This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2018.
At just 25, Crystal Dunn has already amassed a long résumé of accomplishments: NCAA national champion (with the University of North Carolina in 2012), FIFA Under-20 World Cup champion (2012), and youngest player to win the National Women's Soccer League MVP and Golden Boot (in 2015, at age 23), just to name a few. It's an impressive record for someone who, at 5-2, once feared she was too short for the game. Body Issue reporter Alyssa Roenigk caught up with the diminutive dynamo recently to find out what kind of physical discipline goes into dominating her (taller) competition. Here's Dunn, in her own words:
People are so surprised about how small I am compared to other players. They hear I'm not tall, but when they see me in person, they're like, "How are you competing at a top level?" The funniest thing I hear now while taking photos [with fans] is "Wow, you look so much taller on TV." At first, it wasn't easy. In the early stages, when I realized I was going to be probably the shortest player on the teams I was on, it was hard. I felt like girls were getting recruited over me strictly because of their height, and it made me self-conscious. I had doubts about my height and size on the pitch. But I grew -- I mean, I matured -- and understood you can't have it all. I know tall people who want to be shorter. You want what you don't have. Once I understood that, I learned to take advantage of my body. Lucky for me, the ball is only in the air a handful of times a game and that doesn't define success. At 25, I accept who I am. I am not the biggest, but that doesn't mean I can't be the quickest or the smartest and find other ways of being successful.
I remember when I was young, before we started lifting and working out, I looked like I was bench-pressing other humans. I looked different than other girls. I had to be OK with the fact that I had a strong physique, no matter if people looked at me in an accepting way or not. That's why I look up to, and have always admired, Serena Williams. She is so strong and she has gone through so much regarding her body -- like people saying, "You're too strong, no woman should look like that, you should play amongst men." And she is Serena, the most dominant athlete in the world. Watching her go through that makes me feel like I understand her. Being strong is beautiful, and that is what I have allowed myself to understand through her situation and that is how I feel about myself.
"I am really proud of being a diverse player and using my body in so many different ways on the pitch." Crystal Dunn
Everyone is like, "Crystal, your legs are so defined and muscular." And as a woman, I want to hide those; I don't want to look super strong. But I like my lower body. If I didn't have quads and hamstrings, soccer would be a lot different for me than it is now. I would be pushed all over the field. My lower body is something that has made me the player I am today, and it makes me feel strong. I think in this [Body Issue] shoot, that is exactly what I want to represent: a strong figure. I want to capture the confidence I have and the power I possess.
"I play a crazy amount of positions."
I'm thrown everywhere on the field. In college, I was the ACC offensive player of the year as a senior and the defensive player of the year as a junior. Of everything I ever won, those two awards are incredible, because it's hard to be a top goal scorer and a top defender and I'm one of the only players who has won both. Some days, I have to be attacking-minded -- score and assist and create attacking threats -- and some days I have to be the best defender and deny those opportunities to the opponent. I am really proud of being a diverse player and using my body in so many different ways on the pitch.
Growing Pains and Making Changes
When I was making the transition from college to the pros, I had three bad hamstring tears, and I remember thinking, "Oh my goodness, what's going on?" Those injuries were a sure sign of me leaving college and upping my training to another level. I always felt my legs were strong, and when I started having issues, I was like, "This is really weird." That was when I realized it's not enough to think you are strong and you are doing all you need, it's about recovery and preparing for the next training. You have to guide your muscles into a routine to get them back to where they need to be for that next session. Pro sports is different from the college scene, and I realized I had to start taking care of my body a lot more than when I was in college. That's why I'm trying to improve my core and upper-body strength now. I find that girls who have a strong upper body have an advantage because they can put their arm up and guard me off. I admire my lower body, but I'm trying to be more diligent and create a strong upper body to go along with it.
For more from the 2018 Body Issue, pick up a copy on newsstands starting June 29.
Production by Nicole Hektner; Makeup by Lavonne for Fenty Beauty/The Rex Agency; Hair by Dickey for Hair Rules/The Rex Agency