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Michelle Lomnicki interview (Part One): ‘We were us’ – Ex-Chicago defender and the bonds that built a home

Photo: Christy Mehaffie

Photo: Christy Mehaffie

 

On the surface, a piece of Chicago Red Stars heritage was relinquished with the retirement of long-serving defender Michelle Lomnicki (née Wenino) this March, but to think that would mean underestimating an unconditional bond, born from a life’s love, driven on through devotion, and illuminated all the while by those around her.

Since the opening exchanges of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in April 2013, many players have worn the respective jerseys of the first eight teams, while two more clubs have also joined the party in that time. Domestic and international names have moved around the league in their search for game time or fresh opportunity, although there is a sense that some players and teams just fit together.

In that regard, the historic fourth year of America’s third and most successful attempt at a professional women’s soccer division is currently in progress with some mainstays missing. The retirements have been vast, encompassing U.S. Women’s National Team veterans and up-and-coming young players alike as the natural endings to long careers for some continues to be contrasted with others who are no longer able to forgo more financially-rewarding job opportunities or put family life on hold, for example.

One of those the NWSL lost to retirement ahead of the 2016 season was Chicago Red Stars defender Michelle Lomnicki. With the Colorado native, the Red Stars were blessed with someone who personifies everything positive about women’s soccer; a player who’ll put it all on the line for those beside her and a person who makes the time to let peers and supporters know they’re valued.

That she ever had the time at all was remarkable, as she was one of the league’s playing community who had to lead a double life with a full-time job outside being a pro athlete who battled some of the game’s toughest attacking players. A rookie with Chicago in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), Michelle was a returning player in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) Elite as the U.S. went without a pro league in 2012, and she became a staple of the team and organisation for the first three NWSL seasons.

After her first two years in the league she and her husband, Wes, decided she could let her analyst job with Sears Holdings go as she went into the 2015 season. Four months ago, and with the year four of the NWSL everyone in the game had been striving for duly approaching, her retirement was announced at 28 years old.

It meant Chicago’s 1-1 home draw with Houston Dash at Toyota Park to finish last year’s regular season had indeed been her last competitive game. Michelle made 48 NWSL appearances, scoring three goals and assisting on three, and she explains the thought process for herself and her husband that preceded her official decision to let go.

“I didn’t know going into that last game that it was going to be my last; I had a feeling it could be, you just never know. Five or six months is a really hard off-season, especially when you get older, to get out of shape and then try to get back into shape, unless you’re on the National Team and you have camps to go into.

“It really is tough and it’s tough in Chicago because there’s not a lot of places to train in the winter. I have some guys that I train with but for me, it was more of a family decision, nothing really related to injuries or anything like that.

“It was more that we were ready to start the next part of our lives and for me it was my career as well; my career in finance is something that I’ve always wanted to pursue. I felt like I had a good ride in soccer but I felt that I didn’t quite have enough left in me to keep going.

“Thinking of playing a 90-minute game, I watch those girls and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how you guys do it, I can barely breathe these days!’ It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make because stepping away from soccer is really tough and I had a hard time with it.

“The first few weeks I was like, ‘Did I make the right decision?’ but now I know and we have some really fun things coming up in our lives that we’re excited about. It was a bittersweet decision but I’m grateful for the experiences I had and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”

 

 

The year has been packed with change, bringing a new job in Chicago as well as the news that the consummate team role model now has motherhood on the horizon, with Michelle and Wes’ first child due in October.

“Finding out we have a little baby on the way is super-exciting but we have a lot to plan for! It’s a crazy summer but we’re very grateful and blessed to have this opportunity and this is what we wanted.

“It’s what we’ve pretty much been striving for and we’re just ready to have a family. It’s definitely been tough trying to balance things and I’m working full-time in the city so I take the train every day.

“Career-wise, I feel like I’m in a good place; I’ve been blessed with a good position with my company at Federal Home Loan Bank and I enjoy it so far. The balance in my life is really good right now.”

The 2015 squad member with the longest association with the Red Stars, it was fitting that in the final year of her career Michelle helped her side achieve their first playoff berth as a pro team, as they came 2nd in the regular season before a semi-final loss to eventual champions FC Kansas City. This June, she was honoured at half-time of the home game with the Portland Thorns and the appreciation from the club that will always be most closely connected to her is in no doubt.

