Leap of faith

NJ/NY Gotham FC’s Gina Lewandowski has constantly challenged her status quo en route to becoming a player in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Story by Esteban Suarez

She logged on and tried to say something. Her mouth moved, but she was muted.  

Patiently, governed by her stoicism, she turned on the microphone and asked, “Do you hear me now?” 

Zoom, the new normal as the world tries to move through the COVID pandemic, is nothing new to Gina Lewandowski. The National Women’s Soccer League player with NJ/NY Gotham FC is used to constantly challenging her status quo. 

The past seems clear-cut when it is looked at from the present moment, but no success story is ever as straightforward as it may seem on paper. To get there and remain throughout the years, it takes sacrifices most people don’t witness. 

“It just took a leap of faith,” said Lewandowski with nostalgic eyes while digging into the past, searching for memories hidden under the layers of time. 

Back in 2007, after graduating from Lehigh University with a remarkable soccer career, Lewandowski was certain she wanted to continue playing the game. Since there was no professional women’s soccer league in the US, she went overseas to continue her soccer dreams.

Germany was the perfect destination considering she had relatives there, along with its sports culture and soccer’s national influence and interest. After graduation, Lewandowski went home and gathered her belongings in a couple of bags with an objective in mind–to play at the highest level. 

“I decided to pack my bags, go there and see where it took me,” said Lewandowski with a mischievous smile.

Playing abroad was not something the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania native had considered a couple of months earlier when she decided to drop out of a German elective course.

“I took it just for fun, but it was way too hard,” Lewandowski remembered. “Couple of weeks later, I’m on a plane, heading to Germany thinking to myself, ‘I probably should’ve kept it.” 

Upon arrival, Lewandowski enrolled in a community college and took private lessons three times a week. Although some teammates spoke English as their second language, she wanted to immerse herself. Assimilating the experience was the only way she found to get rid of the outsider label. 

Despite her adaptability and her willingness to embrace the culture, Lewandowski also dealt with some language barriers along the way. When the European journey started, Lewandowski remembers that she used to get confused with the places where the team was scheduled to meet and would appear in different places than the rest of her teammates.  

Although soccer is a universal language, obstacles were also present on the field. Used to the college level, Lewandowski needed to cope with a different speed of play imposed by the Barbarian game style. To adjust, she even changed her role on the field. Lehigh’s 2004-05 offensive player of the year became a defender and started to get used to playing closer to her own goal.

Despite the challenges, nothing was impossible for someone who considered “soccer as an avenue to get out of the country.”

As a result, Lewandowski shaped her identity on and off the field to fit in the skill-driven European game style. While college was all about camaraderie, German’s professionalism showed her that soccer (or football, like it is commonly known outside America) was also a job. 

The mentality and the perspective they have of the sport were different from what she was used to. For barbarians, “soccer was more a professional sport rather than a social event,” said Lewandowski. “[Teammates] showed me that going to practice was like going to work, and when you are at work, you gotta be focused all the time.”

People from the Old World didn’t use the sport as a vehicle to earn and pursue a degree but to make a living from playing.

Her ease of adaptation helped Lewandowski cope with the changes and earn a spot in the starting 11 from the very beginning. Her determination to be part of the team helped her play regularly, first with Frankfurt and then at Bayern. As a result, she was able to sustain a 12-year career in a foreign country.

However, even though Lewandowski is the first American soccer player to ever start on a Champions League final, call-ups to the women’s national team were never as constant as she had hoped. 

Even though the Bundesliga is one of the most prestigious leagues globally, back then, the US Women’s National Team relied on home players for the training camps. According to Lewandowski, unfortunately, back then, players performing overseas “weren’t looked at as much.” 

US National camps were held outside the FIFA calendar, mostly during unofficial dates. The difference between agendas forced Lewandowski to decide: either play at the elite level in Germany or come back to America to help the national team.

Level-headed as she always has been, Lewandowski followed her heart and stayed.

“Growing up, my dream was always just to play professional soccer at the highest level,” said Lewandowski. “I guess the national team was never really in the picture[…]I just wanted to earn a living out of my passion.”

To this day, she still has played more Champions League finals than she has appearances for the US Women’s National Team. 

“She’s a player who doesn’t need that kind of attention,” said Bianca Reich, Bayern’s Sporting Director Women’s Football at the time. “She just wants to play.”

In 2019, after a decade full of achievements, Lewandowski decided it was time to give the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) a chance. 

It’s not a secret that the league had drastically improved since its establishment back in 2012. Investors and new teams come in year after year. Lewandowski wanted to use her experience to help that expansion and promote the game.

“There is always room for improvement,” said Lewandowski. “The addition of one new team this year and two more coming next year will help expand the league while also make it attractive to foreigners to come here.”

Even from a legal standpoint, the league has improved in the last couple of years. Teams now offer annual contracts to their players, showing the professional standards the competition is trying to establish. The summer calendar and the way youth development is structured demonstrate that “there’s still a lot to do.” However, Lewandowski is hopeful the league is “going in the right direction.”

She recently signed a year contract with NY/NJ Gotham FC, but she’s taking one year at a time. Younger players keep coming in while she remains. 

“Her body is one big muscle,” said college roommate and close friend Stephanie Palmieri. Even though it takes her longer to warm up than the junior players on the team, the fact that Lewandowski keeps her body at its prime “resembles her professionalism and determination.”

Uncertainty aside, the one thing Lewandowski surely knows is that she wants to stick around the field. She earned her coaching license during her time in Germany, and she does not dismiss the idea of watching the game from the sidelines. Adaptable as always, she remains open to any opportunity, implicitly stating that the managerial side of the ball is definitely on her radar. 

“I can see her as a coach. She spreads passion for the game in all aspects of her life,” said Sabrina Flores, NJ/NY Gotham FC’s younger teammate.

“I just take one year at a time,” said Lewandowski.

Photo courtesy of gothamfc.com.

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