Professional Soccer Player turned Motivational Speaker and Mindset Coach
Joanna Lohman is a keynote speaker and performance coach who is building a new generation of authentic leaders who redefine success. She is the author of Raising Tomorrow's Champions and member of the United States Women’s National Team. She is the first player in Washington Spirit history to have her jersey retired, honoring her 16-year professional soccer playing career where she built a platform for social impact. She continues her influence as a human rights activist and Sport Diplomat.
You've had such an impactful career as a pro athlete! How did your journey begin?
I distinctly remember the year 1999, when the U.S. women’s national team won the World Cup in the sold out Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California! Brandi Chastain hit the winning penalty kick against China, ripped off her shirt and then it seemed like overnight women's soccer hit the public sphere! As a 17 year old youth soccer player in the Washington DC area, I was lucky enough to be invited to the White House. This was during President Clinton's term, and he invited the women's national team to come celebrate their World Cup victory. In that very moment of seeing Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Briana Scurry walking off the bus and into the White House I knew I wanted to become a professional soccer player. Coincidentally the next year, was when the first ever women's professional soccer league launched. This is when I knew that my dream could be a reality. I wanted to be a player who got to hit that winning penalty kick in a sold out Rose Bowl so it provided an incredible amount of motivation for me through college. I was a four-time academic All-American captain of the Penn State women's soccer team. I played for Youth National teams and saw and felt myself working my way to the highest level.
You talked about soccer players like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Briana Scurry laying down the building blocks that motivated you to pursue a pro athletic career and being there to see the first Women’s professional soccer league launch. Can you tell us more about the importance of that impact especially during Women’s History Month?
If it wasn't for the players in 1985, the first iteration of the women's national team, fighting tooth and nail year after year for equal pay, for even recognition and awareness, I wouldn't have been able to play professional soccer. So when I think of Women's History Month I think about the women who fought for the rights that I am able to express and am able to live out, because without them, I wouldn't be Jo Lohman. I am so grateful to be able to benefit from their work and then also use that as a catalyst for my own advocacy when it comes to gender equity, queer rights, and realize that the torch is just being passed on. We are not anywhere where we should be and it is a way for the torch being passed to the future generations of leaders who are going to carry on this human rights journey.
Equal pay has been a major roadblock for so many women across industries. What has the journey to equal rights looked like in the soccer world?
You know, not many people realize that the women's soccer aspect of equal pay started in 1985, during the first iteration of the United States Women's national team. They were playing for pennies. They brought in people like Billie Jean King, who advocated for equal prize money in tennis. They learned from her experience, leaned on her knowledge, and were willing to put their careers at risk for the betterment of the generation that walked behind them. It takes people who are willing to put their neck on the line for the benefit of others, and women's soccer has had this powerful unified group of brave and bold individuals who are willing to do that over and over again. To me, that is so inspirational. We're starting to see the benefits of their labor and hopefully, we'll continue to see this ripple effect where more women's teams are getting equal pay or even closer to better resources for their teams and to be able to compete as professional athlete.
During your pro-athletic career we saw that you were called “the Rainbow Warrior". Where did that name come from and what does it represent?
This moniker came from my boldness and my willingness to be unabashedly myself on the soccer field. I came out in 2003/2004 and over the next decade played on seven different teams in five different countries. I realized after games when I'd walk off the field sweaty, giving my all, fans would come up to me and thank me, not for scoring a goal or an assist, but thanking me for being an out and proud professional athlete because I gave them the strength to come out to their parents. To me, that's the definition of success. The feedback I got in the women's soccer world from fans and from other players reinvigorated me to truly be an advocate for our community.
We see how passionate you are about showing up authentically, can you tell us about a time you felt empowered to dress authentically?
I have looked back on my life a lot, because of my speaking events, to be able to really share stories about my own authenticity and the journey of how I have evolved. And I remember certain situations. Fifth grade, my first ever pair of Air Jordans. It was life-changing for me. I was a quintessential tomboy in fifth grade and I remember fifth grade being the best year of my life. At that point, I didn't feel the pressure that is placed upon you by society to be someone that you should be. I felt like in fifth grade, I could be 100% myself. And that was a huge tomboy. I felt more comfortable with mud on my knees, I refused to wear dresses, all my friends were boys.
