By Dr. Jen Welter
I still remember when I found out I would represent my country in the inaugural IFAF Women’s World Championship. Forty-five of the top women from around the United States would abandon their individual team colors to represent the Red, White and Blue. We had this “A League of Their Own” feel. We were the pioneers. We were helping to take women’s football to the world’s largest stage. We believed we were changing the game for future generations. We had a glimmer of hope that the world would know our names.
With national pride in our hearts, we left everything out on the field as we played Canada for the gold medal. Not one dollar was won or lost, and frankly, the difference between gold and silver could only be measured in pride, not in dollars. We were playing for something far more valuable; we were playing to change the game. We believed future generations would know of their national teams and aspire to be those players.
On that day, Team USA won gold. On that night, we celebrated. But it wasn’t until we returned home that a stark reality sunk in: we won a gold medal and no one even knew. We remained the best-kept secret in sports.
As a player, I had the honor of playing with, and against, the best women in the game. What I love most about these women is they are the true pioneers. Every time we stepped on the field, we were winning, because it was what women weren’t supposed to do. We were defying gender limitations and crossing the final frontier for women in sports.
Many think I am exaggerating when I say I never once envisioned myself on an NFL sideline, but it’s the absolute truth. Without someone to look to, it is hard to imagine walking in those shoes or playing in those cleats. To this day, it feels a bit surreal to think about being on those sidelines, as if I am dreaming of things to come.
And yet, any time I start to question what happened, it’s impossible, because the ripples of change have already spread so far and so fast. Every time I see the video below, it brings tears to my eyes; for all the women in the game who played for a dollar a game; for all the coaches who took a risk on me; for the men I coached, who embraced me and the change we were making; for all the little girls who will grow up with dreams bigger than I ever had, and for all the boys who will grow up seeing women in a different light.
This isn’t just my story, it’s the story of every person who has been, and will be, told their dreams are bigger than their reality. Dreams reside at the intersect of thought and action, and I’m standing there every single day. You can too.