2021 NWSL Timeline: Five male coaches ousted due to misconduct, abuse allegations

2021 NWSL timeline: Portland Timbers fans set off red smoke in support of the NWSL womens soccer players as their ongoing protest over the sexual harassment scandal
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During 2021, five of the NWSL’s 10 teams have seen male head coaches either fired or forced to resign as a result of non-soccer reasons, including alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, racist remarks, and perpetuating a toxic work culture. A sixth team – NJ/NY Gotham FC – terminated its general manager.

Players have also condemned racism in the NWSL, a league where the majority of coaches, owners, and executives are white men.

The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) – which is currently attempting to negotiate the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement – has demanded an end to “systemic abuse plaguing the NWSL.”

To help unpack how the NWSL reached this moment of reckoning – and to highlight the in-depth reporting that brought these league-wide issues to light – here is a timeline of key off-the-field moments from the 2021 NWSL season. While this timeline focuses on 2021, the issues exposed in recent months were built on a foundation years in the making.


NWSL introduces anti-harassment policy

April 2021: The NWSL created its first anti-harassment policy. The very first line of the policy states the NWSL’s commitment to “creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment that is free from all forms of harassment (including sexual harassment) and discrimination.”

As the Athletic‘s Meg Linehan would later report, 240 players – organized by Alex Morgan – had sent then-NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird a letter in March 2021 demanding “nine specific elements to ensure safe and inclusive workplaces, including multiple avenues to submit complaints and assurances that the league would protect any player from retaliation.” The league’s new anti-harassment policy was established as a result of these demands.

After the new anti-harassment policy was introduced, former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim reached out to Baird to request a new investigation into North Carolina head coach Paul Riley‘s behavior. Their request was denied (more below).


NWSL player Sarah Gorden details racial profiling

April 10, 2021: Chicago Red Stars player Sarah Gorden posted on Twitter that she and her boyfriend were racially profiled after an April 9th game against the Houston Dash.

“My boyfriend came to our game against the Houston Dash. After the game he came down the steps to talk to me. We were immediately [before he was close to me] followed by security and told he would be arrested if he came close,” Gorden tweeted. “At first I didn’t realize this was a racial issue until I saw white Houston Dash players surrounding the stadium talking closely to their family and we were the only ones targeted,” Gorden continued.

Later in the day, the Houston Dash issued a statement that – rather than addressing Gorden’s claim of racial profiling – highlighted the violation of COVID-19 protocols. “[W]e would like to assure [Gorden] and the Red Stars organization that our staff was entirely focused on COVID safety,” the initial statement read.

April 12, 2021: The Houston Dash published a second statement, which noted that the “initial statement was off the mark” and apologized to Gorden. The second statement – which did not directly acknowledge Gorden’s claim of racial profiling – went on to say that the club was cooperating with the league’s formal investigation.

April 13, 2021: The NWSL officially announced an investigation “under its anti-discrimination policy” to look into Gorden’s allegations. According to the league, the investigation began on April 10, a day after the incident.

Also on April 13: The NWSL announced multiple decisions made by its disciplinary committee. Included in the list are fines for NJ/NY Gotham City and the Chicago Red Stars for “violation of a league directive.”

While the NWSL did not specify the reason for the fines, multiple reports indicated that they were the result of Red Stars co-owner Sarah Spain and then-Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue expressing their support for Gorden publicly on Twitter after the league had asked team staff members to refrain commenting on the incident.

May 4, 2021: The NWSL announced that, following its investigation into Gorden’s claims, no action would be taken against the Houston Dash. “Following multiple interviews with witnesses and a review of the venue security footage, the investigation was closed,” the league said in a statement.

The lack of transparency in the league’s announcement fueled further outrage from NWSL fans, As reporter Steph Yang pointed out in this All for XI story, the league has a history of failing to investigate racist incidents.

“This is another brick in the wall of noncommunication from NWSL,” Yang wrote. “Allowances must be made for confidentiality and sensitivity, certainly. But when fans immediately and consistently react with outright skepticism to league statements, that’s a signal that NWSL has a communication problem. When it comes to issues of racism, harassment, player protection, and safety protocols, ambiguity is nobody’s friend.”


Farid Benstiti resigns as OL Reign head coach

July 2, 2021: OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti resigned.

“We are appreciative of Farid’s many contributions to the club over the past 18 months and wish him the best in all his future endeavors,” OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said in a statement released by the club. “We have great respect for Farid’s talents and all he brought to the organization, but in our recent conversations there was a collective agreement that new leadership was required to achieve the performances and results needed to satisfy our ambitions.”

