Ashlyn Harris interview: The style, the spirit, the story – U.S. keeper painting her heart
For Washington Spirit and U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, creative expression is everything, and much like her tattoos and fashion choices, music can paint the picture of who she is more aptly than words ever could.
In a U.S. team adored by so many, Ashlyn is certainly one who garners much intrigue and affection from supporters. The one-time University of North Carolina stopper was thought of as the next big thing after helping her country to glory at the FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Cup in 2002 while still only 16.
Those who know about her journey in the game are well aware of the hardships she has faced, as she battled back from the brink of surrender to serious injury. While stuck in the midst of those struggles, it seemed her first full international cap may never arrive, but the moment finally came last March.
As Ashlyn, now 28, wore those stars and stripes on her chest against Sweden in the Algarve Cup, it was an incredible moment for her and for all those who shared the ups and downs to that point. The Washington Spirit number one has more than her share of admirers, drawn in by her playing ability and also the personality she exudes.
Photos displaying her love of fashion and tattoos can often be seen but she also has a lifelong connection with another art form – music. For Ashlyn, it is about tracks that stir something within her and one artist in particular manages to ignite that flame.
“I would say lately I’m really into dance, hip-hop, I’m kind of just all over the place so anything that gets me moving and gets me motivated. I love rap, I’ve always been a big fan of Eminem, there’s something about his lyrics that move me.
“They’re just raw and they’re real and you kind of figure out what he’s all about and that’s what I love. That’s what I try to do in my sport, to get people to know who I am through my performance and I think that’s a pretty incredible thing.
“I’ve been listening to ‘Rap God’ (Eminem) so that’s one of my pre-game pump-up jams. I don’t listen to country, or that kind of country/pop like Taylor Swift.
“(There’s) nothing wrong with her, she’s a good girl I’m sure, but just not my style!”
Ashlyn’s first senior international appearance saw the U.S. advance to the 2013 Algarve Cup final with a 1-1 draw against Sweden and they would go on to beat Germany to win the tournament. It was Nicole Barnhart in goal for the final but Ashlyn would have her second cap soon after, pulling on the gloves for the 3-1 win over the Netherlands in The Hague last April.
The former FCR 2001 Duisburg player has remained very much part of the fold and she is currently with the squad having been selected for this month’s friendly matches with France by head coach Jill Ellis. The U.S. are blessed with terrific goalkeeping options and Ashlyn’s form as the final defensive stalwart of a Washington Spirit side placed 4th at present in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has ensured her place.
Long before the NWSL came to be, Ashlyn was a standout player while at Satellite High School in Florida, winning the 2003 Gatorade National High School Girls Soccer Player of the Year award amongst her accolades. In those days growing up back home, besides soccer, surfing and more, she was strongly into music and her first ever album is decidedly different from most women’s players who have been on here.
“Wu-Tang (Clan). (Asked if it was ‘Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers’) I think so!
“Boyz II Men too, and New Kids on the Block, I never was a big follower of them but I remember my mom buying me a CD. I was more so Boyz II Men and Wu-Tang – those were my go-to.”
Variation is appreciated by plenty of players, but the classic, rugged ‘slums of Shaolin’ hip-hop served up by Method Man and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan probably doesn’t fit in with the vibe of most NWSL locker rooms! However, as previous interviews on here with U.S. Women’s National Team midfielders Yael Averbuch and Lori Lindsey, and Heather O’Reilly herself, have revealed, O’Reilly performs her unique version of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ on certain occasions.
Numerous teammates have had the chance to witness this but Ashlyn can lay claim to being the first, back in their days together at the University of North Carolina.
“Oh gosh, I’ve been there from the original! That originally started when we were in college and we would sit in her little Honda Civic in Chapel Hill and before games we would crank it and she would crush her part, so that’s long before national team stuff.
“She really gives it to us when she does it and she’s in the zone, it’s hilarious.”
While Boston Breakers midfielder O’Reilly is one of the most accomplished and decorated players in the women’s game today, there is a relatively new member of the U.S. team who always captures the attention in the locker room – Crystal Dunn. Chicago Red Stars’ Julie Johnston made reference to her on here last month and as a Washington Spirit colleague of hers, Ashlyn gets to see the 21-year-old’s love for the limelight frequently.
Dunn is among the league leaders for assists in the NWSL and she also happens to be the Spirit’s DJ at the moment. Ashlyn describes what she brings to the team and it is much more than just creative play on the field.
“Right now, it’s usually Crystal Dunn. She is full of life, full of energy all the time.
“In her next lifetime she is going to be a performer of some type. She’s front and centre, loves the attention, any music gets her dancing with anyone.
“She will look at herself in the mirror and dance and it just cracks us up and really lightens the mood in the locker room.”
