Beats & Rhymes FC

Nicole Barnhart interview (Part One): Pocket Rocker to shot-stopper – The composing of FCKC’s steady hand

Photo: John Rieger/FC Kansas City

 

In a game so often filled with unnecessary noise and haste, the pace is altogether more mellow and sincere with FC Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, with special significance in the 54-cap U.S. international’s story hidden away in song so securely that even she was surprised to uncover it.

Twice earning All-America recognition, ‘Barnie’ had been a shining light in her college career at Stanford, with her exploits for the Cardinal setting her up for a first U.S. Women’s National Team cap in late-2004. While the two Olympic gold medals she won as part of the American squads in Beijing and London will always stand out on her profile, the Pennsylvania-born keeper’s club career has spanned a pair of professional leagues in the States, bringing Championship jubilation in each.

For the current FC Kansas City custodian, there have been times where the elation has been replaced by a much harder feeling to stomach, but as time has gone on, her worth on the field has endured and even been enhanced. A National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) champion in 2014 and 2015, it is a calmer beat that surrounds Nicole off the field.

A keen artist, she paints the picture of a relationship she holds with music that is somewhat removed from the archetypal ‘pump-up’ vibe many athletes go for.

“I would describe myself as a person who enjoys listening to music, but at the same time, I’m not a person who gets very excited by it, if that makes sense?” she explained. “I will have music on when I am in the car, or I will put my iPod on shuffle if I go out for a long walk.”

“If I am doing work, I will sometimes put music on in the background just to have a little noise, and when I am on the plane, I will often put my iTunes on shuffle and just sit back and relax. So, I guess for me, music is more of a way to fill that quiet void, but also a way to relax.

“Most of the time, I will listen to country music and that is typically what my car radio is always set to, but I will listen to just about anything as long as it isn’t really loud and there isn’t vulgar language in it.”

The 2013 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year has always gone about her business without fanfare, but with a professional intensity and commitment that has seen her overcome injuries to remain among the most reliable and respected at the top of the women’s game. Although she may not be one of those you see walking to the locker room with big, colourful headphones, there is secret meaning for Nicole preserved in the nostalgia of the songs that reigned supreme in her childhood.

“I had an older brother, so I’m sure I tried to listen to mostly what he was at the time. I also think my sister and I were pretty into whatever was popular on the radio.

“I can remember we would sit by our stereo waiting for certain songs to come on so that we could record them on to our cassette tape to be able to listen to whenever we wanted…okay, now I’m dating myself a bit. I can also remember we had this little personal stereo player made by Fisher-Price, called a Pocket Rocker.

“You could get little mini cassettes that featured two songs by an artist. I know we had many of them, but I only really ever remember us always rocking out to The Bangles ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ and ‘Manic Monday’, Los Lobos ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Tequila’, and Tiffany ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’…okay, now I’m really dating myself.

“On top of all of that, we had a great collection of records in our family, and I seemed to always gravitate towards some in particular: Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash and Billy Joel. So it seems I had pretty good taste in my music from a young age, but honestly, who knows?

“As I got a little older, I know I started to listen to a lot of Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson and Alabama, to name a few.”

 

A Barnie before it all began: Nicole in her days on the Under-8 boys’ team.

 

The locker rooms of today can boast the energy of a dancefloor at times, whether that’s leading up to a game getting started, or when the euphoria of a win is flowing brilliantly through a team. Despite a less-than-satisfactory 2016 by the standards they had set, FC Kansas City have had much reason to celebrate and let loose in recent years.

For the consecutive NWSL titles, Nicole was keeping guard through it all and deserved every second of the on-field celebrations after the 2014 and 2015 Championship wins over Seattle Reign. She shares some of the pregame scene she has been used to, highlighting a selection of the Blues’ key playlist protagonists, beginning with an elite midfield performer who was equally missed both on and off the field last season in the first campaign since her retirement.

“Lauren Holiday, Merritt Mathias, Desiree Scott, Katelyn Rowland, to name a few. I would have to say that our FCKC locker room is probably a little more mellow than most.

“There is typically some kind of music playing, and maybe one or two people singing and dancing, but compared to other teams I have been on, a lot more laid-back with people just really chilling and getting ready.”

