USA’s Leroux continues to pursue her dreams despite difficult path

Sydney Leroux slides her manicured nails across her phone and pulls up a text she got from Kobe Bryant two days ago. I was willing to sacrifice anything but not compromise, it reads. He sends her stuff like that all the time. It’s part of their ongoing dialogue about greatness and the makings thereof.

A few weeks ago, Kobe sent her another one. Question I want you to think about in detail: Why are you going to be great and how are you going to get there? Leroux pondered that one for a few days. Then, on a plane, she scribbled four pages of notes in her journal, snapped pictures of the sheets and sent them back to Bryant. You have to do what must be done and sometimes happiness doesn’t always come from that, but greatness does, she wrote, among other things. The thoughts aren’t all original — she borrows some quotes from others — but they all underscore an unmistakable single-mindedness.

The veteran Lakers star has become something of a mentor to the 24-year-old United States women’s national team striker. She got an email from him a year or two ago, telling her his two daughters, 11 and 8, were fans. He hadn’t identified himself until his sign-off, but Leroux never questioned that it was really him. Since then, he has brought his daughters and their entire soccer team to one of her games and she has signed on as a spokesperson for the Body Armor sports drink Bryant has invested in. In the meantime, they have become close.

"When I have a question, I go to him," Leroux says. "I get to pick his brain on how he became who he was and what it took to get there. We have a really cool relationship. I look up to him so much as an athlete and a person. I think he sees something in me. He knows my story of how I grew up and what it took to get here and I think that a big part of him really respects that."

She’s the most competitive person I’ve worked with, mentally and physically. She’s been through a lot. When it’s harder for her is when she’s better.

United States women's national team manager Jill Ellis on Sydney Leroux.

The two share a lot of similarities. They both honed their craft in another country; Bryant grew up in Italy, where his father played basketball professionally, from the ages of 6 through 13 and spent much of his time there on the rare basketball court, dodging the soccer players; Leroux left her home in Vancouver at 14, knowing that only the United States could properly nurture her talent.

They both emerged from their years of unseen toil as young prodigies to make an immediate impact at the highest level. Leroux made her national team debut in January 2011, aged just 20, and in her second start for the USA, she scored five times against Guatemala during an Olympic qualifier, in Vancouver of all places. Through 56 national team games — becoming a regular only in 2012 — Leroux has 32 goals, even though she has started just 20 times. In her first full year on the team, she came off the bench in all 27 of her appearances, to her frustration. Yet she scored 14 times in just 517 minutes — averaging a stupefying 2.43 goals per full game. Last year, she followed that up with 10 more goals. So far this year, she has eight. 

Like Bryant, she plays with an uncommon doggedness, leveraging the brawn and pace packed into her 5-foot-7 frame to chase down defenders and hunger after hopeless balls. "Syd is just an all-out athlete," says fellow striker Abby Wambach. "She does things in moments in practice that I’m just in awe of."

USA head coach Jill Ellis once told the New York Times that Leroux would "two-foot-tackle her grandmother for the ball." "She’s the most competitive person I’ve worked with, mentally and physically," she added. "She’s been through a lot. When it’s harder for her is when she’s better."

Again, that sounds an awful lot like Bryant.

Where they differ is in their public persona. Where Bryant is very private, Leroux prolifically posts pictures of herself to Twitter and Instagram. Some are of her and teammates and friends out and about. Many are of her dog, Boss, a Chihuahua she has had since her freshman year of college who travels almost everywhere with her. Most of them, though, are shots of her heavily tattooed body sporting immodest outfits, often in exotic locales. Last month, images of Leroux trying to prevent her car from getting towed by lying in front of the truck went viral.

Leroux’s very public persona belies an arduous and circuitous route to next year’s Women’s World Cup. A plainly athletic child, Leroux had a habit of running through the isles of grocery stores while her mom, once a third baseman for the Canadian national softball team, did the shopping. All day long she would bounce a soccer ball against the back of a couch in their living room. She had already played in the 2004 Under-19 Women’s World Cup in Thailand by the time she was 14, as the youngest player of the tournament. She captained Canada’s Under-15s in a tournament in Germany the next year.

But she envisioned a future playing for the USA. Her father, Ray Chadwick, who pitched seven games for the California Angels in 1986 and never made it back to the big leagues, is American. So, seeing no future in soccer for herself on Canada’s western coast, Leroux moved down to Seattle to join a competitive club team while she lived with a teammate and home-schooled herself through an online curriculum.

"I made the decision pretty young," she recalls. "I was 14 years old. No one really was like, ‘Oh my God, stay here, please.’ I kind of just left and that was it. I saw the US as the best team in the world and that’s what I wanted to be a part of. It was purely ambition."