Nevertheless, when something has been integral in your life from childhood, given indescribable joy (and its share of pain) and gifted the kind of relationships to last generations, it’s not nearly as simple as just saying goodbye and being able to switch off the emotional investment, as Michelle felt first-hand.

“It was kind of hard at first. I was training with the girls going into preseason because I was still looking for a job, so I just was training and having fun and trying to stay in shape.

“I think that was what I was happy about; getting to go out of it just knowing that I was having so much fun with the girls. When they went into pre-season was when it kind of hit me a little bit because I wasn’t there, I wasn’t training and I was still looking for a career and a job.

“I think that was hard for me until I found something I really wanted to do. The first game was tough; I went with (former Red Stars defender/midfielder) (Julianne) Sitch and it was good to have her there because she’s been through that as well, a year before.

“It was just weird being on the outside I guess, just being in the stands and being like, ‘that used to be us…why am I so old now?!’ It’s gotten a little bit easier and I enjoy watching them; I don’t go to all the games but I’ll just put them on my screen and get excited.

“I’ll always be a huge fan of the Red Stars and a huge fan of the game. I always want to stay involved and I know there was a possibility of being involved with the Red Stars in some capacity but I wasn’t ready for it.

“I needed a little time away to not feel like a player so much. The biggest thing I miss is the girls, being in the locker room and all the fun we used to have.”

When the players think back and reflect one day, long after their careers have wound down, it won’t be the facts and figures that provide them nostalgia to bask in, but the recollections of the moments that let them know they were truly right when they decided to put their heart into following the game. On this site, a huge element of the interviews is about exploring with the players how music brought its own magic to those memories, how it allowed them to celebrate and enjoy bonds with teammates and also what part it has in their personal life.

Michelle became known as a player with as much compassion for her teammates as she had commitment to the game, though she was once a wide-eyed newcomer not all that long ago, with Emma Hayes her head coach at Chicago in 2009 and established figures like Carli Lloyd to be around and learn from. A year that took her away from Colorado and out of the familiar, it also came with a backing track.

“The first year with the Red Stars, the Kings of Leon were huge at the time, so every time I hear them I just kind of think of every girl on the team. I know a lot of the girls went to their concerts that year, so that’s one of those I associate the most, at least with the 2009 Red Stars.”

Chicago’s first-year roster featured international players including Brazilian forward Cristiane, England winger Karen Carney, Sweden goalkeeper Caroline Jönsson and her midfield compatriot Frida Östberg. With bundles of international caps and experience of multiple major tournaments, the Swedes helped show the way for Michelle, although she already had it covered with something from their nation’s music vault long before!

“The first I can remember is Ace of Base – the album with ‘All That She Wants’ and ‘The Sign’. My brother actually gave me that CD, basically when it came out.

“I was five or six years old and I loved it. It’s one of those CDs I remember and I still have it at home in Colorado.

“A lot of what I’ve listened to lately is kind of pop / country, but besides that I really like Ellie Goulding, so it’s like a different spectrum of music. John Legend, Adele, Keith Urban; it’s kind of all over the place.

“You listen to so many different types of music in the locker room and people’s tastes from different parts of the world, so you get a feel for everything. ‘Holding On for Life’ by Ellie Goulding is one I listen to a lot.”

Along with the team’s former forward Adriana Leon, athletic trainer Cherlyne Carlos was usually on hand to provide the Red Stars’ game day music in the locker room in relatively recent times, as revealed by attacking prospect Sofia Huerta on here last season. Michelle places the friendships as her most valuable part of being an athlete and Chicago’s number four, Alyssa Mautz, was one of those leading the tributes to her on her retirement, noting how she was always there to pick her up during games when she needed a boost.

In turn, the versatile Missouri-born Mautz brought a level of personality that Michelle always enjoyed being around and she remembers the part she used to have in picking the tracks to go with the moves.

“For playing it, I feel like Alyssa Mautz was always at the forefront and she was big into the dancing. We always trusted her with the music and I feel like Ella Masar when she was with the Red Stars, too, she was always kind of picking out the music.

“I was always the one that brought the speakers on road trips and stuff but I was never the one that picked out the music because I didn’t have a wide selection on my phone. It’s a stressful job because you always get someone who’s like, ‘What are we listening to?’!”

