At the age of 18, Tina Frimpong thought her goal of playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team was gone. But what had seemingly ended her dreams, actually played a major role in achieving them…that being a baby girl. In 2006, a mother on the U.S. Women’s National Team is no longer a novelty, but as the youngest mom ever to play for the USA, Frimpong’s story is certainly unique.
She was eighteen, pregnant and unsure. Of a lot of things.
She was two weeks from leaving for pre-season camp at one of the top college soccer powers in the United States. A great education and the American rite of passage -- the college experience -- awaited. It might even be a stepping stone to the U.S. Women’s National Team.
Then, in a flash, it seemed all that was gone.
But what happened next is a story that inspires.
While it is true that U.S. defender Tina Frimpong took a road less traveled to the U.S. Women’s National Team, her ability to overcome the kind of adversity that has derailed the plans and lives of many a teenage girl, and turn her life into something entirely positive for herself and her daughter, has been a true inspiration to her family, friends and teammates.
It was mid-August, 2000. Soon, she would be leaving her sleepy hometown of Vancouver, Wash., for California and Santa Clara University.
And then, a mistake in judgment, some bad timing perhaps, and her life was changed in an instant.
“I was scared in the sense of ‘this wasn’t how it was supposed to be,’” said the now 23-year-old Frimpong. “I was scared of not knowing what the future was going to entail. A child is a huge responsibility. I was scared of my parents wrath, scared of what people would think, scared that my soccer career was over. Just scared of everything.”
With her life seemingly turned upside down, and with serious issues to consider that she previously had never even imaged, Frimpong turned toward two things that she knew would always be there; her family and her faith.
It was her parents Joe and Eka, both of whom emigrated from Africa, that helped her get over the initial shock and start making the hard decisions.
While Frimpong had initially contemplated adoption, there was really never any doubt that she would have the baby, but to find the answers that she needed, she had to look within.
“I asked myself, ‘What I am I going to do?’ I just fell back on my faith. I knew I had gotten myself into this situation and now it was a matter of doing what I needed to do to get through it. I was 18 and I really didn’t know what that was, but I thought I would find a way.”
While her life plans were altered, as her pregnancy progressed and with her family’s support, she decided that the baby was not going to derail her goal of playing college soccer.
After informing Santa Clara that she would not be enrolling, she attended a junior college during her pregnancy. It was during that time that she reached out to University of Washington head coach Lesle Gallimore.
“She knew that I was pregnant, but said that she would love to have me come and that they could help me with the challenges of having a child,” said Frimpong. “She told me that there was no scholarship available so late in the process, but that if I came in and earned it, I could get some help the next year. They also helped me out a lot with financial aid. Being so close to home, and with my parents helping out so much, it seemed like the best path to take.”
On March 8, 2001, MacKenzie Frimpong was born. That August, Frimpong reported to pre-season camp as a freshman.
“Over that four-year period, Tina Frimpong defined what earning something really means. She worked at everything,” said Gallimore, who saw Frimpong earn a 3.5 GPA in her economics major, become the first, and so far only, two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year, go the first part of her college career without receiving an athletic scholarship and raise a well-mannered and extremely bright daughter. “There is not one part of her life that she didn't absolutely work her tail off in.”
With the help of her parents, her teammates, and her boyfriend, now fiancé and the father of MacKenzie, Brad Ellertson, Frimpong worked her way through four years at the University of Washington with something that few student-athletes have, a little baby.
“The first year, when she was an infant, was definitely the hardest,” said Frimpong. “I look at (U.S. defender Christie) Rampone, (who had a baby about four months ago) and I just want to hug her and high-five her. What she is doing right now is hard. The first few months as a mom are the toughest. I just remember no sleep, and having to train for the first time in seven months, and then playing Division I soccer. All those adjustments, being a full-time student, making sure I was getting good grades…it was all very difficult, but my support system made it a lot easier. It could have been a lot worse.”
She would go on to score 42 goals in her college career as a forward, finishing her career as the
|Brad, MacKenzie and Tina pose for a family picture.|
Huskies all-time leading scorer. She was a two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year, earning the honor as a junior and senior.
“I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for my mom and dad,” said Frimpong, whose parents met at Southern Oregon University. “I wouldn’t have played college soccer and I wouldn’t be on the national team if it wasn’t for my family. My family has been my rock.”
The daughter of a Ghanaian father and a Nigerian mother, both of whom have Masters degrees, Frimpong’s genetics feature both of Africa’s women’s soccer powers. The Super Falcons of Nigeria have been in every Women’s World Cup and the Black Queens of Ghana qualified for the 1999 Women’s World Cup, their first women’s world championship.
