Monday 19 July 2021, 01:31

Morgan: I’ve come back stronger and fitter

  • USWNT star Alex Morgan speaks to

  • Striker returns to Olympic action on Wednesday against 2016 conquerors Sweden

  • Morgan talks motherhood, motivation and maintaining US standards

The last time we saw Alex Morgan on the Olympic stage, she cut a crestfallen figure.

USA had just lost on penalties to Sweden in the quarter-finals and, in doing so, fallen short of a podium finish for the first time in the team’s medal-laden history. Morgan, to make matters worse, had been one of the players to fail from the spot. Few doubted that this tough and talented striker would bounce back in the months and years that followed. But fewer still would have predicted the extent of her subsequent achievements. A second FIFA Women’s World Cup™ winner’s medal, continental titles on both sides of the Atlantic, back-to-back Concacaf Player of the Year awards and passing a century of international goals go some way towards explaining what’s happened between 2016 and Morgan returning to Olympic action against, you guessed it, Sweden. Yet the most significant milestone during that period arrived in April of last year, when Morgan gave birth to Charlie, her first child. And while chasing a second Olympic gold has necessitated an extended and painful period apart from her daughter, the revelation that motherhood has heightened her powers will send shudders up the spines of defenders everywhere. Alex, the delay to this tournament wasn’t welcomed by everyone, but is it fair to say that it worked out pretty well for you? Alex Morgan: Definitely. Given the circumstances, it was just an extra opportunity for me to get my body fully recovered [from pregnancy and giving birth], spend a lot of great time with my daughter and be able to take my time coming back to the field. It was a scary time of course, and every week during the spring and summer last year there seemed to be something new as the pandemic developed. But it was definitely a relief to me to know that I could spend a bit of time at home with my husband and daughter at a time when everybody had been forced away from the soccer field, and that I’d have time to get myself fit and ready for Tokyo. You’ve been in great form building up to these Olympics and it’s been said you’re now back to your very best. Do you feel that way? I do feel very good right now. There are little things that I want to work on, but there are also things I’ve done well to improve on even from before getting pregnant. I feel that I’m in a very good place, both personally and with the team, and I’m looking forward to getting back to a major tournament after that huge success we had in 2019. It’s also been nine years since we made it to the top of the [Olympic] podium in 2012, so most of this team haven’t experienced success at this tournament. That’s an extra motivation.

The downside of being here, of course, is that it takes you away from your young daughter. How tough has that been and how are you dealing with it? It has been pretty difficult being away from Charlie for an extended period of time. But I think when the Olympics starts, everything will be so quick from game to game that it will help a lot. I would have really loved her to be on this journey with me in Japan, but since that’s not possible I’m just trying to make the best of the time I have here with my team-mates and stay focused on what I need to do. Dealing with being away from her has involved a lot of FaceTime (laughs), and a lot of photos and videos from my husband too. It makes me feel better that she’s seeing family members that she didn’t have a chance to meet over the past year with everything that’s been going on, and she’s really enjoying herself. She’s at an age where she doesn’t really realise I’m gone for an extended period, so as hard as it is for both of us, I’m pretty sure it’s hardest on me! How have you found the experience of combining motherhood with your elite football career. Amy Rodriguez told us it changed her perspective for the better; that she played with “extra fire” and felt more powerful after having kids. Does that chime with your experience? It does, and there are two sides to it. Initially when I got back playing after giving birth, I thought, ‘If I don’t absolutely love this game, there’s no reason for me to be out here’. Because if I’m spending time away from my family, I want to make sure I’m loving what I’m doing. Fortunately I can still say, even at 32, that I love stepping on to the field every day and I want to make as much as I can of the time in my career I have left. The other side of it is that my body has changed and, in a way, I feel physically stronger and fitter than before I was pregnant. It’s a strange thing and it’s hard to explain because I don’t necessarily feel I’ve put in more work in the gym or in training. But I do feel a change in my body, and it’s a change for the better.