 

Michelle (right) and former Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue teammate Alyssa Mautz. Photo: @Michelle_Wenino

Michelle (right) and former Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue teammate Alyssa Mautz. Photo: @Michelle_Wenino

 

A Red Stars teammate going back to the WPSL Elite, Mautz had also been part of Michelle’s time at Sky Blue in WPS a year before that, along with National Team standouts Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath. For most of the WPS era, the FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) in England had not yet begun, meaning a number of the country’s national team players spent time in the U.S.

Former Arsenal defensive standout Anita Asante was at Sky Blue with Michelle, as was a current Chelsea forward who helped make sure the Brits got some airtime on the team playlist in New Jersey.

“At Sky Blue, I think Eni Aluko was always around with picking the right song but I can’t remember anyone specifically who was in charge. Adele was huge; her album came out so we’d all listen to Adele or Jessie J.

“I remember first listening to Jessie J when Eni was there and Alyssa Mautz was listening to Jessie J a lot. I’m like, ‘Who is this? This girl’s awesome!’ and that was before she was huge.”

The strain and sacrifice to thrive in soccer is sustained and considerable, although the feeling of achieving something alongside people you’ve battled so hard for is undoubtedly special. One of the additional perks is that you may just get an exclusive performance from a musically-gifted teammate, and with singing ability spread around the women’s game, there is always a chance of just that.

Michelle got to experience that in the first year of the NWSL by way of a Canadian keeper whose on and off-field talent is by now no secret.

“Well someone who was really good at singing and just kind of did it was Erin McLeod, who was insanely good. She’s so good, so every time she’d sing I’d stop and listen.

“I always felt like Ella Masar was really funny because she’d just shout it out and was really expressive about singing.”

Those two players gave valuable experience to the 2013 Red Stars roster at a time when they also had the know-how of co-captain and former U.S. midfielder Leslie Osborne, as well as esteemed German duo Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss. With none of those names there the following year, it meant that the onus was arguably on someone like Michelle to be even more of a leader.

In Sofia Huerta’s interview on here, she highlighted Michelle’s influence, while defender and fellow 2015 rookie Arin Gilliland told in the team tribute video to her how she could read how the younger players were feeling and what they needed. In that same video, midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo commented on the positive environment Michelle was responsible for creating when the team lost the services of certain players during last year’s World Cup and Michelle describes just how much she valued being able to give a helping hand to the Red Stars’ huge up-and-coming talents.

“That was one of the biggest things I wanted to be part of because for my first year I was a deer in headlights, so I just wanted the girls to play. ‘Have fun, don’t stress, we’re here for you, this is what we do and we’re together.’

“‘Just play soccer; you know how to play soccer, it got you this far and you’ll be fine.’ Especially with Sofia Huerta and Vanessa, Arin, Danny (Colaprico), I just loved sitting down and talking to them because it’s a mental rollercoaster ride your first year.

“It’s different from college; it’s a longer season, more stress on your body and your mind. I think that was the biggest thing with being a mentor because that’s how we’re going to win games; if those younger players can fulfil their roles.

“I thought that was really important to our team and to those girls because they are so talented and they’re going to go far. For me in the last year, it was more being a mentor from the bench and if I can’t be on the field to help you, if I can do anything in my power from the bench just talking to you, that’s what I’m going to do.”

It is no surprise that Michelle got to wear the captain’s armband for Chicago on occasions, as a person who perfectly understood what the greater good of a group is all about. While probably every coach around the world wishes to have a team filled with unity there can be so many reasons why it just doesn’t work out that way.

Acknowledging also how helpful it can be if a team is able to ensure its players live within close proximity to each other, Michelle details some of the internal bonds she feels privileged to have enjoyed on the Red Stars.

“I had a really good relationship with pretty much everyone but I hung out with Lori (Chalupny) a lot, Alyssa, Taryn (Hemmings) and (Rachel) Quon. I really respected Julie Johnston and her conversations on and off the field; I think we grew a lot as friends at the time and she’s just a sweet girl.

“Everybody’s so different, so it’s just seeing how you can mesh 20 girls together and hope it works. It’s not an easy task!