Three months later, the Washington Post would report new details surrounding Benstiti’s departure (see below).


NJ/NY Gotham FC terminates general manager Alyse LaHue

July 16, 2021: NJ/NY Gotham FC announced that it had fired general manager Alyse LaHue on July 9th. According to the team’s statement, the decision was made “based on the results of a league investigation into a complaint of violation of league policy.”

A report published by the Athletic said the investigation was related to the league’s new anti-harassment policy. “Following a complaint, the league conducted an investigation and shared the findings of that investigation with Gotham FC,” an NWSL spokesperson told the Athletic. “Those findings will remain confidential and the league will not comment further on individual club personnel matters.”

LaHue has denied the allegations.


Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke steps down due to “health concerns”

August 10, 2021: The Washington Spirit announced that Richie Burke was stepping down from his head coaching duties and would been reassigned to the Spirit front office.

“Yesterday Richie advised me of some health concerns and we mutually agreed that it was in the best interests of him and of the club for him to step down as our coach. Once Richie’s health improves, he will join the sporting operations front office staff,” Larry Best, the Spirit’s President of Sporting Operations, said in a statement. (While this statement has since been deleted from the Spirit’s website, it can still be viewed here.)

August 11, 2021: One day Burke was allowed to step down, Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post published a story in which former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough alleged that Burke’s racist language and verbal and emotional abuse caused her to leave the team. According to the Washington Post‘s report, McCullough was one of at least four players to leave the Spirit in the last two years due to Burke’s treatment.

“I was 100 percent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” McCullough told the Washington Post. “He created this environment where I knew I wasn’t playing as well because I was so, so scared to mess up and be yelled at. It crippled my performance, and it made me super anxious. He made me hate soccer.”

After Hensley-Clancy’s report was published, the Spirit suspended Burke, pending an investigation.

Mid-August: The Washington Spirit announced multiple decisions – from signing IntelliBridge as a jersey sponsor to hiring UNC women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance as a new advisor – that resulted in fan outrage. A more in-depth timeline of the Spirit’s history – compiled by the Athletic – can be found here.

August 30, 2021: In a story for the Washington Post, Molly Hensley-Clancy and Steven Goff reported on an ongoing power struggle between the Washington Spirit co-owners Steve Baldwin and Y. Michele Kang.


Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly terminated “for cause”

August 31, 2021: Racing Louisville FC – an expansion team that began playing in the NWSL in 2021 – announced that head coach Christy Holly‘s contract had been terminated “for cause.”


Washington Spirit power struggle ramps up, head coach Richie Burke fired

September 2, 2021: The Washington Spirit hired Ben Olsen – a former D.C. United Player with no prior experience in women’s soccer – to serve as president of team operations. The Spirit press release included comments from co-owners Steve Baldwin, Bill Lynch, and investor Devin Talbott, but – notably – not Y. Michele Kang.

September 4, 2021: The Washington Spirit’s game against the Portland Thorns was postponed due to multiple COVID-19 cases within the Spirit.

A D.C. sports radio host Chris Russell, who doesn’t typically report on the NWSL but had hosted Baldwin on his podcast earlier in the year, posted on Twitter that Kang was under investigation due to allegations related to the league’s new anti-harassment policy. Russell also tweeted that Kang – who is Asian American – had held a “dumpling making party” that had led to the COVID outbreak on the team. This portrayal was called out as racist and later debunked by the Equalizer, which reported that the team’s outbreak began after one of the team’s many unvaccinated players travelled out of market and then failed to properly isolate upon her return.

Also on September 4: Meg Linehan of the Athletic reported that Larry Best filed an anti-harassment complaint concerning Spirit co-owner Y. Michele Kang.

September 22, 2021: Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post reported that the NWSL’s investigation into the Washington Spirit had “widened to include allegations of a toxic work culture for female employees.” According to the Hensley-Clancy’s story, the culture was especially toxic for women of color.

September 28, 2021: Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke – who had previously been allowed to step down due to “health concerns” – was fired following an investigation that the NWSL commissioned.

“After considering the substance of the report, and taking into account prior actions of the Spirit, the NWSL’s board of governors has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the League,” the NWSL said in a statement. “The board has further concluded that representatives for the Washington Spirit will not be permitted to participate in League governance matters, effective immediately, and has initiated a process pursuant to which Washington Soccer Properties, LLC, must respond to the violation notice issued by the board within 14 days.”

