Shannon Boxx discusses her incredible journey to World Cup glory beyond the debilitating impact of lupus

Shannon Boxx discusses her incredible journey to World Cup glory beyond the debilitating impact of lupus

When Shannon Boxx picks up the phone, she is in the middle of home-schooling her daughter, so much so she has to briefly jump away from the phone mid-interview to remind her she soon needs to be on another class. It’s a reminder everyone everywhere is being affected in different ways by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also afforded Boxx, now 43, some quality time with her two children.

Fans new to the women’s game may not know much about Boxx or what she achieved, but her legacy is indelible. After 12 years of trying, Boxx finally won the World Cup in 2015 before retirement and picked up three consecutive Olympic gold medals between 2004 and 2015 in an international career that spanned 195 caps.

At club level, she represented lost but greats such as Los Angeles Sol, Saint Louis Athletica, magicJack and, most recently, current NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars.

“It’s been five years since I retired now, my gosh,” Boxx remarks, but she’s been keeping busy since walking away from her playing career. “I think there’s that transition period which every athlete goes through, trying to figure out what else do you have a passion for and what do you want to fall into that makes you as happy as soccer did?

“I don’t necessarily think that’s possible. As a woman, I started my family late because I wanted to play for as long as possible. I had my son after I retired, so I was trying to work out what I was passionate about, but now I have two kids at home.”

Among her varying ventures since retirement, Boxx has helped start an all-girls soccer academy in Portland, where she now calls home, while she has eyes and ears in other projects too. “I think the pay to play model here in the US has gone a little out of control, so I wanted to start a club just for girls that not only teaches them how to play, but also about life, about being a soccer player, about being a good human. 

“I realised coaching probably is that passion, but not necessarily soccer. Working with females, athletes, working with them and helping them transition maybe quicker than I did and helping women in their workforce.”

Boxx is also working alongside several of her former teammates on other projects too. “Abby Wambach has a company called WOLFPACK Endeavor and I’ve sort of jumped into helping her with that too. It’s important for us. We were pretty much family. I came through when Abby did and retired at the same time as her too. I also recently became an investor for the new Angel City team in LA. Of all the teams I played on, I loved my time at LA Sol and I’m very excited to be helping to bring women’s soccer back to LA.”

Over the course of the next hour, Boxx lays out the highs and lows of her careers in honest fashion. From the three Olympic golds and World Cup success to being sent off in the infamous 2007 semi-final against Brazil and missing a penalty in the 2011 final against Japan.

She candidly opens up about the effect lupus had on her career and spending her college years studying and gaining acceptance for her multiracial background, as well as almost walking away from the game without a single international cap. Every key moment of her life and career from where it started, kicking a ball around in the yard with her older sister.

Like many young girls, Boxx spent several years playing with boys before her mum got her into a wreck league in California and Boxx “fell in love” with soccer, but also played baseball growing up, though soccer was her calling. Boxx eventually ended up at the University of Notre Dame on a program that would also kickstart the careers of names such as Anne Makinen, Candace Chapman, Melissa Tancredi and Cindy Daws.

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The midfielder enjoyed a productive college career, hitting double figures for goals twice in her four seasons and double figures for assists in all of them, helping her side win the NCAA Championship for the first time in her first year.

“Back then, college was even more important because we didn’t have a league,” she recalls. “You’re finding yourself, you’re finding out what you want to do. Before there was a league, I knew I still had the dream to play on the national team, but I didn’t know if I was good enough at that point.

“I did well for myself. The American players make good money, but nothing compared to what men make in the professional world. Even after 12 years on the team, I need to go out now and find another job to make money, so I think the education I got at college will help me. Soccer-wise it was great, but I still didn’t make the national team until I was 26. I technically wasn’t good enough and it was really important we created a league here in the US, that got me to the level to play for the national team.”

