dad and they would always help me shag balls. I can only remember a handful of times when they didn't -- and let me tell you, you spend probably an hour and a half to do it, and 65 minutes is spent shagging the balls. Just like everything else in life, it's better to do it with company.
3. Her body "looks like soccer." I'm 100 percent a byproduct of my sport. I always tell my teammates that I only have muscles where they get to play. I have butt muscles, thigh muscles, and then my upper body is super skinny -- except for in my shoulders, which you need for a little bit of strength to hold other players off the ball. So I think I've developed muscles 100 percent from just shooting the ball and running. Every single thing about my body looks like soccer.
4. She's used to pressure. As a child and a young adult, so much of my identity was wrapped up in soccer, because I knew how much joy it brought my parents when I succeeded. I know how much they invested in me and how much they cared about it. We were the prototypical soccer family: my mom driving the car pool with the orange wedges and my dad coaching. But somewhere along the way it did become a lot of pressure, because I knew how much they wanted me to get a college scholarship, play for the national team, be great. So for some years, I did lose my way. I was playing to win; I wasn't playing because I loved it. And it took me a lot of time and reflection and change to get back to a place where I truly, truly love playing.
5. She spent a lot of time being insecure about her body. In this day and age, it's really hard for women to love their bodies. We're bombarded by images of perfect bodies all the time. A lot of my teammates have more muscles, they're long, they're strong. I have a pretty feminine body, but it's a little bit on the smaller side. I've been described by the media as frail compared to my teammates. I've always wanted a more perfect body. But if you think about it, the bodies that I see every day are my teammates', and they are some of the most amazing bodies in the world -- so that gives you a skewed perspective. I've spent a lot of time being insecure about my body, but it's done so much for me. It's my tool, my vessel for my job. I'm very grateful for the way that I feel when I play -- I feel very powerful, I feel fast, I feel unstoppable, and that's because of my body.
6. She renewed her love of soccer in Sweden. When I went abroad to Sweden [to play with Goteborg FC, in 2012], I was able to refocus my life -- I refound my love of soccer. I figured out who I wanted to be. I had a blank canvas to be whoever I wanted. The soccer world in the United States is so small -- when I left college, I played on a pro team, and everyone had already heard things about me and knew what kind of a player I was and had scouted me. And when I went to Europe, my coaches had no idea who I was. My teammates had absolutely no expectations and no preconceived notions. Sweden in particular was a good fit for that moment in my life because they place so much more value as a society on happiness, as opposed to our American values, which are centered around success. I think that was a really powerful change for me. It was very liberating.
7. She has posture problems. I've had chronic back pain since I was a preteen, like 12. I have really funny posture. I developed this funny posture where I hunch my back a little bit when I'm playing, and I overuse my back muscles instead of my abs. My posture has put a lot of strain on my lower back. It's something I've been rehabbing, training just to activate my glutes and core and all my surrounding muscles. It's pretty much painful every day. We live in hotels with the national team and the girls will do work in bed, and I would never do that -- it hurts my back. For me, sitting down makes me feel worse. So I'll train and afterward I'll go and walk my dogs, go shopping and go out and meet friends, because sitting in my hotel room makes me feel so stiff.
8. She's never satisfied. I'm a dreamer and I'm a perfectionist and I love excellence, and that's hardwired in me. But when I was young, I lived in a space for a long time where I only felt insufficient. I've won youth national championships, Pac-10 championships ... I left every single time never satisfied. I remember distinctly winning the U16 youth soccer national championship, which was my biggest dream in the whole world, but I didn't win the Golden Boot, so the whole thing was ruined for me. I was devastated. I was crying my eyes out after we won that game. I remember even in college I would score a goal and we would be winning like 4-0, and I would just catch tears streaming down my face during the game because I felt like it was never going to be enough.
I'm very grateful for the way that I feel when I play -- I feel powerful, I feel fast, I feel unstoppable.Christen Press
9. She's glad the World Cup gives medals, not watches. I have the smallest wrists of any person you've ever seen. I'm 5-6, so I'm not tiny or anything, but I've got a skinny wrist. If I put my pinkie to my thumb, I can cover my wrist all the way to the knuckle. When I get a watch, I always have to go and get extra holes put in or get a special bracelet that's adjustable.
10. That one time at Machu Picchu ... I traveled to Peru to hike Machu Picchu with my little sister ... and I got food poisoning. We were hiking the Inca Trail, and Machu Picchu is on the way down. The night before we would get there, I was starving from all the hiking, so I destroyed my dinner. Then my little sister comes to eat and goes, "Is everyone's chicken undercooked?" I looked down at my plate, and I had eaten all of it. I started throwing up a few hours later, and then I threw up 55 times in 24 hours -- I'm a little neurotic, so I counted. It was really awful. I was walking down this mountain, throwing up every 30 minutes. I didn't even see the ruins that day, but the next day, after I went to the hospital and got an IV, I was insistent that we go back. And I have some great pictures of being carried past Machu Picchu on a stretcher by four Peruvian men!
11. She has an unusual game face. I meditate daily, and I think it's sort of a life skill. It's highly applicable on the soccer field: I find the ball and I think, "Where's the ball going and where do I need to go?" It's the simplest thing, but it's become sort of like my soccer mantra. I simply use the ball as my focus point and move back into position, and the distracting thoughts disappear and I'm right back in the game. I missed so many shots in college, oh my gosh, because I was thinking larger than life. I was thinking about my career and my stats and wins and losses and the whole school depending on me. And now I don't miss more shots in a game because of the pressure, and if I do miss, I'm secure -- I'm confident in myself. I'm a lot more composed and I smile so much more. The fans see it, my teammates see it, my coaches see it that when I'm playing well, I look happy. Not everyone's game face looks like that way. Some people are fierce, some people have a really hyper strain in their face when they are playing great. But I just have a smile ear to ear. I love what I do, and everyone can see that. I think of all game faces, a smile would be the least intimidating -- but maybe in a reverse psychology way it is!