“We’re a very prideful family,” said Frimpong, who has a twin sister Crystal that played with U.S. forward Abby Wambach at the University of Florida. “My parents came from Africa wanting to make a life for themselves in America. They’ve instilled the qualities in us to go to college and accomplish things in life. They wanted to set me up the best way to deal with this fork in the road. They took MacKenzie during finals and during the first two weeks of pre-season. My parents came up on the weekends and when I needed help. They were huge.”
After she finished playing for Washington, Frimpong was pretty sure her soccer career was done. She always dreamed of playing for the national team, but with MacKenzie growing, and kindergarten on the horizon, she thought perhaps it was time to settle down and become a real soccer mom.
Oh, she became a soccer mom, all right - Joy Fawcett style. But it was certainly not a smooth road to the Women’s National Team.
She was invited into several U.S. Under-21 Women’s National Team camps in 2004, and admittedly struggled playing at forward. Perhaps this was truly the end of the soccer road? But it was at those camps that U.S. head coach Greg Ryan saw qualities that he liked…no, loved.
“Her athleticism is off the charts,” said Ryan. “What she’s got is genetically unusual. She’s just a uniquely gifted athlete. Her ability to change directions is incredible, she’s great in the air and has a natural aggressiveness to win the ball.”
Ryan decided to give her a shot with the full national team at defender. Saying that was a “good idea” is a bit of an understatement. No player, from the USA or any other country, has been able to find a way past Frimpong since. She just might be the best athlete ever to play for the United States.
Her challenge has been adjusting to the intricacies of defending in a flat back four, the antithesis of playing as an attacker. She took a huge step forward, however, in China at the Four Nations Tournament in January, playing well in the center of the defense in all three games, as Norway, France and China got a bitter taste of what it’s like to battle against her. She even got to be on the field for Kristine Lilly’s historic 300th cap.
“No one beats her one-on-one, and if they do, she always recovers to win the ball back,” said Ryan. “She’s just got to learn the tactical side of defending. All the qualities she has are the qualities that you see in great defenders in the men’s international game, where you can’t get by with an average athlete in the back anymore because the forwards are so amazingly athletic. It’s getting to be that way in the women’s game as well. If you don’t have great athletes in the back, you can’t stay with Marta, Cristiane (of Brazil), Anja Mittag (of Germany) or Marinette Pichon (of France). It’s just not going to happen anymore. I think Tina has the potential to become a great defender.”
As Frimpong grows into her new role with the national team on the field, her daughter has become more comfortable off it. Adored by the U.S. players, and overflowing with personality, the almost 5-year-old MacKenzie has become the darling of the U.S. team.
Every day Frimpong marvels at the gift she’s been given.
“When you have a bad game, or things don’t go right on the field, you come home to someone who could care less,” said Frimpong, who is best buddies with MacKenzie and will be only 32 when she enters high school. “She shows you there is so much more to life. Her personality is just amazing, and it’s awesome just to be a mother. She changed me and made me a better person. She made me more responsible, and more compassionate, all the great things that motherhood brings. It’s been so rewarding. She’s been a blessing.”
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, a teammate of Frimpong’s at Washington, has also seen her grow through her early struggles as a teenage mom.
“Throughout the whole time, Tina always had a great outlook on things,” said Solo, who played two seasons with Frimpong. “I think MacKenzie brought a different outlook and allowed her to enjoy the game more. Seeing McKenzie every day at practice helped us come together as a team as well. It helped us realize what Tina had been through. She had to study, take care of MacKenzie and play Division I soccer. She was greatly admired by all of us. At the same time, she was still a teammate that needed to be pushed like all of us and we treated her like that. She wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Now, Frimpong sets her sights on making the squad that will attempt to qualify next November for the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and perhaps get to play against one of her parents’ homelands. With a deep pool of defenders all fighting for positions, it won’t be easy, but her first steps into the international game have been positive ones.
“She’s just fun to be around,” said Ryan. “Her determination and the things she’s overcome are admirable. When she stepped into this team, she didn’t come with the attitude to ‘see if I can do this,’ she came in with the attitude that ‘I can do this.’ She’s strong and determined and those are the kinds of people that make it.”
So much has happened so fast for Frimpong, she is taking it one practice, one play session with MacKenzie and one game at a time. Brad proposed on December 16, 2005, and they will marry on December 23, 2006. She also starts Residency Camp with the U.S. team this coming April. And through the inspiration of her daughter, she has a belief in achieving goals that perhaps was absent five years ago.
“I just think, you may put yourself in a bind, but you have to believe in yourself and that you can get through anything,” said Frimpong, who has brought Brad on the road with her to serve as the ‘team nanny’ while she is at training and meetings. “There was a time when I couldn’t believe this situation I was in, but if you have faith and a great support system, you can achieve anything. That’s what’s gotten me to where I am today.”
It has become clear that obstacles in life, much like an opposing forward, have very little chance of beating her.
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