Q+A: Lo’eau LaBonta on KC’s success, iconic cellies and persevering through NWSL turmoil

Kansas City Current midfielder Lo'Eau Labonta (10) during the huddle after the game against Portland Thorns FC at Children's Mercy Park
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Current midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta, an eight year NWSL veteran, has been enjoying her best ever season in 2022. The 29-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, California, has scored eight goals (six on penalties) and helped Kansas City land a spot in Sunday’s NWSL semifinal vs. OL Reign.

Ahead of the NWSL semifinals, On Her Turf caught up with LaBonta about Kansas City’s success this season, the many ups and downs of her pro soccer career, what goes into her iconic cellies, and how long she plans to continue playing.

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

On Her Turf: I’d love to start with a quick clarification question. I always hear people refer to you as “Lo” – but is “Lo” how your full first name is pronounced or are they just calling you “Lo” as a nickname?  

Lo’eau LaBonta: It’s so funny. People think my name is just ‘Lo.’ And they’re like, why does it have so many letters?! But no, my actual first name is (pronounced) lo-AYE-ow.

On Her Turf: When you meet someone new, how do you introduce yourself?

LaBonta: It depends. If I’m meeting another Hawaiian, I will tell them my full name. If I’m meeting anybody else, I leave it at ‘Lo.’ Sometimes it leads to the question, ‘What’s that short for?’ People’s first thought is always Lauren. I’ve had people just straight up call me Lauren. And I’m like, never have I put that anywhere. So yeah, it’s always a little bit of a discussion. But I love my full name and I’m very proud of it. It’s just when people can’t say it and butcher it, I’m like, ‘I’ll make it very simple for you.’

Author’s note: here’s a recording of Lo’eau LaBonta pronouncing her full first name: 

On Her Turf: Let’s talk about Kansas City’s success in the NWSL this season. (After finishing last in 2021), you’re heading into the NWSL Semifinals this weekend and you personally are already guaranteed your best ever finish to an NWSL season. What do you think clicked into place for the team? 

LaBonta: I mean, it’s crazy. We made a lot of moves in the offseason, but then obviously, a lot of those players got hurt, unfortunately. I was telling Sam Mewis the other day that I always thought about midfielders in this league that I wanted to play with and she was, for sure, at the top of that list. We got a couple of minutes in together, but it’s definitely heartbreaking that it was so short. But there’s always (the possibility) when she recovers.

This team, we spent a lot of time together in Bradenton, Florida. We were just together constantly. We had meetings in the morning, we had practice, we ran together, we started this crazy new lifting program. And then we got a new coach (Matt Potter), obviously. And he just implemented these very basic principles that – week-in and week-out – we built on.

I think because we started at square one and everybody bought in, it was very easy to build a successful team. I’m telling you, it’s not a starting 11. We literally have a starting 20. Anybody can fall in there. As I’ve said in interviews before, we call them gamechangers, not subs. We have some of the best technical staff, we have a great sports science staff. So everybody – from top to bottom – has had a part in our success this year, for sure.

On Her Turf: When you say the team follows these “basic principles” – what are those?

LaBonta: It’s so funny because I think our coaches have said them in interviews and people don’t realize it because they’re very basic and broad. And that’s because it’s a mentality that he likes to preach and then our styles can (fit) into it. So as long as you’re doing the things – ‘attack and pass with intent’ or ‘protect the center’ – these are very basic soccer phrases. But if you know that, and the person next to you knows that, it’s easy for you to be successful because you’re on the same page.

On Her Turf: In terms of stats, results, goals scored… it feels like a ‘breakout’ season for you. But is that how you think of it?

LaBonta: Yes and no. One of my assistant coaches (told me) a GM asked her, ‘What have you done with Lo LaBonta this year? She’s standing out.’ It’s crazy to me because I just had to score so many goals to stand out. A lot of these things I’ve been doing in games — assisting on passes, tackling – I’ve done all these years. It’s just this year, because I’ve gotten 2000 PKs, people tend to notice (the other stuff) as well.

But I would say for sure I also feel fitter this year, I haven’t had any injuries, and I just have really good people around me. I would never say I’m an individual player so everything I do, I do it even better because I have the support of my teammates around me.

On Her Turf: In terms of your career in the NWSL… I want to confirm the full timeline. So after you finished your college soccer career at Stanford in 2014, you were drafted to Sky Blue – 34th overall in the 2015 NWSL Draft – played a few games and then got waived. The next year, you were picked up by FC Kansas City, you played there for two seasons (2016-17), and then that team folded. Then you go to the Utah Royals and play three seasons (2018-20) until the team was sold. You came back in Kansas City when the new franchise started in 2021 — and the team finished last in the NWSL standings. All of that uncertainty and disruption, like so many things in the NWSL, does not seem like a recipe for success. Looking back now, what stands out to you most from those years? And how did you manage to keep going despite all of the stops and starts?

LaBonta: I think that just shows, for me, soccer has always been my passion.

You know, at Stanford, I was always winning. I think I was projected to go top-10 (in the NWSL draft) and instead I went third-to-last… Like, that’s not my best stat. Then (I get to) Sky Blue, an absolute wreck of organization at the time. We didn’t know where we were going to be training on days. I ended up having to move in with my athletic trainer and (live in) a trailer. It was a mess. It was absolutely unacceptable.

At the time, I didn’t see it this way, but when I was waived and finished up my degree at Stanford… it just helped me reset and find my love of the sport again.

And then I got picked up by Kansas City, which was coached by Vlatko (Andonovski). He just helped me see the game in a different way. I absolutely loved playing there. He treated the subs and the starters the same. I (knew) he was a coach that was truly going to help me develop. He just made me love the game even more, he made me find things in my game that I could develop and make better than people around me.

