On August 1st, OL Reign midfielder Olivia Athens celebrated her 24th birthday. It would be understandable that it’d be hard to have a proper celebration, since OL Reign were in the middle of a tough stretch of road games playing at Angel City two days before and at Racing Louisville the following day, but as Athens told Ride of the Valkyries, the celebration spanned multiple days across three cities.
“Some of my teammates surprised me with cake from my favorite bakery in LA after our game against Angel City and sang to me. Then on my actual birthday in Louisville, they surprised me with more treats and singing. They made me feel very special and I am very thankful to have such thoughtful teammates. After Louisville, a couple of us went to Cincinnati to spend the day before our flight back to Seattle.”
It began with a conversation with Laura Harvey
Athens went unselected in the 2021 NWSL Draft, and while she could have continued her soccer career by joining an NWSL club’s training camp or exploring options abroad, Athens instead opted to return to UCLA to play a fifth season and enroll in the school’s Master of Legal Studies program. At some point after Laura Harvey returned to coach the Reign for a second stint last August, a conversation with Athens about possibly joining the club happened.
“I kind of had this moment of yeah, okay, this is something I want to do and Reign seems like the perfect place to do it, just to play for Laura and this awesome club. So it was something I wanted to try and then the first half of this year, I was still finishing my Master’s program, I was like, okay, let me try to do both at once and see if I like it. It’s kind of killing two birds with one stone and it’s been great. I have loved every second playing with some of the players on our team. It’s been a real surreal experience.”
With OL Reign being a founding club of the NWSL a decade ago, we are well into the generation of incoming players that have had the NWSL existing through a significant period of their lives. Athens very much remembers watching prolific players like Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe as a fan. The reputation of being a destination club for nearly as long as the league has existed can create high expectations for any new player coming in. Seeing it as a fan and hopeful pro is one thing, but Athens is experiencing herself that the Reign culture and locker room is everything they say it is and more.
“It has exceeded [expectations], honestly — you hear things from from girls coming from other teams and how there’s really no place like Reign, just in terms of we do have three founding players in Jess, Lu, and Pinoe. Their ability to establish a culture and have it go for so long, I think is really special. You can’t say that in every other club. Laura and those three have really built this culture, and I’m just really thankful to be a part of it.”
Now those three, along with the likes of Tobin Heath, Sofia Huerta, and the recently departed Kim Little are her teammates. In the July 10 match against rival Portland Thorns where Athens got her first NWSL start, she had what you could consider the I’ve made it moment.
“I look to my left and there was Kim Little and to the right was Jess Fishlock, and I was like, okay, these are players that I grew up watching that are world class, and now I get to play with them. That was definitely a surreal moment and was really cool.”
It was also that game where Athens claimed her first professional goal. In her five-year run at UCLA she scored some significant goals, including a pair of match-winners against Arizona State University and University of Southern California (that goal secured the PAC-12 title for UCLA), but scoring against your Cascadia rivals for your first professional goal would be her pick to start off the Olivia Athens highlight reel.
“I honestly didn’t realize it was off the kickoff. I don’t know why, but when we re-watched it, it was they had scored and then I was we were like ‘Oh my gosh, it literally came off the kickoff’. But yeah, I just remembered Bethany [Balcer] pulling it forward, and that was like okay, I’m gonna try to get in the centerback’s way and then it was kind of just an opportunistic opportunity. And I just was like, ‘Oh my god, I just scored.’”
“My dad jokes that I wasn’t fast enough to play up top and wasn’t fast enough to play in the back.”
As far back as Athens can remember, she’s played in the midfield. Regardless of her dad’s humorous assessment, she had always been attracted to passing and being the playmaker on the field. It’s why Zinedine Zidane is her soccer idol.
“I think just his technical ability and his ability to try things that I think no one else wanted to try. His calmness and smoothness on the ball. I loved watching him, I love watching [Andrés] Iniesta, and I try to emulate my game around them because they’re not the fastest or the strongest, but they can bring a different quality to the game. I loved watching them growing up.”
And on this team, with such accomplished players who Athens grew up watching succeed at just about every domestic and international level, it has been a deep dive in learning for her. Before the club’s emphatic 4-1 victory on Sunday vs. Gotham FC, OL Reign had a three-match run where they dropped points and conceded goals they shouldn’t have. It’s a spell of adversity that Athens finds invaluable having a locker room of leaders that have lost as much as they have won, and continue to set the standards for the rest of the squad.
“Having their voice and guiding us and listening to them — I think it’s super important and something we can all learn from. It’s definitely an advantage having those kinds of successful players in our locker room, because they know what it takes, and they remind us.”
Life off the field and with her teammates
The life of a professional athlete is demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally. At the end of the day, regardless of the score line, the players are human beings and they are entitled to peace and to be who they are as people and not have the professional athlete title precede their name. For Athens, reading has become a go-to activity where she can invest in herself, unplug, and not be Olivia Athens, Professional Soccer Player. Her recent read was Dance of Thieves, by Mary E. Pearson, recommended to her by teammate, goalkeeper Laurel Ivory. In discussing about how reading is her hobby, Athens told a fascinating anecdote about teammate Sam Hiatt.
“I do love to read. We’re getting kind of competitive with it with finishing books, but I don’t think I’ll ever finish a book faster than Sam Hiatt, because I’ve never seen someone read as fast as her. She finished a book literally on the drive to Portland on the bus. [Dance of Thieves] is 500 pages and Sam Hiatt finished it from the plane ride from Cincinnati to Seattle.”
Fans of OL Reign have undoubtedly been entertained by the “debate” this season between goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce and midfielder Nikki Stanton about mermaids. There is marine biologist Tullis-Joyce’s scientific definition of a mermaid classified as a mammal that can breathe in the water, like manatees. There is Stanton’s definition that follows the mythological route, as popularized by Disney’s The Little Mermaid. So where does Athens stand on this?
“Honestly, I don’t really know what Nikki’s talking about, so I would have to go with Phallon, because she’s the expert here right? Sorry, Nik.”