While full details of the investigation were not made public, Hensley-Clancy reported that “Baldwin, Burke and president of sporting operations Larry Best had created a culture in the club that prevented multiple players and employees from speaking up.”

The Post‘s report continued: “Investigators also heard allegations that Baldwin hired unqualified friends for jobs at the club and that multiple male employees made misogynistic comments in the presence of female colleagues, those people said. Multiple people also raised concerns to investigators that Baldwin had “rage traded” multiple Spirit players whom he perceived to have defied him or been disloyal, two people briefed on the investigation said.”


Courage head coach Paul Riley accused of sexual coercion and emotional abuse 

September 30, 2021: The Athletic‘s Meg Linehan published a report in which former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim accused North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse.

Riley – who denied the allegations to the Athletic – was fired hours later.

The Athletic’s report detailed how Shim filed a complaint with the Portland Thorns (where Riley was then head coach) in September 2015, which was a factor in Riley’s contract not being renewed. That said, when Riley was let go, the Thorns issued a statement thanking him for “his services to the club.”

According to the Athletic, the Thorns’ investigation into Riley’s behavior was shared with the NWSL, but Riley was hired by a new team – the now-defunct Western New York Flash – five months later. The North Carolina Courage was founded in 2017 after the owner acquired the Flash’s rights, and Riley moved to North Carolina to lead the team.

After the NWSL introduced its first anti-harassment policy earlier this year, Farrelly and Shim contacted the NWSL to request a new investigation into Riley’s behavior. Both players were told by NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird that the 2015 complaint was “investigated to conclusion.”

After Baird issued a statement in which she said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the allegations, USWNT star and Orlando Pride player Alex Morgan posted screenshots of the April 2021 email exchange in which Farrelly reported “extremely inappropriate conduct by Mr. Riley” in a letter to Baird.

Also on September 30: In response to the allegations against Riley, the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) issued a statement, calling on the NWSL to take action and listing three specific demands. “The NWSL has failed us. We are taking our power back,” the statement read.

Individual players also called for change. “Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll,” Megan Rapinoe wrote on Twitter.


NWSL fallout continues

October 1, 2021: The NWSL – following calls from the Players Association – announced that the games scheduled for October 2 and 3 had been postponed.

Also on October 1: FIFA and U.S. Soccer announced that they were opening investigations into the allegations against Riley.

By the end of the day, Lisa Baird had resigned as NWSL commissioner.


New details emerge about Benstiti’s resignation

October 2, 2021: Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post reported new details surrounding the departure of former OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti, who had resigned from his role in early July.

According to Hensley-Clancy, “Benstiti had been the subject of a formal complaint of verbal abuse made by a player, two sources with knowledge of the situation told The Post, after the French coach allegedly made inappropriate comments to players regarding their fitness and nutrition.”

Hensley-Clancy also reported that OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore – who had publicly praised Benstiti’s contributions to the club in early July – had requested Benstiti’s resignation after being told of the inappropriate comments. “Predmore said the team investigated that allegation and requested Benstiti’s resignation, and he said he found out about the formal complaint to the NWSL only after doing so,” Hensley-Clancy wrote.

Back in March, USWNT member and current Portland Thorns player Lindsey Horan discussed her time under Benstiti at Paris Saint-Germain in an appearance on Butterfly Road, a podcast hosted by North Carolina Courage player Cari Roccaro. In the episode, Horan detailed how the team’s coaching staff created an unhealthy environment that shamed players for how much they weighed and forced athletes onto diets.

According to Hensley-Clancy, the OL Reign had “instituted a zero-tolerance policy” with Bensistiti after learning of Horan’s allegations.


NWSL announces new executive committee

October 3, 2021: The NWSL announced the formation of a three-woman executive committee to oversee the league’s front office operations. The committee includes Amanda Duffy (Orlando Pride), Angie Long (Kansas City), and Sophie Sauvage (OL Reign).


Washington Spirit players call for Steve Baldwin to sell the team

October 5, 2021: In a statement posted on the Washington Spirit’s Twitter account, Steve Baldwin said he was resigning as CEO and managing partner, and handing “full authority over all club operations” to Ben Olsen. However, Baldwin’s statement did not indicate whether he would be selling his stake of the club.

Later on October 5: Players on the Washington Spirit respond to Baldwin’s statement, requesting that he sell his stake to co-owner Y. Michele Kang.

