Kicking off his new series of sports biographies for young readers, journalist Dan Wetzel tells the inspiring true life story of a US Women's Soccer star in Epic Athletes: Alex Morgan.
Featuring graphic-style illustrations by Cory Thomas!
Fierce competitor. World Cup winner. Role model.
U.S. Women's Soccer star Alex Morgan has earned each of these impressive titles throughout her incredible career. As a young girl growing up in Southern California, she dreamed of being a professional soccer player, fighting to compete on the international stage against the world's greatest athletes. Flash forward to the present and Alex Morgan has emerged as the face of U.S. Women's soccer, famous for her clutch, late-game goals, and an inspiration to kids across the country.
Bestselling author Dan Wetzel details the rise of an American champion in this uplifting biography for young readers, complete with dynamic comic-style illustrations.
Praise for Epic Athletes
* "An unusually informative and enjoyable sports biography for young readers." Booklist, starred review for Epic Athletes: Stephen Curry
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author Dan Wetzel has been a Yahoo Sports national columnist since 2003. He's covered events and stories around the globe, including college football, the NFL, the MLB, the NHL, the NBA, the UFC, the World Cup, and the Olympics. For years, he's been called America's best sports columnist, appeared repeatedly in the prestigious Best American Sports Writing, and been honored more than a dozen times by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Follow him on Twitter.
Read an Excerpt
A Dream Come True
They fought for 123 minutes. They fought through ninety minutes of regulation. They fought through thirty minutes of extra time. And now they were fighting both exhaustion and each other in the third minute of stoppage time, the extra few minutes added to the clock to account for injury or substitution delays.
To call it a fight wasn't an exaggeration. The women's national soccer teams of the United States and Canada had clawed and grabbed and kicked and battled. They knocked each other down in the open field. They banged into each other contesting balls in the air. They were ferocious and physical, moving back and forth and back again. Anyone who says soccer is a noncontact sport has never really played, and certainly not at this level, in the semifinals of the 2012 London Olympics.
The Canadians led three times during the match. The Americans caught up three times. It was that kind of game, 1–0 then 1–1, 2–1 then 2–2, 3–2 and now 3–3 with just thirty seconds remaining of stoppage time. If no one scored in the next half-minute, the game would go to penalty kicks, with the winner advancing to the gold medal game against Japan.
For Alex Morgan, this was more than just another game. Growing up in Diamond Bar, California, she dreamed of becoming an Olympian even before she knew what sport she wanted to play. She settled early on soccer, of course, even penning a note to her mother when she was eight about how she was going to be a professional player. Everyone thought it was cute. Alex wasn't kidding.
She climbed her way up the ranks of youth soccer. She played on her local recreational team until she was fourteen and didn't join a travel club until she reached high school. At sixteen she made the US under-17 women's national team. At eighteen she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley on a full scholarship. Now it was 2012, and she was twenty-three years old and not just a starter, but a star on the US Women's National Team (USWNT).
Her dream was coming true. Except, in that moment, it didn't feel like it.
Just a year prior, Alex played for the United States in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. In the final against Japan, she scored the game's first goal and assisted on another. However, Japan came back to tie the score and eventually force a penalty kick shootout. The Japanese won 3–1 on penalty kicks to win the World Cup. Alex and her teammates were crushed. It was the toughest loss of their lives. It was a reminder of how small the difference is between glory and defeat.
Now, one year later, Alex could feel the same thing happening in the Olympics — that the game was headed to a shootout. Victory was slipping from her grasp, and she was here to win. So were her teammates. They believed the United States had the best soccer team in the world. They needed to prove it, though. That meant beating Canada.
Alex was tall, fast, and talented. She would record twenty-eight goals and twenty-one assists in 2012, leading the USWNT in both categories. She was young, but she expected herself to deliver in the big moments of games. This was the biggest of moments. No one on the team was interested in letting an Olympic final berth be decided on penalty kicks, where anything could happen. They'd been through that heartbreak in the World Cup. They couldn't have it happen again. Alex knew what she had to do.
"I'm a forward," Alex said. "And as a forward, we are supposed to score."
If the World Cup is the ultimate stage in soccer, the Olympics are only slightly less significant. Every kid around the world grows up dreaming of winning an Olympic gold. Now, a long way from those rec fields in California, here was Alex's chance. The game took place in Manchester, England, at a stadium called Old Trafford, which is home to the famed Manchester United Football Club. Since the stadium has hosted so many great games and great players over the years, it's been dubbed the "Theatre of Dreams."
The US rivalry with Canada also added to the pressure of the moment. Along with Japan, Canada was the United States' chief competition at the time. They played each other often, both during exhibition games, called "friendlies," and during the World Cup qualifying matches. Many elite Canadian players also compete on club, or travel, teams in the United States as they grow up, seeking top competition. On her own club team, Alex was even teammates with Christine Sinclair, Canada's captain and best player. Sinclair had scored all three of Canada's goals in the Olympic game and was doing everything she could to will Canada to victory.
