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Jasmyne Spencer wants 2021 to be the year of her true comeback

Spencer has played in the league since 2013, but she is far from done making an impact on and off the field.

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Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The NWSL Challenge Cup is coming back. Earlier this week, the full schedule for the tournament was unveiled, with the competition this time serving as something of an opening act to the return of a full NWSL regular season. As OL Reign continue their training camp to prepare for the competition, forward Jasmyne Spencer enters her fourth season with the club. Spencer has played in the NWSL since the inaugural season of 2013, and like many players in the league, has done several tours abroad between league seasons.

Longevity like this in any professional sport is far from guaranteed, but Spencer attributed her longevity to three points:

Her health:

First and foremost, being able to stay healthy. I really hadn’t had very many injuries in my career, and only one major injury. So being able to stay healthy.

Her loved ones:

Having my family and fiancé be able to support me, not only emotionally but financially at times as well. Many people who have been following the league from the beginning know that resources were definitely limited. I think they have shouldered a lot of that burden with me and I’m so grateful for them.

Her passion:

I love playing and I don’t want to be doing anything else quite yet. So I’m just gonna continue to put the work in and earn my right to continue to play.

Over the course of my chat with Spencer, clearly hearing the passion in her voice about preparing for what everyone hopes is a full, normal NWSL year, the phrase “champing at the bit” would be an understatement to how energized she is. While OL Reign has spent the off-season continuing their youth movement initiative that began back in 2018, the squad still has three players from the inaugural 2013 squad, along with league-established veterans like Spencer. Each NWSL roster has a varying levels of diverse experience like this, and Spencer views the competition to get playing time as fuel to keep her passion for the game going.

We’re out here trying to win championships and you just want to be the best you can. If that means someone younger than you pushing you or someone older than you pushing you, it doesn’t really matter. You embrace the competition, because at the end of the day you know you’re getting better.

Looking forward

So, about that one major injury. Like so many of us, Spencer had plans for 2020. The year was to have been her return to the field after sustaining an ACL tear in the 2019 season opener. Technically, Spencer did return to the field, logging appearances in both the NWSL Challenge Cup and Fall Series, but with the team playing only nine matches in 2020, the comeback was more like a soft re-opening.

Many athletes across multiple sports have reflected on the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 and how “the show must go on” brought sports back; however, Spencer is focusing on what 2021 could be for her. She sees it as the full and proper return to the field after losing her 2019 season:

Honestly I haven’t thought too much about it because, I am just excited to have the possibility of playing a full season again. It’s been nearly three years, so I’ve just been focusing on that and not really looking back. There’s always going to be things going on in the world outside of the sport, but I haven’t played a full season in so long that my priority is making sure I can perform to the best of my ability.

For most professional athletes, that moment of returning to the field from losing a year to a serious injury is a big, circle the date on the calendar life event. That only was half of what should have been a huge year for Spencer — 2020 was also the year she and her fiancé Brian planned to get married. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause to that, and while some couples have opted modify their celebrations, Spencer is all about sticking to the big bash — when it’s safe.

We both come from large families and we’re anticipating up to 200 people. It doesn’t seem right to have that momentous day in our lives without everyone who we really want to be there. We’re going on three years of engagement, so we’re not in any rush. We know that when we can have that day, that it will be very special.

“I see my responsibility as continuing the conversation.”

While playing as much soccer as possible in 2021 is Spencer’s primary focus, that doesn’t mean a de-prioritization of using her voice and platform as a Black woman playing in professional sports.

As the world was adjusting to trying to live and work in new ways in the midst of a pandemic, the summer of 2020 also brought on an overdue reckoning about the generations-long systemic racism has ravaged BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities. The summer of Black Lives Matter protests affected sports leagues around the world, and with the NWSL being the first American team sports league to resume play as the pandemic took over, there were moments over the course of the NWSL Challenge Cup integral to how athletes can use their voice and platform.

Systemic racism is a true issue in this country. And I think for a lot of people, no matter what industry they’re in, where they live in the country, conversations were either damaging or repairing relationships. I think what we did as a team was create a safe space for all opinions to be heard, discussed, and reflected on. I have been very conscious in keeping those within the club. It was a very intimate experience that we all shared, but I think we’re all better for it. We have a bond and a sense of trust and respect after having going through all of that together.

Spencer said that in order for tangible change to happen in communities beyond just the cities that have a NWSL team, it has to start with a conversation and some outright storytelling. The Black Women’s Player Collective was formed last October and has been involved in initiatives like creating mini-pitches across the country so children of color can be introduced to and have regular access to play the beautiful game. Throughout last month, the group’s Instagram page told stories of trailblazing women and men with the tagline, “The people you should have learned about but never did.” Chances are your favorite NWSL players shared each and every story on their respective Instagram profiles to amplify these icons of history.