Boxx isn’t arrogant, but admits she had a “lot of confidence” and she knew she was one of the better players on her Notre Dame team. But Notre Dame had players who were already part of the national team program, and Boxx recalls a conversation with a friend which changed her mindset as it looked like her dream was fading.

“I spoke to someone who asked why wasn’t I on the national team? I told him about the things I had to work on and he said they were easy. That started to change my mindset from believing it wasn’t going to happen, to knowing I could fulfil my dream. He was the one who changed my whole attitude and started working on the things I wasn’t good at. A year after talking to him, I made the national team.”

Before that, Boxx was finding it hard to make an impact as several women’s leagues in the US started and stuttered, folding before they’d had a chance to succeed. 

She first played for the Boston Renegades in the USL W-League before a brief spell abroad in Germany, returning for the new WUSA league where she was drafted for the San Diego Spirit. After that folded, it would be six years before the new WPS began, where Boxx played for the all-conquering LA Sol and was a regular national team player by that point.

But she admits the period of inactivity at domestic level in the USA was “disheartening” as players searched for a competitive league. “A league would start and you’d be like ‘yes, yes, yes’ and then it would just falter. The first league shouldn’t have faltered. It was in a good place, but I think a lot of the owners started to worry about losing money, but that’s what happens with a new league, though it wasn’t me pouring money into teams.

“It was discouraging. I think it ended prematurely and I was really sad, but I got lucky in that it was right as I was making the national team. A lot of players probably thought ‘my career is done’, but I had the opportunity to continue through the national team and then play in the WPS and NWSL.”

After two seasons with San Diego Spirit in 2001 and 2002, Boxx was traded to the other side of the country and New York Power where she enjoyed a good year on the pitch, before the league folded at the end of its third season. With rumours swirling of both the team and the league’s demise, Boxx admits now she came close to walking away, with a first national team cap still not forthcoming at the age of 26.

“Thank God I didn’t,” she laughs. “I actually considered it twice! In 2003, I was in New York after a terrible situation at the end of San Diego. I’d moved to the other side of the USA, already applied to go back to school and there was already talk of the team folding. I hadn’t made the national team and maybe I just needed to call it quits.

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“A couple of teammates told me not to, and I didn’t really want to, but I thought I needed to start my real life. But then I got selected for the US and now I look back and think ‘wow, I nearly made a really bad decision’. Now I look and talk to young players considering the same and I’m like ‘no, this is the only time you’ll get to do something like this’. I’m so happy I had someone back then to tell me the same thing before I walked away.”

But Boxx admits even when her national team career took off, it wasn’t always easy. As her reputation increased, so did the stakes she was dealing with. No longer reliant on faltering domestic leagues, Boxx found herself competing at the highest level, challenging for major trophies and Olympic medals, which she admits once again nearly drove her away from the sport.

“Even on the national team, there are times when I thought ‘maybe I should be done’, because I wasn’t having fun. Even when you’re winning Olympic golds, there are stages where you’re not playing well and not happy. Soccer is funny that way, you have to work your through and find joy again.

“It is constantly mentally and physically draining. Constantly travelling. The hotels can be fun for a while, but you’re missing weddings, the number of weddings I missed, oh my gosh! They add up and when you’re not happy those things weigh on your mind. There’s the politics too, there’s all that going on. Every time I made an Olympics or a World Cup roster, I was stressed, because it comes down to the coach. No matter how well I was playing, that stress of whether you’d be picked or not every few years is a lot, I got really stressed.”

This time it was her husband who came along with some timely advice, who told her if he could do what she was doing, he would continue doing it. “I managed to play until 2015 when I was 39, people just came along at the right time when I needed them.”

As Boxx’s national team career was taking off, the league system in the US wasn’t. Between 2003 and 2009 there was no competitive league, just national team games, and Boxx admits she had to find a way of “keeping it fun” around USA commitments. “That was hard, because you have to stay at the top of your game. You’re making money, but not a lot. I think in 2005 we played less than ten games. Staying fit around that took a lot mentally to be strong in that environment.