Familiarity and friendships meant nothing during this game. The stakes were too high. No one was backing down.
"I just wanted to beat Canada so bad," Alex said.
After all those minutes of playing on the field, Alex was exhausted, but undeterred. She was banged up, but she wouldn't let it bother her. The US had to win. So with thirty seconds remaining, when teammate Heather O'Reilly got the ball on the right flank and lobbed a cross into the goal box, Alex Morgan was focused: "I knew it was our last chance."
She tracked the ball as it soared across the field. She thought about what she needed to do. "Get in front of your player," Alex told herself. "Get your head or some body part on the ball."
Six yards in front of the center of the net, she did just that, out-leaping two defenders — one in front of her, one coming in from behind. Just as she had trained and practiced for years and years, she timed the jump perfectly. As she reached the top of her leap, the ball struck her forehead. She flicked it toward the goal.
The Canadian goalie made a critical error. She either could have stayed back and defended the goal line, or come forward and tried to punch the ball away before Alex got her head on it. Instead the goalie hesitated for a split second, uncertain of what to do. As a result, she took two steps forward, then tried to retreat to the line. The mistake gave Alex the chance to make her move.
Alex's header sailed just over the outstretched arms of the leaping Canadian goalie and just under the crossbar. It was the perfect shot. Anything just slightly higher or slightly lower would have been saved. This one wasn't.
"Oh, it's in!" the announcer screamed. "Alex Morgan has done it! Barely thirty seconds to go!"
United States 4, Canada 3.
Alex was knocked to the ground on the play, and when she got back to her feet she was too tired to run off to the sideline even to celebrate with her teammates. Old Trafford erupted into cheers, and the Canadians fell to their knees in disappointment and exhaustion. As the other American players raced toward Alex in excitement, she simply stood there with her arms raised and a smile on her face. Her teammates embraced her. They hugged. They laughed. They told one another "I love you." Soon Alex found herself actually crying, something she wasn't used to doing on a soccer field.
That's how tired she was. Moments later the game was over. The United States was headed to the Olympic finals to play Japan.
"I can't recall ever feeling this way after scoring a goal," said Alex that night. Scoring it, she said, was the product of years of hard work. Not just training and perfecting her header, but all the wind sprints, all the weight lifting, all the work. "It was about who is the fittest, who is the strongest," Alex said.
Days later, the US would defeat Japan 2–1 in the Olympic finals at Wembley Stadium in London, exacting a measure of revenge for their World Cup defeat the year before. Alex had an assist. When it was over, she climbed a podium, had a gold medal draped around her neck, and proudly listened as "The Star Spangled Banner" rang out into the London night.
Alex Morgan's soccer dream was now very much real.CHAPTER 2
Alexandra Patricia Morgan was born on July 2, 1989, in a hospital in San Dimas, California, about thirty miles east of Los Angeles. She was the third child and third daughter to Pamela and Michael Morgan. Her oldest sister, Jenny, was six, and Jeri was four. With two daughters already, her parents had been hoping for a son. Since her dad had picked out the name Alexander for a boy, they decided to name their third daughter Alexandra.
Michael owned a construction company and the family lived in Diamond Bar, California, which was a pleasant suburb of fifty thousand residents. When people think of Southern California, they often think about the beach, but Diamond Bar is at least an hour's drive from the Pacific Ocean. It is dominated by hills, canyons, and tightly packed neighborhoods. It is more of your classic Los Angeles suburb, with nice houses, quiet streets, and lots of shopping centers. The Morgans had a swimming pool and were always inviting friends over. Or they'd walk through Sycamore Canyon Park and pick tadpoles out of the creek. For Alex and her sisters, it was an ideal place to grow up — safe and fun — where you could ride bikes through the winding streets and know almost all the other kids. Then there were the sports.
"Growing up on the West Coast, I think there was so much opportunity to play," Alex said. "Most sports were available to us. I know that isn't always the case, especially for girls, everywhere in America and certainly not around the world. We were lucky."
The Morgan family was a constant presence in the Diamond Bar recreational sports leagues. They'd play almost any sport: softball, volleyball, track, basketball, and of course, soccer. It seemed like the entire family was in a constant state of motion, racing from one practice to the next, one game to another. And that was just the organized leagues. The girls and the other kids from the neighborhood would also get pick-up games going. When Alex's dad got home from work, he'd play catch with the girls out in the yard, or take everyone to local Anaheim Angels baseball games. For a few years, the family had season tickets. On other nights, the family would compete in ferocious board games, with ultracompetitive Alex wanting to win every time.
As the youngest, Alex was often in her older sisters' shadows. She loved them both, but all sisters argue and fight with each other sometimes. Constantly being referred to as "Jeri's kid sister" or "Jenny's baby sister" made Alex want to stand out. That didn't take long in sports. Both Jenny and Jeri were good athletes. Alex was on another level, though — better than people were used to seeing in Diamond Bar. First off, she was fast. By the time she was five or six, she could beat most of the kids in her neighborhood in a foot race, and that included the boys. There was nothing Alex liked more than beating boys, especially ones a year or two older. She wasn't just fast for a girl. She was fast. Period.