“I think what was really cool for us was that our defence in the last three years really fought for each other. If I didn’t play I’d be cheering for that player on the field, whether it was Taryn or Quon; they were some of my closest friends and the last thing I wanted was for them to go out there and fail.

“I wanted our defence to rock out and we all wanted that for each other.”

 

Michelle (left) and former Red Stars defensive teammate Julie Johnston.

Michelle (left) and former Red Stars defensive teammate Julie Johnston.

 

It was easy to see the concerted effort Michelle put into not just her own career but in assisting that of others and she will surely be thanked again for that one day when the emerging Red Stars tell people who helped them on their way. She was an extremely team-oriented player and she shares some examples of the individuals who were there to brighten the picture for her.

“Giuleana Lopez was one of those characters and you can always hear her laughing. Mautz was always a character and I always enjoyed her.

“Arin as well, such a sweetheart. In fact, those three – Arin, Danny and Sofia – were hilarious because they’re the young children of the group!

“It was fun to just hang out with them and mess with them because they always had so much energy.”

After her gradual introduction to professional waters at Chicago in 2009, Michelle got the exposure to regular play she needed as she tested herself with SC Freiburg of the Frauen-Bundesliga before returning to the U.S. with the renowned Pali Blues of the now-defunct W-League. She first worked with Rory Dames when she resumed her association with the Red Stars in the solitary WPSL Elite season of 2012.

It may have been the ‘bridge’ year between the end of WPS and the start of the NWSL, but despite it being a break from a professional league there was incredible fun and freedom for the players and no loss of competitiveness either. A Championship runner-up that year, Michelle remained with the team as they embarked on their NWSL chapter, becoming a symbol of the consistency, meaning and familiarity that makes a club a community.

As she tries to define the significance the organisation had and continues to hold for her, she sums it up in much the same way she treated being a player – by remembering the shared goal that should never be forgotten.

“Oh man, I don’t know if I can put it into words, but I can try. Red Stars has been a huge part of my life post-college – that’s seven years now, eight years – and I just truly value what they are trying to do as a club and as an organisation.

“I absolutely loved playing there. Chicago’s my second home; I married a guy from here so it definitely has a special place in my heart.

“I think of Chicago and I just hope so much that they can be around and I think that they will. They’ve done everything they can and that’s right and it’s just a special organisation; from everybody that’s worked there, whether they’re interns or whatever, everybody is so sweet and always working hard for us.

“I think that’s a special thing, because with women’s soccer you have a lot of people that work for an organisation and there’s a lot of turnover but they work so hard for you behind the scenes and sometimes you don’t see that. From top to bottom, it’s just so special and (team owner) Arnim (Whisler) means a lot to me; he’s a good guy and I’ve known him for a really long time now and I just think his vision for women’s soccer and the Red Stars is just so invaluable.

“Being part of the NWSL from the beginning was special but being part of the club from the beginning was also really cool.”

As she was so aptly honoured by the Red Stars on the Toyota Park field last month, Michelle was given a Red Stars jersey bearing her name and number by the team’s General Manager, Alyse LaHue, as well as a gift for the new Lomnicki on the way. Her parents, Pat and Sherri, were alongside her proudly wearing their ‘Wenino 13’ jerseys as they enjoyed a deserved celebration of the impression their daughter had made.

From being picked up at the airport by teammate Ella Masar in 2009, through three leagues of play and memories before bidding farewell – if only as a player – it has been one special ride for the kid out of Colorado. Describing how she felt to be honoured by the Red Stars, she may have pointed to being a mother-to-be as a reason for her heightened current feelings, but the sentiments could not be more heartfelt.

“Honestly it was such an honour. I was so overwhelmed and excited, really emotional actually…I guess I would say I’m a little bit more emotional these days!

“My family was there so that made it so much easier just having them on the field next to me. It was really just one of the coolest things, just so special to have that.

“I would never say I was the most special player so for me to be honoured, I can’t even put it into words.”

In the second half of this feature, Michelle chooses the teammates who’d be with her on a song cover, talks more of her music and soccer growing up in Colorado, life in Germany, what made Emma Hayes and Rory Dames so significant in her career, the one thing she won’t miss from playing, more insight into the teammates who shared the years with her, and plenty more.

To catch each of these music/soccer interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes

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