“You can’t just go and get a typical job either because you didn’t know when you’d get called in for camp. I ended up coaching some young kids, individual sessions that kept it fun. I played for a women’s team just on weekends. I could just go out, run around and play a game. That’s how I stayed fit, but there were definitely a few years there where it was like ‘what’s going on? We need more games than this’.”

It was back to 2003 when everything started to go right career-wise. While she was in the midst of planning to take up a coaching role at a local university and return to her studies, USA head coach April Heinrichs gave Boxx an out of the blue call-up to the 2003 Women’s World Cup, despite her being uncapped at the time.

Boxx had just two warm-up games to prepare for her first major tournament having never been selected before, but she admits her confidence in her own ability was still there, and scoring in both games was no doubt a further boost. “I think that’s what attracted April to me,” she recalls. “I didn’t know I would get called in but Christie [Pearce] came running in and told me I was going into camp. I was like ‘what are you talking about?’ She was like ‘Oh man, I just ruined that for you …’ we didn’t have Twitter back then!

“On the way to camp, I spoke to April on my drive and she told me I didn’t really have a chance to make the World Cup because it was late, but I thanked her for the opportunity and she told me she wanted to see me against the best players. It was a little bit heartbreaking to hear I didn’t have a chance, but it was a blessing because I went into camp and just played my way. I wasn’t nervous, there was no pressure, I knew what I could do well.”

Boxx impressed so much, by the end of camp Heinrichs did indeed pick her for the World Cup squad. “I was shell-shocked, she’d told me I couldn’t and now I’d made it?! Later that night, people were celebrating their selections and I went over to an area where Julie [Foudy], Mia [Hamm] and Kristine [Lilly] were sitting and they were like ‘we wanted you on this team, just so you know, we wanted you here.’ I was like ‘how is this not a confidence boost?!’ The people I admired most wanted me on the team.”

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The World Cup didn’t end in success, but Boxx started every game for the USA and scored in the bronze medal match against Canada.

Boxx admits her mindset post-tournament was all about staying in the squad with the Olympic games just 12 months away, where she would pick up a gold medal, the first of three in a row up to London 2012. Of the 32 games the USA played in 2004, Boxx started 31 of them, including every match at the Olympics and in 2005 was nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year, two years after she was an uncapped player, alongside Marta and Birgit Prinz.

“What a great honour! To be a defensive midfield player and be honoured that way alongside Marta and Birgit. I was thankful to a coach who believed in me and took a chance on me. I was older and maybe that helped me, I don’t know, but I knew exactly who I was at that point and enjoyed myself so much. It was crazy, I’d only been on the team two years, crazy…”

Boxx missed eight months of 2006 due to an MCL injury following a separate hip injury, but returned in 2007 for a second go at winning a World Cup.

The US were now coached by Greg Ryan, and the tournament would turn out to be a drama-filled one for the USA team. “Drama, yeah …” she recalls when discussing the 4-0 semi-final defeat to a Marta-inspired Brazil. Boxx was sent off in the match, but it is better remembered for Ryan dropping Hope Solo for Brianna Scurry, the result ending a 51-game unbeaten run.

Ryan defended the move and didn’t blame Scurry for the defeat, while Solo went public with her displeasure, stating it was the “wrong decision, and I think anybody who knows anything about the game knows that.”

Solo went on to add she would have made the saves Scurry didn’t, and Ryan’s tenure quickly was put to an end after the tournament elimination. “I don’t think we’d ever lost that bad,” says Boxx. “My red card, you could see I got tripped and it was a really bad call, but it was still disappointment that I left my team out there with 10 players, it was pretty heartbreaking.

“Then everything with Hope and her stating certain things, it was just a really tough year. I think as players we did the best we could, trying to manage the rest of that year, managing the defeat and how do we dig ourselves out of this? Both on and off the field.”