Alex was also an excellent softball player, which was her first love. She played on teams coached by her dad. She had excellent hand-eye coordination, and when she hit the ball she would dash around the bases with ease. Soccer eventually became her favorite sport; she found the constant movement and opportunity to showcase her speed exhilarating.
Alex played in the Diamond Bar rec leagues, under the direction of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). She was so fast at such a young age she was nicknamed "Mighty Mouse." Many girls by the time they are eight or nine have begun playing travel, or club, soccer. The teams are well organized. There is a fulltime coach. You need to try out to make the team. The uniforms are often cool. Sometimes they are affiliated with big-name soccer teams, whether Major League Soccer (MLS) teams in the United States, such as the Columbus Crew or the LA Galaxy, or from Europe, such as Liverpool Football Club or Bayern Munich. Practices can be two or three times a week, with games on the weekend. Sometimes there are out-of-town tournaments where everyone stays in a hotel and you might play two or three times in a weekend. At the highest levels, you compete regionally across states or even nationally. It's fun. It can also be a serious, and stressful, business.
Alex didn't play club soccer. She played rec and continued on as a multisport athlete — track, basketball, and still some softball. "I didn't want to commit to one sport," Alex said. "I had fun playing all of them." She wasn't getting the best training or facing the toughest competition in soccer, but that didn't mean she wasn't taking her development seriously. Her father took coaching lessons to learn the sport. They bought a small goal for their yard and he would put Alex through lots of drills, especially focusing on shooting the ball to precise targets. She also continued to run, both on a track team and doing speed drills with a private coach. Mostly though, she got to play soccer with her friends and develop a true love of the game. Occasionally, her father had to push her to keep working, but Alex would almost always respond positively.
During her years in middle school, Alex dominated her rec league. She was practicing every day and had so much physical ability, speed, and skill that the other kids couldn't keep up. She could score almost any time she wanted. Rec sports are intended mostly for fun and by this point it was clear: Alex needed to go bigger if she was going to maximize her potential.
"I knew if I was going to get better, I had to challenge myself," she said.
The difference between rec soccer and club soccer is considerable, though. Alex was thirteen when she first tried out for a nearby club team. She was used to playing with her friends, being the star, and winning games. But all those goals she scored in rec soccer no longer mattered. She didn't make the cut. The coaches believed she had potential, but she was extremely raw. Soccer requires intricate skills to deftly handle the ball, whether it is a first touch when receiving a pass or a step-over to win a one-on-one matchup. These are abilities soccer players hone over years of repetition. There is no shortcut, even when you are Alex Morgan. She couldn't just run by everyone. The other girls had been playing club soccer for four, five, even six years or more. Alex was given a spot on the team as a practice player and essentially told that if she worked out for a full year with the club, she might be able to get into games at some point.
"Reality slapped me in the face," Alex said.
Practicing but not playing didn't sound like much fun, but Alex took what she was offered. She vowed to come to training every day, get better, and prove herself to the coaches. It was tough. Practice was a thirty-minute drive from her home. The other kids knew the drills better. She didn't have any friends on the team. She was the new girl and didn't find anyone who was particularly friendly to her. Being a thirteen-year-old is never easy, and practicing without any support from others on the team made the situation even more difficult.
For three months, she trained. While she thought she was improving, the coaches didn't think she had improved enough to play in any actual games. She never got a chance to prove herself on the field. None of the other girls tried to be her friend. She was lonely and frustrated. Soccer had always been a source of joy for her. This was the opposite. It wasn't going to work.
As Alex turned fourteen and entered high school, she knew she had to find a club team where she fit in. Despite setbacks, she refused to give up on her dream. That's when she heard about Cypress Elite Futbol Club in Orange County, California. It had a good reputation. She went to an open tryout and walked on the field a bit uncertain and very anxious. She needed to make this work. She had no idea what would happen. Was she going to be cut again? Was she going to be told she wasn't good enough? Standing there watching was coach Dave Sabet, who was quickly amazed at this raw but extremely fast and physically skilled prospect.
"She just blew by all my club players," Coach Sabet told USA Today, describing Alex's first tryout. "But the thing about her was, she didn't have any sort of idea. No skill. She just had phenomenal speed."
Coach Sabet didn't hesitate, though. Speed was enough. With her natural talent, she was clay that he could mold. Alex made the team. The challenge wasn't over. She was playing with and against kids who had spent about half their lives playing elite club soccer. They weren't just honing their technical skills, but at this point they were learning how to play tactically. A great soccer player is someone who knows how to move without the ball, where to place the ball when passing, and how to not just connect with their teammates but how to play off them. You have to learn to think about the game and understand in advance how a play will unfold so you are in position when the ball comes to you.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Epic Athletes: Alex Morgan"
Copyright © 2019 Dan Wetzel.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A Dream Come True,
2. Early Years,
3. College Recruitment,
6. Rising Up,
8. 2011 World Cup,
About the Author,