“When we asked you to step aside, step back from management, we clearly meant you should not retain any management control,” the players’ statement read. “We are sure you understood that.”

The statement continued: “Let us be clear. The person we trust is Michele. She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intended to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”

The Spirit players’ statement also called out Baldwin’s decision to leave Olsen in charge given that Olsen “has virtually no experience in the role you left to him.”


NWSL players continue calls for change, systemic reform

October 6, 2021: The NWSL returns to competition. Six minutes into each of the night’s three games, players paused and gathered at the center of each field. The NWSL Players Association released a statement saying that the moment of solidarity was “in honor of the 6 years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all those who fought for too long to be heard.”

As part of the statement, the NWSLPA listed eight demands, including calling on every NWSL coach, general manager, board of governors representative, and owner to “voluntarily submit to the Players Association’s independent investigation into abusive conduct.”

Also on October 6: Players on the Portland Thorns issued a joint statement on social media demanding that the team’s general manager, Gavin Wilkinson, be placed on administrative leave until an investigation concludes.

Within an hour, the Portland Thorns issued a statement that Wilkinson was on administrative leave “from Thorns duties” but left the door open for Wilkinson to continue working with the Timbers.

October 8, 2021: Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough published an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which she further details her experience with the league’s “toxic culture.”

“The men who made up so much of team leadership used fear and bullying to maintain control of the club. Racist and degrading nicknames emanated from the front office. My coach emotionally abused me,” McCullough wrote.

She continued: “I have been playing soccer for 18 years, and I have never experienced a demand for total upheaval like this one. It’s an overwhelmingly positive thing, but it took trauma and suffering to get here. Only real, far-reaching change dictated by players themselves can honor that.”


2021 NWSL championship game relocated

October 13, 2021: The NWSL and NWSLPA – in a joint statement – announced that the 2021 NWSL championship game scheduled for November 20, 2021, would be moved from Portland to Louisville.

When Portland was announced as host earlier this year, players drew issue with the early 9am start time (the result of a TV window on CBS).

“Portland understood the importance of listening to the players, and Louisville stepped up to host. Players embraced the opportunity to kickoff at noon local time in a fantastic venue,” the joint statement read.

The statement also said the league and Players Association had “worked to come to an agreement on several of the demands set forth by the PA last week.” The two parties agreed to a five-day extension to reach an outcome on the remaining items.


Marla Messing named interim CEO of NWSL

October 18, 2021: Marla Messing was appointed as interim CEO of the NWSL. According to the league’s announcement, “Messing will oversee the day-to-day operations and work in close coordination with the board of governors to execute on key initiatives that will promote actionable, sustainable change and measurable progress across the league.”


Report: Washington Spirit training at a high school

October 25, 2021: The Athletic reported that the Washington Spirit have been training at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, following a dispute between Spirit ownership and D.C. United. Read the full report here.


NWSL agrees to NWSLPA demands

October 29, 2021: The NWSLPA announced that the NWSL had agreed to the eight demands issued by the Players Association in the wake of the sexual coercion allegations against former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley. “Each of these demands is seen by the players as one step closer to the goal of taking our league back,” NWSLPA president Tori Huster said in a statement.


Washington Spirit struggle continues

October 30, 2021: Larry Best, the Washington Spirit’s President of Sporting Operations, resigned from the club. An independent investigation into the Spirit earlier this year found Best had violated the NWSL’s safe workplace and anti-harassment policies.

November 3, 2021: After co-owner Steve Baldwin announced his intent to sell his stake in the team, the Athletic’s Pablo Maurer and Steph Yang reported that the Washington Spirit was in exclusive sale negotiations with The St. James, a sports and performance center in suburban D.C. According to the report, current Spirit co-owner Y. Michele Kang had submitted a proposal to buy out fellow investors at a valuation of $21 million, $5 million more than the valuation submitted by the St. James group.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: NWSL trades expose need for CBA, free agency


Fifth NWSL coach ousted: Rory Dames resigns hours before abuse allegations are published

November 20, 2021: The Washington Spirit (led by interim coach Kris Ward) defeated the Chicago Red Stars (coached by Rory Dames) 2-1 in extra time to win the 2021 NWSL championship.

November 22, 2021: At 12:54am ET, the Chicago Red Stars issued a press release announcing the resignation of head coach Rory Dames. Dames, who had been hired as Red Stars head coach in 2011 when the team was part of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, had been the NWSL’s longest tenured coach.