A double major in Studio Art and Psychology, Nicole can remember her time at Stanford with the utmost pride. From 71 games (66 starts), she set a school record by keeping 35 shutouts, as well as registering an all-time best 0.45 goals-against average.

Her achievements for the Cardinal saw her inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014 and California was a place that would become a home for her. Winning the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) Championship and the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award in a memorable 2010 season with the Bay Area-based FC Gold Pride, Nicole would enjoy further success back in The Golden State as a volunteer assistant coach when Stanford lifted the 2011 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship.

In her early days on the West Coast, there was a Maryland band who lit the live music fuse for her.

“I went to my first live show with some of my teammates when I was in college – it was an O.A.R. concert. Honestly, I don’t think I had really heard much about them prior to that, but I crammed in a study session to get to know them before we went.

“I had the opportunity to also see Kenny Chesney in concert. Garth Brooks, I have never actually seen him in a true concert, but one day I really hope to; I am anxiously awaiting his tour to make it close to me.

“However, I have had the opportunity to see him perform very small shows, and he is absolutely amazing.”

A breathtaking setting is always likely to stick in the mind but what makes our memories is the people we get to share it with. The accolades Nicole went on to earn in college are extremely impressive, although to speak of her career only in terms of highs would be to eliminate equally crucial points in the plot.

Before she would write her name in the history books, she had to contend with limited playing time as a freshman, before being hit with a serious test of resolve as she tore her ACL in 2001 with her sophomore season on the horizon. Resilience has been a co-star in her motion picture, and she would display it in abundance after having to redshirt her sophomore year.

She was twice named an NSCAA First-Team All-American, three times a First-Team All-Pac-10 player, and in 2005, she was a semi-finalist for the most prestigious individual award for collegiate players, the MAC Hermann Trophy, having also been one in 2003. Receiving that 2005 nomination alongside highly notable present-day women’s soccer names like Lori Chalupny, Carli Lloyd and Christine Sinclair, Nicole recalls the ones on her side in those days who were making some big noise of their own.

“In college, there was always music blasting in our locker room. We would hang out in there a lot together in preparation for trainings and games, and there was never a dull moment.

“It wasn’t exactly the largest of spaces for twenty-some ladies to be crammed into, so sure enough, someone was always feeling the need to entertain us. We had some pretty energetic people, but I would have to say some of the big dancers/performers were probably Natalie Spilger, Callie Withers, Marcia Wallis and Alisan Pabon.”

 

Nicole back at Stanford for her Hall of Fame induction in 2014.

 

College is a good grounding for plenty of aspects of life and Stanford was ultimately the jet bridge leading onto the flight of Nicole’s international career, after she’d represented the U.S. as an Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21. Much like her Stanford team, she didn’t have to look hard for the big characters around her, with plenty of famous faces there to deliver a performance whether there was a soccer field at their feet or not.

As she thinks back, one of those she was with recently again at FCKC takes top billing in her thoughts. The rapid winger and recent Arsenal signing has earned many mentions from teammates on here for this particular party trick of sorts in recent years, so it’s only right that 2017 follows on the tradition!

“There are always the people who think they can sing, and then people who can actually sing! I would have to say one of the most memorable may have to be HAO (Heather O’Reilly).

“Her rendition of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ is something that I will never forget; she is very intense at everything she does and this is no exception. She is always very shy about wanting to actually perform it when the song comes on and the request is made, but sure enough, she gets into form pretty quickly.

“Before you know it, her veins look as though they are going to pop right out of her neck and when she is done, you would think she just ran a long distance with how heavily she is breathing, so this is always super memorable. It never fails to lighten the mood in the locker room and is something that will never leave your memory.”

If the spotlight switched over to the FCKC co-captain and it was her who had to come up with a performance – a song cover with any current or former teammates, no less – she’d want a mix of those from some of the changing tracks her career has followed.

“Wow, this is a tough one. I would probably choose a group so that I could hide my voice a little more.

“As for actual people, Shari Summers, from Stanford, had a really great voice. Shea Groom, she has a good voice and is pretty fearless.

“Megan Rapinoe, she is musically very gifted, and I’ve always enjoyed when she performed for our team. Desiree Scott is just a fun personality that will really bring the performance to a new level.