Following the inaugural season of the NWSL last year, Ashlyn wanted to continue at the highest level possible to improve her game during the off-season. A temporary switch to Sweden with Tyresö FF gave her the platform to compete in the UEFA Champions League alongside teammates such as five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta, and Ashlyn’s compatriots Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg, Christen Press and Whitney Engen.
Together with the fun side and the personality she shows, Ashlyn is extremely committed to her career and achieving all she can from an individual and team perspective. She gave an insight into that intensity when asked about the Spirit’s pre-game music.
“It’s hard for me to say because once I get into the locker room I’m focused. Even though I know music’s playing I’m thinking about my performance and what I need to do to get ready, so it’s kind of all a bit of a blur.
“I’m always very serious if you ask anyone about me, once it’s game time I’m locked in. I can’t switch it off and switch it on like some of the girls can.
“Once I pull up to the stadium, for me it’s all business. This is my job and I take it really serious.”
Back in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), the second U.S. pro women’s league, Ashlyn was a Championship winner with Western New York Flash in 2011. In the decisive game, she saved the last penalty from Laura del Río to give the Flash a 5-4 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Independence following a 1-1 draw after extra-time.
Ashlyn was named the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year and selected in the WPS Best XI. One of her fellow U.S. goalkeepers to feature in WPS and the NWSL is Jill Loyden, and the current Sky Blue FC player is someone who shares Ashlyn’s music love, making for some enjoyable travel to national team practice.
“Jill Loyden is a really good music buff; she always finds the best mash-ups. We love listening to Tracy Chapman ‘Fast Car’, we love cover songs and we love jamming to Boyce Avenue.
“She’s a good one because I always go to training early with her and she always has good jams on that we can sing along to and enjoy the ride.”
It differs for every team, but music can form its own part of a squad’s identity in soccer. There is a lot of truth in this for the U.S. Women’s National Team, whether it is the locker-room dancing, Lauren Holiday or Sydney Leroux on the playlist, or even one of the players showing off their singing ability.
Last year, one of the music memories Megan Rapinoe recalled on this site was being made to perform for her teammates by former head coach Pia Sundhage, known herself as quite the singer. The Seattle Reign midfielder went for ‘Don’t Ever’ by the Australian singer Missy Higgins, and if Ashlyn was to record a cover version with any of her career teammates, this is exactly the vibe she’d want.
“I would definitely choose Megan Rapinoe and I would sing a Missy Higgins song because she’s legit and Pinoe’s pretty good at singing her style of music.
“I had a Spirit live chat at the start of the season and I sang ‘Baby Got Back’ (Sir-Mix-a-Lot), so that was pretty entertaining I guess to most people!”
Together with soccer, music is the theme of this site and discussion of it with Ashlyn undoubtedly uncovers more of the person behind the competitive athlete you see out on the pitch. The depth to her character goes much further of course and at 28 she has been through more heartache and difficulties than many to still be playing the game she loves today.
She was the youngest starter on the triumphant U.S. team at the 2002 FIFA Under-19 World Cup, playing in front of an official attendance of 47,784 in Edmonton as Lindsay Tarpley’s golden goal sunk Canada in the final. Ashlyn would captain the Under-19s in Thailand two years later as the team came third in the next World Cup, but all the promise she showed was accompanied by cruel misfortune with injury.
As a UNC Tar Heel, Ashlyn won three NCAA titles but that only tells the success story. While in Florida preparing for her freshman year, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and after all the rehab she suffered the same injury in the opposite knee just a few months into her return.
A torn labrum in her hip and a shattered thumb have also been sustained, and in the lead-up to the U.S. squad announcement for the 2012 Olympics she dislocated her shoulder. Despite the upset it would have brought to quit, many would have given up in light of such struggles, simply growing too tired of the mental and physical strain.
Ashlyn vividly recalls taking part in fitness testing on her return from her second ACL injury and finding it so difficult that she felt her time as a player may have been up. Long-time friend and teammate Whitney Engen was there and the current Houston Dash and U.S. international defender gave Ashlyn the kind of support she has never forgotten.
In a tearful heart-to-heart, she told Ashlyn that she had to make a choice of whether to call it a day or to fight on, but that she would be behind her no matter what her decision. Support from friends or family in moments of such vulnerability and despair is indescribably important and Ashlyn thought back over them when she finally took to the field for her country as a full international last year.
Although there were times when the pain felt anything but worthwhile, Ashlyn has come to appreciate all that she had to overcome to be where she is now, and more importantly, to be who she is.
“Soccer’s taught me to just embrace the struggle. It’s a type of career that has a lot of ups and downs, a lot of pressures and a lot of headaches.