In the Red Stars’ statement, Dames said he was resigning in order to “[refocus] my attention to my family and future endeavors…” The press release also included a quote attributed to the Chicago Red Stars – instead of an owner or other team official – stating, “Under Rory’s leadership we have been a remarkably consistent and excellent club on the field.”

November 22, 2021: At 4:14pm ET, Washington Post reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy published a story in which seven players, including Christen Press, Jen Hoy, and Sam Johnson, alleged that Dames had been verbally and emotionally abusive as a coach.

According to the Post’s report, Press said she first spoke up about Dames in 2014 in a meeting with then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. As a member of the U.S. women’s national team, Press was employed by U.S. Soccer – not the NWSL – when she played for Dames/Chicago Red Stars from 2014-2017.

Press told Dames that she wanted to be traded in 2017, and the following year, she filed a formal complaint with U.S. Soccer, which resulted in an investigation. According to the Post’s report: “The federation took no apparent action, and it continued to pay national team players to play for Dames with the Red Stars. Former players, including Press, said they never heard another word from the federation.”

“For so many women in this league, you think you don’t have any worth,” Press told the Post. “And if you stand up and you say what you think is right or wrong, nobody cares.” Press also said she felt Dames created a power dynamic in which gender played a major role.

This story will continue to be updated.


ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: New fund will help NWSL players cover living expenses, mental health services

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Protect the dream: Paralympic champion Mallory Weggemann on her journey to motherhood

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At the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships late last year, five-time Paralympic medalist Mallory Weggemann took on a new challenge: competing at 26 weeks pregnant. For the latest edition of Chasing Gold (Sunday, January 29th at 2pm ET on NBC), Weggemann shared her experience balancing competition with her plans for parenthood, both as an elite athlete and a woman with a disability. For On Her Turf, she shares more on that journey in her own words.

When news broke that the 2020 Paralympic & Olympic Games would be postponed a year to 2021, I felt the weight of what that meant for my personal life – a delayed Games meant the dream my husband and I held so close in our hearts of becoming parents would also be postponed. For the first time in my career, I found myself asking: To what end? How much more was I willing to sacrifice for my athletic career?

I have loved the sport of swimming since I first got behind the starting blocks when I was seven years old. It is the place that welcomed me home after my paralysis at the age of 18 and in 2009, when I was 20 years old, I was proudly named to my first national team. I never anticipated the places that sport would carry me, let alone to the top of the Paralympic podium. But on that day in March of 2020, I felt torn. I knew a year wasn’t just simply another 365 days. For my husband and I, it could determine whether we’d be able to have children of our own.

In 2017, the year after our wedding, we found out that we are among the 1 in 8 couples in the United States that are impacted by infertility. Following medical testing, we learned that my husband has azoospermia. In nonmedical language: he has significantly decreased sperm production, and without surgical intervention his sperm count is zero.

One year can last an eternity when you feel as if time isn’t on your side, but my husband and I chose to stay steadfast and hold onto this dream we’d been pursuing for nearly four years. With that decision, and thoughts of our Little One in our hearts, we decided that the journey to Tokyo was a family affair, even if our family wasn’t physically complete just yet.

Also from On Her Turf: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin Q+A: Two-time Olympian gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

“Protect the dream” became our motto – it was our rallying cry as we kept these two dreams alive simultaneously: parenthood and elite competition. I first became a Paralympic gold medalist at the London 2012 Games, but after a near career-ending injury in 2014 that resulted in permanent nerve damage to my left arm, I fell short of a medal in Rio. Our fight to make it back atop the Paralympic podium had been over 8 years in the making. But going into Tokyo, we also knew each day we continued in that fight, we did so at the risk of losing our window to have children of our own. So, we held onto hope, filled each day with love, and made a conscious decision to protect the dream at all costs.

In September of 2021 I returned home and as my husband and I embraced for the first time in nearly a month I shared with him the two golds and silver that we won in Tokyo. While one dream was realized, we immediately transitioned to continue in our effort to protect the other as we fought to become parents. Within a month we were starting the process to begin IVF, a journey that was unlike anything we were prepared for.

Navigating through infertility felt daunting on so many fronts. My husband was looking at a world that had built up so much unnecessary stigma around male factor infertility, while I was figuring out how to navigate planning IVF cycles around my athletic career. And as a couple, we faced the reality that while we were committed to this journey, there was no guarantee.