“I highly doubt they would all agree on this, or be happy with a country selection, but I would probably have to go with a Garth Brooks song.”

During her time in the game, Nicole has been taken to numerous countries and continents, as well as tournaments and high-pressure situations like the 2011 WPS Championship shootout, in which her Philadelphia Independence team were dealt the pain of a loss to Western New York Flash. Soccer has also placed her alongside and against many of the fellow personalities that help make the women’s game what it is, but push the rewind button far enough and you’ll come to a time where Nicole had yet to meet any of those.

Born in Pottstown, she paints the multi-sport landscape she knew as home back in Pennsylvania.

“I grew up in a small town called Gilbertsville. There wasn’t a whole lot to do there, and my siblings and I spent a lot of time running around outside and playing sports.

“I’d say that baseball was and still is the major sport in that area, as Boyertown – where my high school was – is a really big baseball town. In fact, I too played baseball.

“Growing up, I actually played soccer on a boys’ club team, as there was not really a girls’ team when I started. I continued to play on that travel team as well as on my middle school and high school boys’ teams, as they didn’t have girls’ programs while I was there either.

“So, I guess you could say that soccer and sports in general played a huge part in my life growing up; school and grades were always first. Soccer itself was not all that big right where I grew up, which is why when I got a little older I travelled a bit to play on some decent girls’ club teams.

“Between all of the different teams I played on, I spent a lot of time traveling to and from training and keeping my parents busy. I always joke that my parents had no idea what they were getting into when they agreed to let me play soccer, because it didn’t take long for it to take over our family vacation and have us traveling all over the place to tournaments.”

 

Nicole competing for her high school soccer team back in 2000.

 

At Boyertown High School, Nicole had all four years on that boys’ team, featuring as both a goalkeeper and outfielder. A basketball player and an All-American in lacrosse, she has had the kind of soccer successes since that she must have dreamt about back home, but one thing that has always remained with her, besides her good grace and humility, is an aversion to that stinging feeling of being on the wrong end of a result!

She was there in the final reckoning of a Championship game in two of the three WPS seasons and she has been much more accustomed to life at a lofty height in the NWSL era, too. The 2016 season was one of change for Kansas City. Defenders Leigh Ann Brown (née Robinson), Amy LePeilbet and Meghan Lisenby, as well as midfielders Lauren Holiday and Liz Bogus had each retired, while leading goalgetter Amy Rodriguez (and her replacement Sydney Leroux) missed the year through pregnancy.

The early-season retirement of midfield lynchpin Jen Buczkowski, the only player in the league who had played every single game since its 2013 beginnings, was yet another painful hit to take, and Vlatko Andonovski’s team certainly found it challenging. Six points off the top four and the playoffs, it was a year that didn’t tick the boxes for all concerned.

While her team comes first, Nicole reminded people again why she has been held in such esteem by peers and observers alike, earning league Player of the Week recognition in July for a 14-save shutout in a 1-0 win at Western New York. Without hiding her dissatisfaction at how it panned out, she does find positives, detailing why she feels she was able to perform so well and why she will be returning for season five in similar condition.

“I hate losing, so this was a very challenging season, but at the same time, I think I personally had one of my best seasons ever and played some of my best soccer. I’ve always gone in with the mindset of controlling the things that I can control: my hard work, my attitude, my desire, my passion, my commitment, my work ethic, to name a few.

“Going in to the 2016 season, I was probably the healthiest and fittest I had been in a long time. I came in to KC early in January to work with our awesome performance trainer, Shon, at AthleteFIT, and I honestly think that was a huge part of my success.

“I came in to preseason very fit and strong, with my body moving and feeling better than it has in years, which allowed me to get sharp quickly on the goalkeeping side of things. I am a person who will give my everything to perform at my best in order to help the team.

“For me, that means putting in the extra work in and out of season in order to be able to do so. I am a player who does not like to take days off; I will go in the gym and do some cardio or lift to stay active, or even go out to the field to work on some of the technical parts of my game.

“I am that person who would stay on the field all day, and many times, coach must tell me that I’ve done enough and to get off the field and rest.”