Illuminating the past has also inspired Black players in the NWSL today to tell their own stories. Along with Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns), Midge Purce (Sky Blue FC), and Sarah Gorden (Chicago Red Stars), Spencer will be featured in the upcoming documentary series, “The Call Up.” The teasers of each woman’s story have been met with universal acclaim and have highlighted the power and impact of giving someone space to tell their story.

Another action that Spencer and the BWPC have taken is launching a fundraiser to directly support the Collective’s ambitious 2021 programming goals, which includes hosting free soccer clinics at their mini pitches across the country, presenting opportunities for kids to attend NWSL games, and producing media that shares insights of Black women and their experiences in both sport and business.

The fundraiser set an initial goal of $20,000. To date, they have raised nearly $44,000, with donations continuing to come in from across the entire NWSL/women’s soccer universe, from fans to players, coaches, and team owners.

Spencer said it will take time for tangible changes in communities to come to fruition, but the conversations and actions happening today, this season, and beyond will plant the seeds of that change.

“What I credit him most with has absolutely nothing to do with soccer.”

Needless to say, 2020 was anything but an ideal way for new OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti to begin his life in the United States. It’s reasonable to have questions as to how much of his accomplished resume with Lyon can translate over to the chaotic energy that is the NWSL, but Spencer’s assessment of Benstiti’s first season with the team started with this:

What I credit him most with has absolutely nothing to do with soccer. His ability to keep us all level-headed and sane — it was a really tough time [with] the pandemic. We were all away from our families, he was away from his family. There were so many extenuating circumstances that could have impacted the culture of the team, and he and the staff did such a good job of making us feel safe, secure, loved, and not alone in a really difficult time. For a new coach to come in and be capable of doing that, it’s probably the greatest thing he’s ever done for us.

Spencer pointed to the team’s performance in the final 2020 Fall Series match, a 2-0 victory against Utah Royals FC, as a sign of what Benstiti’s system and tactics can look like on the field once everything clicks, and she is confident it can be a recipe for success. While the 2021 edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup is still a month away, Spencer described the team as having good vibes, with her very eager to play:

We want to win a championship. We want to win the Challenge Cup, we want to win the regular season [NWSL Shield], and we want to lift the NWSL Championship at the end of the day. That’s what we’re all working toward.

Movie Night

With a truncated season in 2020, what’s an NWSL player to do with so much free time and nowhere to go because of a pandemic? Catch up on movies, of course. Spencer said that she, her brother, and her fiancé went through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe — in chronological order, no less — including the just-finished first season of “WandaVision.” Spencer said it took them about six months to complete the run.

Every woman in the series is such a badass. Anyone who’s seen [Avengers] Endgame, they have a scene together and I was up, off the couch... I felt like I was fighting with them. It was probably my favorite moment.

Jas It Up

Jasmyne Spencer is first and foremost a soccer player, who also happens to have a clothing line. Jas It Up started with headbands. This foray into creating apparel then tapped into another passion for Spencer, the environment.

I started to loop in my passion for the environment and switch to eco-friendly materials, and I never really envisioned it being an apparel company. That idea manifested from the fact that I felt I could really start to reach more people and educate more people by expanding the brand. I don’t really view Jas It Up as a business or even an apparel company. It’s just an extension of myself and gives me a greater reach to educate people and bring joy to their life. Just try and inspire them to do a little bit better for themselves and everybody else they’re around.

Every product available for purchase on Jas It Up has some component of recycled/repurposed material and Spencer’s involvement in the creation and production is far from surface level. The product info for the Reworked Revolutionize The Game Tee states: Each of these custom Tees are handsewn by Jas It Up founder Jasmyne Spencer. They are reconstructed from the original Revolutionize The Game Tee so no two tees are alike!

Over the summer, Spencer added her part in mask production through Jas It Up, as the world urgently needed non-medical grade masks. Buy one mask, and she would create another to donate to the International Rescue Committee. Her goal was to donate 100 masks by the end July, and she finished with 103.

Spencer’s legacy: TBD

Having played in the league since its inaugural season, it would be understandable for Spencer to get reflective on the journey up to this point, especially with a year lost due to a serious injury that she was determined would not close the book on her career. So I asked her if she had given thought about her legacy, and what would she hope people remember about her career when the day comes that she hangs up the boots. Her answer was very much in the spirit of living in the moment.

“You’re going to have ask me again in about four or five years.”

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