Is it pure enjoyment and love for the game that keeps you going now? Or are their other personal targets or thoughts of leaving a legacy that motivate you too? There are a couple of reasons. Loving the game is definitely a big one, but it also goes back to wanting to do something bigger than what I stand for on the field. I want to use my platform to stand for gender equality, for example. I also want to make my family proud, and I love that they get to travel the world with me. It’s really unfortunate that they can’t come here to Tokyo because they help give me confidence and inspire me. This will be my first tournament without that support of my parents and my husband, and I’ll miss it. But the basic enjoyment is still at the heart of it all, yeah. The moment I stop loving what I’m doing is the moment I’ll walk away. I remember listening to the podcast you did with Kelley O’Hara in which you identified adaptability as one of your biggest strengths. Has that helped you not only adjust to motherhood but to Vlatko Andonovski’s way of doing things after so many years under Jill Ellis? Absolutely. I feel you need to be adaptable in so many ways to stay on this team for as long as I and a few others in this squad have managed. Whether it’s coaching changes or adversity, or just spending so much of our lives with people within this environment, I feel I always have to adapt to be the player I want to be but also the player the coach needs within the team framework. Because I’ve always played team sports, I’ve always thought of the team first. And when I came into the national team at first, I had in Abby [Wambach] such a perfect example of selflessness to follow.

Alex Morgan (R) and Abby Wambach of USA celebrate Morgan's first goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup Final match between Japan and USA

Abby was clearly a unique player and personality, but do you feel yourself trying to lead younger players in the same way she did with you as you become older? I don’t think Abby can be copied as she was just so unique and so vocal. She left a big hole in this team when she retired. As the years have gone by though, that hole has been filled with people leading in their own way, whether that’s Becky, Pinoe, Carli or myself. We all lead in different ways and I think this team has benefited from players who’ve stepped up in different situations. I believe we’re the oldest team at this Olympics, with an average age of around 30, and that experience speaks for itself. We have so many leaders in this squad. You often find in the men’s game that national teams, with ageing squads that have enjoyed major success, can fade pretty spectacularly – the last few world champions going out early at the following World Cup, for example. Why hasn’t that happened with this US team, and what is it that maintains your freshness and hunger? I think it’s the training environment. The intensity this team brings to training is second to none, and I know it really surprised and impressed Vlatko when he first came in. He was blown away by the intensity we bring every single day, and that’s something that’s been passed down from previous generations. It’s special. We all know too that you can never take being on this team for granted. Every single player here, myself included, has gone through a period of being out of the side. And I think all of us feel a duty, with this team having been ranked No1 for so long, to bring our best and show the younger players what it takes to get here – and stay here.

To finish on the Olympics, London 2012 was your first big success with the senior national team. Does the tournament hold special meaning for you because of that? I have so many great memories of 2012. It was an experience I’ll never forget. There is something special about the Olympics for me, partly because I grew up watching it and you know it’s much bigger than just your team and your sport. Because of those childhood memories and how much 2012 meant to me, I’ll always hold a special place for this tournament. I’m really excited to be back. Of course, having spoken about your nice Olympic memories, I also have to ask you about Rio - especially with Sweden your first opponents here in Japan. Was going out in that quarter-final your lowest point with the national team? (Hesitates) It was devastating, especially knowing that it was the worst finish this team has ever had. But for me personally at least, the most heartbroken I’ve been was after losing to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final. I just felt at that time that we were the best team in the world and the better team in that game. It was also my first senior tournament, so I was very wide-eyed about the whole thing. With that Sweden game, I probably didn’t fully take it in until weeks later because it was such a shock. Having said that, we seem to have played Sweden at pretty much every tournament I’ve been involved in and they always play well against us. They beat us in the group stage in 2011 and in the quarter-finals in 2016, and I always see them as one of the toughest teams we face on the world stage. We’re all really looking forward to playing against them again.

United States forward Alex Morgan (13) celebrates with fans