Very quickly, we found ourselves in the depths of IVF: a process that brought two egg retrievals, a micro-TESE surgery for my husband, hormonal treatment for endometriosis, the grief that comes with navigating an unsuccessful transfer, a mock transfer cycle, an operative hysteroscopy and, to date, over 700 injections. Yet here we are, all these months later, joyfully preparing for the arrival of our Little One in March.

Throughout this journey we have been vocal about our infertility, because for us we intimately know that representation matters. I, a woman with a disability, don’t see women that look like me celebrated as mothers in our society. As a female athlete, there is the added challenge of timing something as unpredictable as infertility and motherhood within a quad between Games, let alone one that’s now three years rather than four. That’s not to mention the fact that many female athletes still feel the pressure to keep our family planning private out of concern that it will impact our careers. My husband, a man with infertility, isn’t represented in the conversation of reproductive health. We know we aren’t alone. There are other individuals with disabilities yearning to become parents. Other female athletes who are looking for a path forward to show them it doesn’t have to be an either/or when it comes to their athletic career and desire to become mothers. And the truth is, male factor infertility makes up 50% of the cases of infertility among couples. So, we have decided to share – because you can’t change the narrative if you never speak truth to it.

We know the journey is far from over – while we are expecting our first child, we are simultaneously laying plans to give ourselves a chance at another child in the future, because the reality of infertility is that you have to live in the simultaneous. And as we eagerly plan for Little One’s arrival, we also do so in a world that wasn’t built for a family unit like ours – society still has a hard time envisioning me, a woman with a disability, as capable of being a mother. So not only are we learning what adaptive parenting will look like – we are doing so in a world that is still filled with unconscious bias towards disability. And, as exciting as it is that the Paris 2024 Games are next year, in many ways I still feel the pressure as a female athlete to remind people that becoming a mother this year doesn’t mean I am retiring.

When I first made the U.S. national team at the age of 20, I never imaged I would be named to my 13th national team at 31 weeks pregnant. That is only possible because of the fierce women who came before me and while it is remarkable to see how far we have come, the conversation is far from over. What does that mean: It means we’ll keep having it. And representing that conversation will be the fuel that motivates me as we continue to “protect the dream,” fighting to return to the top of the Paralympic podium. The only difference this time is that Little One will be physically with us, in the stands in my husband’s arms, cheering mama on as I get behind the starting blocks.

U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin Q+A: Two-time Olympian gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

Maggie Voisin (USA) during the freestyle skiing-womens slopestyle qualification of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games
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Warning: This piece contains discussion around suicide.

Growing up in Whitefish, Montana, put freeskier Maggie Voisin on a nearly predestined path to become some sort of professional skier. It’s a path she loves, by the way, and one that she’s backed up with a slew of notable results during her nearly 10-year career on the U.S. Ski Team.

Since joining the U.S. team as a 15-year-old, Voisin’s been named to three U.S. Olympic teams, and she’s posted two top-five results in freeski slopestyle in two Winter Games appearances, finishing fourth in 2018 in PyeongChang and fifth in 2022 in Beijing, where she also placed 15th in freeski big air. She’s notched 15 World Cup top 10s, including a slopestyle win at Mammoth in 2017 and five other podium finishes, and she’s competed in three world championships, recording two top 10s in big air, placing ninth in Aspen in 2021 and eighth in 2019 at The Canyons (now Park City Mountain) in Utah.

Ahead of her 11th X Games appearance this week in Aspen, Colo., the two-time X Games gold medalist (she won the freeski slopestyle at Aspen 2018 and Norway 2020) talked with On Her Turf about the upcoming season, her blossoming film career and coming back from a string of heartbreaking injuries — including fracturing her right fibula during a training run at the 2014 Sochi Olympics when she was just 15. This week also marks the two-year anniversary of her brother Michael’s death by suicide, and Voisin gets candid about her loss, the lessons she’s learned, and the perspective shift she experienced during her most recent trip to the Olympics in Beijing.

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Heading into your 11th X Games, could you share some overall thoughts about the event and what X Games means to you?

Maggie Voisin: It’s really hard to put into words, what X Games means, especially as an action sport athlete. It’s the pinnacle of action sports, and since I was 12 years old, it was my dream to be in the X Games. And here I am, you know? My first X Games was nine years ago, in 2014, and it’s just crazy to think that my dream has come true. And I’ve been able to relive it year after year. So, coming into Aspen, I always try to hold on to like that gratitude of what X Games has meant to me as a child and what it’s meant to me throughout my entire career.

OHT: This is your first competition since the Olympics last February… What did you work on in the offseason and what might 2023 look like for you?