The answer came in the form of legendary coach Pia Sundhage. The Swede would guide the team to two Olympic golds and their first World Cup final since 1999, and Boxx admits Sundhage arrived at the best time for the team. “We needed something fresh, someone to come in who reminded us why we played soccer and to enjoy it again. She made training fun, she came in and told us we were doing it because we loved it and we would it the new way now.”

There was no lingering after-effects of Solo’s outburst, Sundhage put the best squad together she could for a run at the Beijing Olympics in a bid to get the US back in a winning mentality. “Hope was the best goalkeeper in the world and she made a big mistake, but I appreciated Pia said she wanted to coach the best team and we needed the best goalkeeper.

What happened made us look bad from the outside, but Pia wanted the best players and wanted to make sure Hope was good with not really making comments like that again. We needed her. She was by far the best goalkeeper in the world for a number of years. We needed to get back and focus on soccer again instead of everything going off away from the field.”

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Boxx would play every minute of another successful Olympics campaign, but attention soon once again turned to the 2011 World Cup, with it now over a decade since the USA had lifted the sport’s major prize.

They stumbled against Sundhage’s homeland Sweden but made it out of the group stage, dramatically beating Brazil on penalties after Wambach headed home a 122nd-minute equaliser. In the semi-finals, they eased past a strong France side to set up a final against a surprise package in Japan, whose eye-catching brand of football would be up against the power of the US side after beating Sweden in the semi-finals.

In an enthralling encounter, which saw the game end 1-1 after 90 minutes, Wambach’s 104th-minute goal was cancelled out by Homare Sawa’s goal three minutes from time, setting up a penalty shootout, 12 years after the USA had beaten China the same away.

Boxx was up first but missed, and after Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath also failed to score, Saki Kumagai’s penalty gave Japan a historic and timely success off the back of the tragic tsunami which killed so many in the country. “The emotional side of that, oh my goodness,” recalls Boxx. “I still get super emotional about that, even now. What an amazing tournament though. Every World Cup has its moments, but Germany did such a good job.

“I feel as a team we were so connected the entire tournament. To go through the highs and lows of Brazil, you’re on such a high but realising you’re not done yet. I think you could tell against France we weren’t the best we could be, we were exhausted, emotionally trying to get past the Brazil game.”

On the Japan game, Boxx says, “Sometimes people think the US play quite direct and fight it out, but I thought we played such a good game of football. To get so unlucky, it felt like fate. All the things which happened to Japan, with one my closest friends Aya [Miyama, a teammate at LA Sol] who had gone through a lot and for me to miss my penalty, I sort of set the tone for the other takers, it wasn’t very good.

“You’re so emotional, but if we had to lose, at least it was Japan. What they went through as a country and what it meant to them, it was the only way I could make myself feel better.”

The tournament though left a profound effect on the sport in the USA at a time where society was changing and women’s football becoming more visible. “It was the first year really of social media to me and we had the president writing to us, actors and actresses, people were watching everywhere. We were finally breaking through and having Americans realising what we could do. We came home and felt like celebrities. A year later in London, we wanted to prove we could win, that was our motivation, we win and play Japan again, it felt like redemption.”

After Sundhage led the side to another gold, Tom Sermanni briefly took over before Jill Ellis became permanent head coach in 2014, tasked with ending a 16-year wait for a World Cup, the 2015 tournament hosted just across the border in Canada, making it visible to the whole of the US.

“Carli, man,” she laughs, recalling Lloyd’s inspired 16-minute hat-trick in a 5-2 win against Japan which ended their wait for a World Cup trophy. “It was crazy. The players were incredible and the quality went up and it’s continuing to grow. In 2011 we were great, we were there, but it was luck and soccer’s a weird game like that. To come back, it’s hard to come back and do it again and I think that’s why in 2016 at the Olympics we didn’t do that great.”