“It’s really taught me to smile through the struggle and I’ve had a bit of adversity in terms of injuries after injuries. It’s tested my character and without that struggle and the different things I’ve gone through I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
Given her first cap under the management of Tom Sermanni, Ashlyn appears very much in current U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’ vision for the team. She was named in the squad for this month’s home friendly games with France and suited up for the team in Saturday’s 1-0 win in Tampa.
Targeting a start in the second clash with France on Thursday (June 19th) in East Hartford, Ashlyn had played all 11 games for the Washington Spirit prior to her call-up, claiming two shutouts and helping the team to six wins. Despite finishing last in the 2013 NWSL, the Spirit have developed and strengthened under Mark Parsons and their current top-four berth gives reason to believe they can make the play-offs this time.
As everyone who loves the women’s game is aware of, the first two U.S. professional leagues (Women’s United Soccer Association, 2001-03, and Women’s Professional Soccer, 2009-11) fell by the wayside after three seasons each. This is the second NWSL campaign and it is up to everyone, from the fans to the players, to the staff of the teams and the league, to put forth every effort to protect its future.
Every supporter who gets an autograph from their favourite player matters and every single bit of promotion for the competition, via social media or other outlets, counts. With the World Cup next year, it is as critical a time as ever for women’s soccer and Ashlyn is thankful for all those who consistently show their dedication, for both the Spirit and further afield.
“I enjoy the people above me and I know how much work they put in to make this league successful and I’m sure it’s across the board. These people work other jobs and they have families but they devote all of their time to the success of us and it’s pretty powerful.
“My teammates, a lot of them rub pennies and pinch pennies to play in this league because they love it, and they don’t get paid very much money. They live in host families and they struggle and it’s all just to be out there and to fight for each other.
“The camaraderie and the passion – that wakes me up in the morning and gets me out of bed. It makes me want to play hard for them and I’ve been fortunate enough to do well in this league and I couldn’t have done it without the players who are around me.
“This league is a very special thing and to have the backing of U.S. Soccer just so we can continue to play and to have a career, I’m really appreciative to be here today. I have a lot of people who I could thank and my organisation is definitely at the top of my list.”
Away from playing, Ashlyn displays a distinctive and irrepressible style. Tattoos are a considerable aspect of modern popular culture but it is all too easy to fall in with the crowd when it comes to body art. Ashlyn, who got her first design at 18 with a dedication to her grandmother, believes strongly that tattoos should be sincere and meaningful, and reflective of a person’s story.
She speaks of her body as her canvas and she carries designs that depict her relationship with each of her parents. Zeus and Athena are there to symbolise her bond with her father, as are the Hawaiian flowers that once adorned the surfboards he would buy her as a kid back home.
Ashlyn likes to draw and to paint and she took a number of acting classes back in college. She is one of the truly colourful players in the game and it is easy to see why such intrigue surrounds her. While discussing her clothes and tattoos in our conversation, Ashlyn also described one of her best-loved settings and why it illustrates the person she is so fittingly.
“I love fashion; I love all types of self-expression. I’m covered in tattoos and everything means something.
“They’re all meaningful because they all represent me and my family and my journey. I like to express myself through my tattoos and through the clothes I wear and I’m a big beach bum.
“I love reggae and I love kicking back on the beach, listening to music, surfing and skateboarding. I’m definitely a small-town girl and I love the slow chill vibe, I feed off of it, it grounds me, so that’s definitely who I’m kind of about.”
The fact that Ashlyn is making an impact as one of the most recognisable figures in the NWSL is testament to her strength of mind. She is a dreamer, and crucially, she is a believer, overcoming the rawest of setbacks to hold onto and ultimately live out those dreams. There are many things to focus upon with Ashlyn but perhaps one of the most meaningful is that her journey can provide hope to people, in soccer and in life, that from the darkest of corners you can come out fighting.
It is time to find out about just some of the players who have left their mark on her through the years. The idea here is for the player to picture themselves in a 5-a-side line-up, with four of the best they have ever played alongside to go in their team. Each interviewee who answers this final question could understandably name a huge list of their career teammates, but here was the group Ashlyn went for as we spoke.
“I would take Ali Krieger – I think she’s a phenomenal back player and her work ethic is ridiculous. Her vision of the game is beyond most players.
“(In midfield) I would say Lori Chalupny – you can put her anywhere, she’s just a buzzer and she’s scrappy. She will find a way to win and I would always pick her on my team.
“I would say Lindsay Tarpley (forward) – one of the most incredible people and players I’ve ever played with. (She) always finds a way to score and it doesn’t matter what the pressures of the situation are – she’s a finisher.
“Then I would probably pick Shannon Boxx (midfield) for her leadership skills. She doesn’t have to say anything, just the way she carries herself calms me and motivates me.
“When she speaks, I listen.”
Follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes
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