Voisin: Last year was just a wild season. I was trying to qualify for the Olympics, I was also kind of nursing a couple injuries. So mentally, emotionally, physically, last year was a lot. I’m super grateful. It was a lot, though. This past offseason, I needed to take some time to reset, and I was home in Montana. I took a bulk of time off from training. But I started training again in September. … I don’t want to take too much time off, but really just giving myself some time and space [before heading] into this season. X Games will be my first event of the season, and then hopefully do a couple more World Cups. But also, I’m filming this year for a ski movie with one of my teammates, Colby Stevenson, [freeskier] Tom Wallisch. It’ll be a Good Company movie. It’ll be a mix of backcountry skiing, hitting jumps, snowmobiling. I’m really just trying to diversify my career and get myself into a whole new world. So, this year is really exciting.

OHT: I had noted that there were at least two films that you’re in this year, “Mavericks” and “75 years.” Can you tell us a little more about your burgeoning film career?

Voisin: Honestly, since my career started, I always knew that I wanted to film. … I’ve done a little bit of filming in the past. In 2020, I did a personal project called “Swiftcurrent.” I was filming in between competing and mostly backcountry skiing. That was my first-time little project, and I’m very, very proud of it. For me, it felt like the true beginning of my film career. But headed into the next several years, it’s something that I want to dive into a lot more. It’s a whole new world, there’s so much to learn. I feel like a newbie, which is fun. It’s fun to feel like you’re restarting in a totally different way.

OHT: Rewinding a little, you’ve suffered a string of injuries starting with the heartbreaking incident in Sochi in 2014, fracturing your right fibula on a training run. But I read you found some positives in the experience and ended up staying in Sochi with your teammates. When you look back on that experience, what stands out for you?

Voisin: Oh man, I was 15 years old. I really did the best that I could. … It was absolutely devastating. I felt like I was on fire. I had that rookie fire in me and I wanted to give it my all. I really felt like I had the potential to do amazing in Sochi. And then that happened, and it felt like my world came crashing down. But once I was able to kind of step out of that grief, and really reflect on how far I’d come in that season – that’s what kind of carried me through. Also, that injury kept a fire within me throughout the four years leading up to the 2018 Games, of wanting to get back and make that Olympic team and prove that I still had it.

OHT: You actually did come back that same calendar year, and in your first contest, you get injured again. What happened?

Voisin: So after my crash in February 2014, I didn’t need surgery, which was great, but I did have a small meniscus tear on my right knee, so I ended up getting a scope. The recovery mirrored each other – the ankle and the knee – so I was healthy by summer and came back and was skiing great. Then our first contest of the year, December 2014, I was that the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., at the time. I had qualified first into finals, and then the next day — my first run in finals — I tore my ACL on my left knee. The day before my 16th birthday. Not a very sweet 16.

OHT: A year of some real highs and lows. How did you get through that year in particular?

Voisin: Honestly, I just had this fire within me and – above all – my love and passion for skiing. I knew what I was capable of achieving and I really felt like I was rising to be one of the best woman slopestyle skiers at the time. It’s devastating when you get an injury, and I feel like maybe this is instilled through my family, but I just always find the positive perspective. For me, it was this realization of, “Yes, this is a bummer. I felt like I was really going to be on top that season. But at the same time, I want to come back, and I want to come out of this stronger.” That’s just kind of where my motivation during rehab and for getting back on snow came from. And I’ve really been able to prove to myself, time and time again, through all my injuries that I have come back stronger.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Slopestyle gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott charges into X Games with big new trick and World Cup momentum

OHT: Looking back to your childhood… You have a twin brother, Tucker. What’s it like being a twin?

Voisin: I absolutely love being a twin. And we were super close growing up. Then my older brother, who is two years older, and then I have a sister who’s eight years older. I spent more time in my younger years around my brothers. I was total tomboy – I had to keep up with them, but I was also very competitive with them, which I think is where I got my kind of daredevil, fearless attitude. But having a twin is very special. We’re so different and unique, but we’re very, very close.

OHT: I read you started skiing at age 2. Were your parents big skiers?

Voisin: My mom’s an incredible skier. My dad is a ski bum through and through. He lives for his powder days, and he’s the one who really showed me and taught me my love for the mountains. I’m so grateful that some of my favorite days are out with my dad – just him and I. My parents are so supportive. You know, if we didn’t love skiing that would have been all right. but at the same time, we were gonna be raised to skiers. Being from Whitefish, Montana, in the winter, to be honest, there’s not much else to do. So, I think I was destined to be some sort of skier.