After a year, she moved to Arizona to join another team and enroll in a local high school. She lived out of a suitcase, bouncing between teammates’ houses and became desperately homesick. She slept most of the days to pass the time. "It was a rough ride," Leroux remembers. "I felt so out of place. I wanted to come home. I didn’t want to do it. I would be crying every day to my mom, saying I didn’t want to do this anymore and that maybe I didn’t want to play soccer." At her mother’s urging, she stuck it out.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

As a freshman at UCLA, Leroux managed to establish her American citizenship through her semi-estranged father. Her one-time switch from the Canadian to the American national team programs was approved by FIFA in 2008 and she was immediately called up to the Under-20s. That very year, they won the Under-20 World Cup. Leroux won the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe, as the tournament’s top player and scorer.

For its unquestionable success, the choice to represent the USA over Canada is a loaded one for Leroux. She has chosen, after all, to represent her father’s half of her identity. But she has a difficult relationship with her father. Her parents split up when her mother was three months pregnant. He wasn’t around much during her childhood. She missed having a father. When he occasionally dropped in, they talked about little else than sports. Or they would play catch.

It’s an unhappy memory for Leroux. "It wasn’t fun playing with him," she says. "We would play catch and he was like, ‘If you don’t hit me in the chest we’re going inside.’ And I wouldn’t hit him in the chest and we’d go inside." She spreads out her arms and recoils in disbelief at the memory. "I was 8."

Ray is a college baseball coach at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, Canada now. He and Sydney — whose middle name, it is worth noting here, is Rae — haven’t spoken in more than a year. "Things took place that never needed to and I was over that," she explains, vaguely. "Me and my dad don’t have a relationship whatsoever but I do have to thank him for giving me this. I’ll forever be thankful for being half American."

She is also half African-American, through him. The chance to explore that aspect of her identity didn’t come up until she majored in history in college. She began learning about slavery and became fascinated. "I really didn’t know about any of that kind of stuff because I grew up in a completely white household," she says. "I didn’t really grow up around a lot of people that looked like me."

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As a freshman, she traveled to North Carolina to meet her father’s family for the first time. She experienced something of a culture shock, finding it hard to fit in with them. She was a vegetarian and everyone was cooking meats. "They were like, ‘Who is this girl?’" Leroux remembers with a chuckle.

Next year, she returns to Canada for the Women’s World Cup. The final will be played in her hometown. She is seen as a traitor in her motherland. Canada’s rapidly-improved program could have made good use of her alongside star forward Christine Sinclair. When Leroux played her first game with the USA in Canada last year, she scored the third goal in a 3-0 win. She’d been jeered by the crowd all game long. So upon scoring, she ran to the stands, demonstratively tugged on the US Soccer crest on her jersey and held a finger over her mouth with the other hand, as if to shush her hecklers.

She later claimed she had received racist and sexist abuse over Twitter. "I would do it again," she says now. "Things were happening. They were saying stuff to me all game. Anyone would have done the same thing as I did and maybe much worse. I have no regrets."

Nor, for that matter, does she feel any remorse for defecting south of the border. "I’ve never looked back, she says. "Not once. I literally couldn’t be happier to be where I am." She insists her choice was made for no other reason than to service her outsized ambitions. Before the 2012 Olympics, at which she helped the Americans win a third straight gold medal, she had LOVE tattooed over the knuckles of her right hand. Now, when she puts her hand over her heart and the American badge during the national anthem, it is covered with love. Call it patriotism; call it a provocation.

HEAR US OUT

Leroux hopes the abuse won’t be as bad during the World Cup, that the fans got it all out of their systems during that game in Toronto last June. It could just as well escalate though. "I think she knows she’s going to have a hard time in certain ways," says Wambach.

Her team thinks Leroux is well equipped to handle such hostility. "I think it’s going to be tough on her," says striker Alex Morgan, one of her closest friends on the team. "But she’s shown through certain circumstances that she can rise above that negative energy."

"I think Syd is the type of player where that stuff actually helps her," adds Ellis, who also coached Leroux for her first three years at UCLA. "She’s always been a player who has had to fight for something, whether it’s a position, whether it’s playing time. The more it seems like [things are against her], the better she delivers. If people are going to boo her, it only incentivizes her."

Leroux chose her allegiance a long time ago and the Canadian fans have picked theirs. Her first World Cup will probably also be her most difficult, the upshot of the choices she has made. Perhaps she’ll find comfort in an inspirational quote. Or in her discourse with Bryant. Because being great also means pursuing your ambition without regard for perception — or happiness, or compromise.