We have come to know her as a competitor who consistently produces at club level between the posts, although when it came to the National Team, Nicole unexpectedly began all the way up the other end of the field. It was during the 2004 Fan Celebration Tour back in the U.S. after the gold success in that summer’s Olympic Games in Athens, with Mexico the opponents at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, of all places.

A senior who had just turned 23 at the time, Nicole had played for Stanford the night before the game and would head back west the next day for a game with Arizona State, but tonight she was on the bench for her country. April Heinrichs’ team led 1-0 off an Angela Hucles goal, though their scorer would have to depart after rolling her ankle in the last ten minutes. With all their outfield substitutes already used, the U.S. sent Nicole on to head up top with Abby Wambach.

Understandably not kitted out for that, she was handed some socks by Brandi Chastain, with Joy Fawcett completing things by giving her both her jersey and shorts to change into. She had played as a forward at club, regional and Olympic Development Program level, but the thought of appearing as a senior international for the first time in that role, with 20,435 in the stadium on a cold night, could surely never have entered her thinking.

Her touches were impressive and Wambach almost managed to set her up for a surreal goal on her debut. After the game, Chastain crossed out ‘Fawcett’ on the back of the jersey and wrote ‘Barnhart’ before the whole team signed it to give her a memento she still gets to smile at all this time later.

Winning competitions such as the Algarve Cup in Portugal and Four Nations Tournament in China in 2011, Nicole saved a Brittany Timko penalty in the 2008 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament final as the U.S. defeated Canada in Juarez, Mexico. She has been selected for four major tournaments in the past decade, winning bronze at the 2007 World Cup, silver at the 2011 edition, and gold at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Despite an extremely respectable tally of 54 caps, she has had a career contending for the number-one spot firstly with Briana Scurry, and then Hope Solo, along with Jill Loyden and the likes of Ashlyn Harris. Selected as recently as February 2015, Nicole last played against New Zealand in October 2013, but there have been many who feel her club form means she should still be included in Jill Ellis’ plans.

 

Nicole on National Team duty in 2013. Photo: Noah Salzman

 

She was undoubtedly one of the unsung heroes of the Olympic successes under Pia Sundhage, dedicating herself to keeping her teammates on their game, while she prepared for any opportunity that may have swept across her path. As we discussed some of the greatest lessons she has taken from her life in soccer to date, Nicole began to outline just how much persistence went into many of her National Team camps.

“Life as a number two is not easy; you will be tested in so many ways, both mentally and physically. However, just because you don’t start or don’t play, or don’t play much, doesn’t mean that your role on the team is any less than those who do play.

“Sure, they may be the ones in the games and the ones getting all the recognition for a win, but you are the one training your tail off every day in practice, doing the extra training sessions, doing the extra gym sessions, and giving your best each and every day in order to make your teammates better and prepare them for those games. Just because you may not be the number one, doesn’t mean you can’t train as if you are.

“Not only are you making the rest of the players work harder and be better, you are also mentally and physically preparing for when your chance does come, and it is best to be prepared.”

When the 1999 World Cup came around, Nicole set about convincing her parents to get cable so they could watch the U.S. in the tournament. The household would also be home to kittens who just happened to have names based around three of that successful team (Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Briana Scurry, if you were wondering)!

Dealing with six knee surgeries, one hip operation, and shoulder, neck and back disc issues along the way, it is to Nicole’s immense credit that she is still out there and leading by example through both her performances and the way in which she conducts herself. Through the moments to cry, smile or celebrate, the will has never wavered, and she has come to know the true value and strength of a support system.

Nicole says her dad taught her that if we put effort into having something in our lives, then why not 100%? She has always held that one close, so what about some of her own lessons she’d share, not just with others, but also with that Gilbertsville kid who’d grow up to surpass a half century of caps in her nation’s colours?

“Oh man, I feel like this sport has taught me and given me so much that I’m not even sure where to start. Don’t let others tell you that you cannot do something.

“You don’t always get what you want or deserve. There are a lot of things out of your control, and if you get too stuck being focused on those, then you will be unhappy.

“The harder you work, the harder others will be willing to work for you, and if you show people respect, you will earn their respect right back.”

In the second half of this interview, Nicole goes into greater detail on her time with the National Team, she remembers a college soccer challenge that could rival many assignments, she recalls the WPS days, and shares more of who she is when the game ends and she steps back over that white line.

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