OHT: This week marks two years since the loss of your older brother, Michael. I’m so sorry for your loss. It was both heart-wrenching and inspiring to read some of your previous responses when you’ve addressed the subject, and it seems like you have a very clear message about how you’ve dealt with grief and loss. Could you share more about that?

Voisin: I’d never lost anyone that close to me in my life before, and to lose a brother, one of my best friends, is just a totally different story. That season, I was coming back from a knee surgery in August of 2020, and it was the week of X Games, and I just had to step away from skiing, be there for my family, and grieve, and grieve as a family. So, I took time off and took it easy that season, and I was home a lot just with my family. It was a really special time as well, which is crazy to say, but my family grew so immensely close, and I’m very grateful for that.

I also realized, too, that my brother wouldn’t want me to keep living in pain, so I just had to remember kind of what life is about, and that I just wanted to live it to the fullest. Gosh, he was such an incredible human being; he truly was a hard worker. Everyone’s always like, “Oh, you’re the Olympian, you’re the X Games medalist.” And I say, “Well, that takes a lot of work, but you have not met my brother, Michael. He is so dedicated and does it with such a passion and so much kindness.” And I really just wanted to embody what he was, and what he meant to me. And that was just going out, giving it my all, but still just putting my heart into it — everything I have — and just being genuine and kind and sharing that with the world. And I think, for me, that’s what I try to hold on to.

OHT: Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s really powerful. I also read you said it made your Olympics experience last year much more special — that you were looking at things through a different lens. Could you explain that more?

Voisin: I think anyone who’s experienced a loss in their life, they understand that it’s like a whole, oh-my-gosh moment of how precious life really is. You never know when you’re not going to have another day or whatever. For me, it was about realizing how grateful I was, everything that I have been through to get there, and to enjoy it for what it is and to live in the present moment.

… I’ve come back from a lot of injuries, but is grief is a totally different beast. And I think I was just really trying to soak it in, and also really appreciate the [people] that I’m around, my friends, and really let them know how much I appreciate them, that I’m there for them, and how grateful I was to be experiencing this moment with some of my best friends. I think that’s also part of [healing], too, is letting these important people in your life know how much they mean to you.

OHT: I think that’s a really meaningful message. And it appears your peers feel just as fortunate to have you in their lives, having honored you with the 2023 Buddy Werner Award for sportsmanship this past July. What did that award mean to you?

Voisin: I have always said that my career, the medals and such, are super important – that’s always the goal — but at the end of the day, if I can inspire somebody else, and if the people around me can feel that love and that passion that skiing brings me, and if that that can ignite a fire in them to go out and do what they love with so much passion, then that’s all that matters. I can remember so vividly saying that when I was 15. Wow, that’s nine years ago! I feel like I’ve really, really held to what that meant for me.

So to get this award really has proven and kind of shown that my ultimate goal in skiing – to be an inspiration – at least I have been living up to that. Also, it’s really inspired me to continue to be that person for everyone I meet as well, to just try and be a light. Even if I’m just opening a door for someone, or giving someone a smile – if it’s true, the little things matter. It can change someone’s day around.

OHT: Speaking of inspiration, you award an annual scholarship to young athletes in Whitefish Freestyle Ski Team program, covering their fees for their team membership and the cost of a season pass to Whitefish Mountain Resort. I bet you’ve gotten some great essays from prospective recipients. What was your motivation for creating the scholarship?

Voisin: Oh, they’re so adorable. I can only imagine being that young and writing an essay. But honestly, the passion and the excitement that these kids put into it just warms my heart so much. I’ve been doing this the past several years, and it’s just so important for me to give back to the community that gave me everything, especially the local freestyle team. That’s where it all started for me. I always knew that I wanted to do something to give back, and just starting in a small way, has been so special. I’m still just in the beginning stages of where I can possibly take it but starting there, by giving a kid an opportunity by paying their fees and paying for their season pass, it just it makes me feel so grateful.

And then those essays, oh my gosh, they tear my heart apart. It’s so fun to hear how they perceive skiing, and it just reminds me of when I was a kid and I’m like, “Yes, OK, yes, I’m gonna hold on to what this kid said.” I’m gonna remember that when I’m out skiing, that I got started in this sport because I love it, because I get to be out with my friends, enjoying the mountain. There are so many wonderful things that it’s brought to me. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255), text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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