You hear the word hero a lot.
It’s overused, especially in the sports world. And while there is heroism in big victories on well-lit stages like the World Cup and the Olympics, there’s another heroism out there, one of a humbler vintage. These heroes don’t shout in triumph on foreign fields with flags waving and crowds roaring. They’re all around us, facing the challenges of the everyday with courage and dignity.
Semahj Ware is one of these quiet heroes. She’ll laugh if you tell her that. Still just 15, she was selected as last year’s SheBelieves Hero. The award is given annually to highlight extraordinary stories of perseverance, leadership and helping others – that very kind of heroism that doesn’t hit the headlines often enough.
Million to One Shot
“Before I submitted my video [via social media], I began to doubt myself,” Semahj admitted to ussoccer.com, her voice rising a bit with the memory, looking back a year on from winning. “It’s the whole country. It’s like a one-in-a-million shot and then a few days went by and there started to be comments and reposts…and I realized I won!”
The winning was thrill enough. But Semahj got a FaceTime call from none other than Lindsey Horan, her biggest hero on the U.S. Women’s National Team, to let her know about it. “When she [Horan] called, I was so excited,” said Semahj, born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. “It sent my blood rushing.”
Horan, a World Cup winner and one of the top players on the planet, knows a hero when she sees one. “I’m so lucky to have her in my life right now,” she said of Semahj, one year after the two met and became fast friends. “She’s such a special person.”
A Hero’s Journey
Semahj lives on the east side of Kansas City. She loves soccer, but hasn’t had the opportunity to play the game in any organized way. She lost her mother, Victoria, to a tragic car crash in 2018 – enough of a blow to lay low a grown-up, let alone a 12-year-old girl. Since then, she’s gone about the day-to-day business of helping raise her little brother, Abdou, and sister, Semiyah, while living with her grandma Betty.
“My mom was such a strong woman. She had a lot of confidence,” said Semahj, for whom the same adjectives apply. “She taught me to focus on the big things in life – the important things.”
By the age of 13, Semahj was doing all the cooking for her family.
“She’s doing so much for her family,” Horan said with genuine admiration in her voice. “She does more than any young person I know and really, more than most adults. And it inspires me. I just want to help her keep going in any way I can and be a positive influence.”
Breaking Through in the Community
It’s not just in her own home where Semahj makes an impact. She mentors younger kids after school at Operation Breakthrough, a program designed to help kids out of poverty and challenging circumstances in Kansas City. Semahj received mentorship there when she was younger and now she volunteers her own time to help guide the way for those coming up behind her. It was here that she discovered that cooking could be more than a mere task or chore, but a way to put a smile on people’s faces.
Semahj has a busy life, but she doesn’t complain about it. She’s quick, and the owner of a radiant smile. She loves to laugh. It’s an infectious laugh too. She’s soft-spoken and whip-smart. But she’s still a kid, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. When she was named the 2020 SheBelieves Hero, she packed her bags for a trip to New Jersey, where she’d meet her own hero – and the rest of the heroes on the USWNT– up close and personal.
“It was my first time on a plane and my first time on a subway. We took a trip to Times Square in New York City too. It was a lot to take in and a little intimidating at first,” Semahj said about her trip to the SheBelieves Cup game where the U.S. edged Spain 1-0 at Red Bull Arena. “It really boosted my confidence and courage. Meeting the players and knowing I had people out there rooting for me and supporting me.”
Welcomed with Open Arms
The small world of elite-level sport can sometimes be a little unwelcoming. Not in a cruel way, but there’s a defined inside and outside to a team. That gap only gets bigger when a team’s prepping for a game or when there’s a trophy on the line. But on March 7, 2020 – nearly three years to the day since the passing of Semahj’s mother – there was no gap at all. It disintegrated into thin air and was replaced by smiles, hugs and an air of pure welcome.
It was all waves, high-fives and hugs for Semahj from the U.S. Women’s National team – the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and Julie Ertz.
A U.S. Soccer scarf wrapped around her neck to fight the late-winter chill, Semahj stood near the tunnel and soaked it all in as the players emerged for training.
“Seeing them go through the hard work before the game and get their game faces on was incredible,” Semahj later recalled of the closed practice session, something few outside players and coaching staff ever get to see.
Horan broke away from the group on her way out for a little one-on-one greeting with Semahj, who was, for good reason, overwhelmed by the occasion. The smiles were genuine and the warmth was palpable. It was the birth of a friendship. “Her story just inspired me,” said Horan. “Having lost her mom and doing what she does every day, it’s just amazing.”
From Semahj’s side, the amazement was at least as big. “When Lindsey came over I was kind of overwhelmed,” she said with a chuckle about a first meeting with her hero, who, in the time between then and now, has grown into a friend. “She just told me how great I’m doing and to keep on doing it and some day I’ll get where I want to be. I felt so proud, so accepted. Not like a stranger.”
The Power of a Player
When asked what about Horan in particular so inspires her, young Semahj doesn’t hesitate. “All of the U.S. women players are great in their own way,” she said. “But Lindsey has that something else. That rush, and a real game face. She’s just so strong and powerful and it’s empowering to see that.”
Invited into the locker room on gameday, Semahj helped set up Horan’s locker with her uniform and gear. She even had her own locker, with her name over the top, in among the names of so many current and future legends. Semahj was part of the team that day. No walls, no gap.
Semahj Ware of Kansas City, MO, embodies what it means to be a #SheBelievesHero. At 14 years old, she volunteers every day at @OB_Inc_KC, an early learning center for children living in poverty. She overcame adversity to lead by example and impact the lives of others. #Contest pic.twitter.com/cZvjDsYsRm— Lis Schumacher (@lis_schu) January 31, 2020
And it was more than just a bag of souvenirs to cherish and a day of rare access to remember, it was a glimpse of a larger world. A world of possibilities. “After that trip I just knew what I wanted to do,” said Semahj, who likes “to make people happy” with the food she cooks and the cakes she bakes. “To open a bakery in New York City.”
When asked about that bakery, Horan laughs a little and insists she has to be the first one to eat what comes out of Semahj’s ovens on that day somewhere in the future. “I see her as family now,” said the 2019 World Cup winner who makes sure to check in every couple of weeks. “And I hope she can feel the same about me.”