It marked the end of an era for many players, including Boxx and close friends and teammates Wambach and Pearce, while Solo would retire a year later after the Olympics.“I knew 2015 would be my last,” admits Boxx. “I wanted to go out with a World Cup. I had my daughter in 2014 and I knew I wanted to come back for one last go, but I was 39. I wanted to make that team, my role became completely different, but it was important to show my daughter you can come back from this.

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“I had already told Jill I was retiring after the World Cup. My very last game, I had so much fun and played really well and I was like ‘huh, maybe I could have carried on’, then I came off hurting and aching and was like ‘nope …’”

Those aches and pains weren’t helped by the fact Boxx had been diagnosed with lupus eight years earlier, but kept it hidden until just before the 2012 Olympics. Lupus is an auto-immune disease which as Boxx puts it, means your body attacks itself. “It can affect your heart, your kidneys, your lungs. My joints were always tired. Muscle pain, extreme fatigue, face rashes, but fortunately my organs were ok.

“I was also diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome in 2002 before I even made the national team, so I was dealing with that and not letting anybody know. When I was diagnosed with lupus, it was difficult, especially as I was trying to keep it secret. You can feel great and then a flare comes and you can be out of it for a day, a week, a month.”

Boxx kept it hidden from almost everyone for four years before going public to raise awareness of the condition before London 2012, and only told teammate Christie Pearce within the USWNT bubble of what she was experiencing. “I didn’t feel I could tell my coaches because how could I control when a flare came? That was hard. Christie was the only player I told because I needed that support when we were away with the team. Sometimes I wouldn’t even need to tell her, she’d just see me white as a ghost on the field and be like ‘I’ve got your back, I’ll cover for you’.”

It makes it all the more amazing Boxx was able to maintain, and indeed thrive, in a career that lasted until she was 39, going through physical torture at times which left her unable to do the simplest of tasks.

“I got my medicine around 2010 to help control it, but the days of fatigue and joint pain, it was unbearable going through a training session. There were days a coach could overlook it and I’d go back to the hotel and sleep all day. In 2011, I told my coaches, I felt like I’d been on the team long enough that I could use my voice. I could get the word out with social media growing and spread awareness.

“It was scary, but I knew it was the right thing and it helped me continue my career. I was in a lot of pain around then, to the extent I had to have teammates cut my food for me at the dinner table. When the support came and I could open up and manage training, they were so willing to help and support and manage how much I did.”

Boxx has also dedicated a lot of time researching and educating herself and others about her background. Boxx was born to a white mother and black father, the latter of whom died when Boxx was just ten, so she wasn’t overly educated in her family background.

While studying at Notre Dame, Boxx took up African-American studies and ended up majoring in the subject, and now hopes she can be a role model to others. “I’m bi-racial. I grew up largely in a single-parent household. I had my mum and my sister. My mum was white and I knew I had both, I loved that, but my mum couldn’t explain or help me understand what it meant to have different coloured skin and what that could potentially mean or do or how people could treat me.

“Most people were just a little bit ignorant. If I was with my mum people used to just say ‘oh, your daughter has a great tan’, but it wasn’t a tan. It was almost as if people didn’t want to acknowledge my mum married a black man.”

Boxx admits to being “confused” in high school as she accepted and loved who she was, but didn’t understand that others didn’t seem to share her views. “It didn’t seem fine to others,” she recalls. “At college, I was so happy because I could express myself how I wanted to and people there viewed me as black and that’s how I’d always seen myself, but I definitely wanted to learn more about my culture. I felt more alive knowing this is who I am. 

“I was sometimes the only black player on the US team and didn’t always feel I got the sponsors or the appearances. I was one of the top players but I didn’t look like the others, I wasn’t deemed as ‘this is what soccer players look like’. It became really important to me that when I sign autographs, I was drawn to other kids of colour, because it’s important to give them confidence that they can do what I did.”

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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