Another memory that stands out to me is the first time I ever bought a suit. I chose to buy a suit because I had a speaking event at the Kennedy Center, a prestigious arts venue in the DC area. I invited my mom to come see me speak and she asked me what I was going to wear and ultimately said “Honey, I think you should wear a dress”. It crushed my soul because my mom was my best friend at the time. That was the first time where I was like, you know what, f*** this. I have to find a suit that's gonna fit me like a glove. I went out and I found my first ever suit and got it tailored but even that was an uncomfortable situation. The tailor was an older gentleman who misgendered me over and over because he had never seen a woman in a men’s suit. But when my mom saw me she could tell I was just whole in my skin. I was so confident. And she couldn't help but remark, “you look so good”! During my speaking engagement I remember saying,“There's so many people in this world that can do pretty much better than I ever could. I was not put on this Earth to be pretty. I was put on this Earth to sweat, to have muscles, to show that strong is sexy”! Sitting up there in a suit and a Mohawk is how I felt beautiful. No one has the right to tell you how to feel beautiful. Self-defined and self-owned, I'm expanding the definition of what a woman can look like. My mom came up to me and gave me the biggest hug. That moment was transformational for both of us because it took something like that for me to find who I was and for her to finally understand that she had to let go of her expectations of who I would be. That's what buying a suit, that’s what wearing what makes you feel authentic can do for your life.
You’ve also used your hair while you were playing pro soccer to spread messages or to promote visibility around social issues. Can you tell us more about that?
I used my hair as a rotating billboard, displaying causes, organizations, things that I was passionate about. And I did it because it was truly the passion I felt on the inside. And it was just such a cool way to display it, right? I would carve patterns into the side of my hair and I could use stencils and I was getting such incredible feedback from people: “it's so badass, it's so cool that you do that”. I would do the equality symbol during Pride Week. During the unfortunate Pulse shooting in Orlando, I had a pulse in my hair. I was truly able to make a strong statement publicly that allowed people to understand that this is what I stand for and that they could support it too and feel safe with me.
What is your advice for people who want to show up authentically?
In a world that is constantly trying to make you something else, in a world where we have stereotypes and narratives and social constructs of beauty, it takes a true bold individual to step outside of those constructs to be your authentic self. When you do that, you will face resistance. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. It's having the strength to understand that in those moments of feeling resistance, you're doing something right. It means that you're pushing social boundaries in a way that is forcing people to see outside of their own comfort zones. Success is no longer about outcomes or results or trophies or fitting into a certain heteronormative box. I would love anyone who reads this to understand that It's not about the end product, it's not about who you are today, it's who you are when you evolve and change and really tap into our superpower, which is our infinite transformation. Once you become unshakable, you can get through anything.
Being a parent is something that is so integral to how people identify women’s role in history. As queer folks who are rewriting the script about what parenting looks like, how has becoming a parent impacted you around gender expression and identity?
To look in the mirror, as I hold my daughter Luna, and to see the transformation that I have made as a human, is where I feel like I have been successful. I'm feeling good. It's challenging, It's one of the hardest things I've ever done. You create an environment of repetitive monotony only to exist in complete unpredictability. Which is something I haven't really experienced much. So I can feel myself growing through the process which is really amazing and fun and growing with her and learning a lot about myself and learning about her. When I think about Mother's Day, it blows my mind that I'm gonna be celebrated because it just doesn't feel right yet. And I know that it is okay. To not feel like 100% of you fits a certain label because that's life and everything is on the spectrum. So, maybe on a certain day, I feel like 40% of a mom and the other day, I feel 80%, you know? It's just existing and showing up as my authentic self and loving her is good enough. I see her as an opportunity to change the way that many of us have been raised. To raise her in a way of giving her space and trusting her to be whoever she wants to be. I think every day that's going to be a challenge, but I think it's just going to be such a beautiful journey and keeping the long game in mind so I’m taking it day by day! It's okay to feel like I may not fit into what a mom is “supposed to” look like. And I think that's an amazing model to set for my child. We don't have to force ourselves and break our bodies and souls to fit into these restrictive boxes that society presents as options for our identity. We can exist outside of them, uncomfortably, until we're ready to find our own label.
HOW TO CONNECT WITH JO LOHMAN
Photo Credit: Cody Cervenka