US SoccerUS Soccer
Zakiya Bywaters

"Z" Getting An "A" For Effort

At 5-foot-1, with a petite frame and a big smile, Zakiya Bywaters doesn’t seem to have the look of a tenacious soccer player. Looks can be deceiving. And you don’t play soccer in a hotel lobby.

With energy and speed that belie her appearance, Bywaters has been a member of the U.S. National Team programs for quite a while. Born in 1991, the Las Vegas native got her first taste of a national team camp in 2004 as a 13-year-old playing with 14-year-olds at the U.S. Under-14 National Identification Camp.

“After growing up in Las Vegas where there were a few fields here and there, I remember coming to U-14 camp and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really different,’” said Bywaters, who is known to her teammates simply as “Z.” “I remember seeing Shorty [Casey Short] and [Rachel] Quon and thinking, ‘They’re short like me, I don’t feel so awkward.’”

Back then, she displayed some typical 13-year-old behavior when her mom suggested she try out for the Olympic Development Program. That meant sometimes playing soccer far away from home and against players older than her. Her mother ignored her sobs and pleas to wait another year before trying out so she could be playing with girls her own age. Instead, her mom encouraged her, saying that you never knew what good things could happen through the experience.

“I finally did ODP,” Bywaters said. “I really thank my mom because if it wasn’t for her, the opportunity probably would have passed me by.”

After that U-14 I.D. camp, Bywaters was invited to camps with the U-15 Girls’ National Team the following year and was part of the Under-17 Women’s National Team player pool, but she was not selected to represent the U.S. at the 2008 CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship, nor was she named to the U.S. team that finished second at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand.

Now, as part of the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team that is in Guatemala City, Guatemala, at the 2010 CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship on the brink of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, Bywaters reflects on what she had to improve in order to make the jump from a player in the pool to a player on the team.

“One of the main things that I’ve been struggling with is fitness and being game-fit for international matches,” said Bywaters. “Coming from Las Vegas, I’m not really accustomed to running up and down the field as much because the competition level isn’t as elite as it is here.”

Bywaters, who last fall completed her freshman season at UCLA, credits her college experience with the Bruins in helping her improve as a player.

“It’s a more competitive environment at UCLA,” Bywaters said. “Everyone is working hard and it’s just a whole other level than what I had been used to.”

As a 13-year-old in 2004, Bywaters was just swimming against the current and never imagined that she could possibly play in a World Cup.

“It wasn’t even in my mind that I could be here right now,” she said, glancing out the window of the team hotel in Guatemala City. “I was just taking it day by day, one step at a time. I didn’t look forward to the future. I was just taking in all the experiences that were happening at that moment.”

Now, playing in the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup is a definite possibility for Bywaters. However, she knows that even if the team qualifies for the tournament, none of the players are guaranteed a place on that World Cup team. Much like Bywaters had to prove she could contribute to the qualifying roster, she will have to show U-20 WNT head coach Jill Ellis that she belongs on the team that could travel to Germany. Not only must she improve her game-time fitness, but she must also show the coaches that she can take what they say off the field and transfer it successfully between the lines.

“I have to show Jill that I can stick to the game plan and do what the coaches want us to do,” Bywaters said. “Especially in the outside midfield position where I’m playing right now, I have to make sure I’m following the tactics and the whole game plan for the team and what we are trying to accomplish.”

The player whose mother had to convince her to try out for ODP is now is enjoying the new challenges and attacking them with a passion for the game. In short (no pun intended), she’s having fun.

“I just love being on the ball,” said Bywaters, her face erupting into her signature smile. “That feeling that you get, it’s just like blank canvas. I can do whatever I want.”

This time, when she was told she made the qualifying roster, her mom didn’t have to convince her to attend. If there were any tears, they were tears of joy.

“Every day I’m here is a blessing and a privilege,” Bywaters said. “I’m taking in the whole national team experience while I can.”