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Families Of U.S. Women's Soccer Players Share Rituals For Calming Nerves


For the 23 women representing the U.S. in the World Cup, the pressure is enormous. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji wondered how their families feel sitting in the stands watching them play. She was able to ask a few this week as the U.S. team gears up for tomorrow night's game against Sweden in Winnipeg.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: I'm staying at the same hotel in Winnipeg with the players' families and you run into them a lot. Starting center back Julie Johnston's dad, David Johnston, can be found in the hotel gym pumping iron. Maybe that's why he's so chilled out before a game.

DAVID JOHNSTON: I'm not even nervous. That's good for me (laughter).

MERAJI: Julie's mom, Kristie, on the other hand...

D. JOHNSTON: She gets a little nervous.

MERAJI: Kristie Johnston is a pacer, so being cooped up in a stadium seat is rough. To combat the anxiety, she says it's all about positive thinking and cheering as much as possible alongside Julie's older sister, Melanie, who was also a soccer star.

KRISTIE JOHNSTON: When they were real little, we used to yell total world domination, you know, like Arnold Schwarzenegger (laughter). We do this on the sideline just to get the mentality, but if I did that now she'd probably kill me (laughter).

MERAJI: Defender Lori Chalupny's dad paces, too, and mutters running commentary throughout the game. That's according to Lori's grandparents, Gary and Joyce Campbell.

JOYCE CAMPBELL: So we try not to sit with him (laughter).

MERAJI: Chalupny's family wears specially made T-shirts to all the games with a graphic of the way she holds her left hand when she's on the attack.

GARY CAMPBELL: Two on the left is how we say it (laughter).

J. CAMPBELL: Yeah, two on the left, so the pointer finger and the middle finger and the thumb up, the other two fingers bent.

G. CAMPBELL: Like you're trying to shoot somebody.

MERAJI: Chalupny hasn't been on the starting lineup, but her family's pretty certain she'll get subbed in before the tournament ends.

J. CAMPBELL: And we're really looking forward to that.

MERAJI: Sometimes starter, sometimes sub, the woman who scored the most goals in international play, 35-year-old Abby - now how do you say her last name? Is it Wamback (ph) or Wambach?

JUDY WAMBACH: It's wonderful that you're asking. It is Wambach. Anybody that knows Johann Sebastian Bach - B-A-C-H - you would think that they would get Wambach as well, but obviously they don't (laughter).

MERAJI: That's Abby Wambach's mom, Judy. She says she's a ball of nerves whether it's Abby on the field or one of her 10-year-old grandkids. But she's most anxious when Abby falls, so they have an understanding - when she goes down, she gives her mom a thumbs-up if she's OK.

WAMBACH: That makes me feel a little bit more relaxed and whatever, but I do hold my breath when she goes down (laughter).

MERAJI: None of the family members I spoke with have any strange rituals or superstitious things they do before a big game. But they all seem to have personalized T-shirts. The Wambachs wear one that has her last name, her number 20 and USA on the front with a special message on the back.

WAMBACH: #LeaveALegacy and that's what we're hoping she's able to do with this World Cup - to leave a legacy, to win the one thing that has evaded her, so we'll keep our fingers crossed.

MERAJI: Now, there's that superstitious sports fan I was looking for. Tomorrow's game against Sweden will test all these families' nerves. Sweden's coach, Pia Sundhage, was the woman who led the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals and a second place in the last World Cup. She doesn't like to lose, so team USA supporters keep those fingers crossed. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Winnipeg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.