Obviously, it wasn’t the best of situations. We were training on terrible turf that was like cement and then we would go play on what was one of the best pitches, but (there would only be) 15 people in the stands.

That’s also when I started dating my now husband (Roger Espinoza) — and then we got moved to Utah.

In Utah, it was very organized. We had a great setup, we had a city that was really supporting us. And then, you know, all the 2020 stuff happened and we got sold back here.

Last year, coming in last, it was hard to find the motivation to continue, to show up every day and give it your all. But that’s one thing I think every NWSL player has done. We aren’t paid like normal pro athletes are paid so we’re here because we love the sport. We love the people around us. We love showing up and being rewarded at the end of the week with a game. So I think one thing I’ve always had is my passion for the sport and that’s why I continue to play.

I told myself I was going to play two years in the league. I’m in my eighth right now, I think, I’ve lost count. But it’s because I know I can continue to get better. I don’t think I’ve peaked yet. And I’ve loved it so much. And this year has almost been a reward for all those years that I kind of suffered.

On Her Turf: Can I ask how much longer you think you’re going to keep playing?

LaBonta: Honestly, for me, I have no end (date). I had those two years, I went past it, I kept getting better, I kept playing more.

Don’t worry, this is not happening anytime soon but, for female athletes, I think it’s a huge flex when they have a kid and then come back and play. Not many people can say they’ve done that, no male athlete can say they’ve done that. So I think that would be a goal in the very far future. But you know, that means I just have to keep playing for a while.

On Her Turf: It strikes me that more players are now able to make that choice. When I look at the NWSL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and the benefits and protections for athletes who are parents… it’s not necessarily just a more appealing option, but it’s a possible option.

LaBonta: Exactly. It’s possible now.

On Her Turf: In terms of the CBA… I’m curious if you had any realizations this season like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was a benefit but I’m so happy we have it.’

LaBonta: One of the biggest ones is that people are allowed to take mental health days, no questions asked.

I think as professional athletes, or even collegiate athletes, you push no matter what. If you’re not feeling good, mentally or physically, whatever is going on, you’ve always been told to put it behind you, to show up to practice, and give your all.

The fact that we can now take a step back and (say), ‘I can get injured doing this’ or ‘this is just not good for me’ or ‘I won’t be a good teammate.’ Whatever it is, if it’s a family emergency, whatever, you have the ability to step away with no strings attached.

When the Yates report came out, I (told my teammates), ‘Guys, take these days. We don’t have a game for two weeks.’ Some people have gone through personal things so I was just pushing them to take a day and not be the person that’s just trying to be strong when, at the end of the day, it’s having an effect on you.

On Her Turf: Thanks for sharing that – I knew that the CBA included six months of paid mental health leave, but I didn’t realize players had the option of taking mental health days throughout the season, so that’s really great. Switching directions, I can’t let the celly queen go without asking about her cellies. What is your process for coming up with them? And how many cellies do you have in your back pocket going into each game?

LaBonta: I’ll answer your second question first… I have scored so early in a few games this year, I’ve done my celebration and thought, ‘Oh no, if I score again, what am I going to do?’ And I have no idea because as soon as I use one celly, I don’t think of another one until the day before (the next game). Some people think I put a lot of thought into it and I don’t. I probably should if I’m going to get questions like this and people’s expectations are already (so high).

I think I’ve always just wanted to celebrate. As soon as that one (twerking after the fake injury) went viral, I was like, ‘We are for sure going to make this a thing now.’ And it makes me so happy.

Like I said, I have the biggest passion for this sport and this just makes it even more fun. I mean, look at our second goal against Houston. I did the no-look pass to Kate (Del Fava), who scored her first goal, and I just tackled her. I felt so bad I didn’t even let her celebrate. I was like, ‘I didn’t live up to what I said! Am I a fraud right now?’ But we were just in our emotions and it was the greatest time.

On Her Turf: Going back to your journey from Kansas City to Utah and back… On the Kansas City’s roster, it’s just you and Desiree Scott who went through all of that together, right? Could you tell me a little about your bond with Desiree, both on and off the field?

LaBonta: Gosh, Desiree Scott is my heart. She’s one of the most loving human beings. She’s also one of the best leaders because she leads with love. Obviously, you see her on the field just demolishing and tackling people, but she truly is the heart of our team. I think she’s up for our ally award and everybody, for sure, was voting for her.

We’ve been together this whole time… we bonded over going out, we bonded over trauma — like all the bad coaches we’ve had together, all the bad seasons we’ve had together. And this is her first time in playoffs as well.

My husband was at the playoff game this last weekend and he was like, ‘Who was that person running out on the field and to your circle?’ It was Desiree Scott… she was suspended that game and we don’t know if she’ll get fined coming on the field but I don’t care, we will all pitch in for it because she is our heart. She’s our captain and she needed to be there, celebrating with us. She is the best teammate, the best human being – and that’s what you need in a captain.

On Her Turf: I love that, thanks so much for sharing. Looking ahead to the OL Reign and the NWSL Semifinals this weekend… What is Kansas City’s focus heading into the game?

LaBonta: With Reign, obviously they’re a very strong team. They’re the Shield winners. They’re very, very deadly going towards the goal. We played them twice this year. They beat us once, we beat them once. So it’s a good tie breaker. And we were missing people when we played them and they were missing people when we beat them. They are a very impressive team… So I think it’s going to be a battle for sure. And I hope, obviously, that we come out on top. Hopefully they were just resting (these last two weeks) and aren’t in their top shape when they play us (laughs).

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
Getty Images

PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
Getty Images

PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.