It’s been a big year for women’s soccer, punctuated by Megan Rapinoe’s heroics in the World Cup final. That’s why we’re excited to welcome one of the game’s brightest young stars, Paige Nielsen, to our Momentous Ambassador team. In this candid interview, the Washington Spirit defender discusses her stints in South Korea and Australia, Team USA’s fight for equal pay, and how the memory of her mother (who passed away from cancer) drives her to excel.
Alex Morgan and other members of Team USA have been vocal about equal pay. What’s your take?
I think the results of the women’s national team speak for themselves. While I only want good things for the men’s team as well, they haven’t achieved the same things. It will come down to revenue. As the women’s game starts to make more revenue, that should trickle down to the players.
How do you think women’s soccer is progressing at the moment?
We’ve obviously done well at the World Cup and are expecting great things at the Olympics, but those only come around every four years. For the game to keep growing as I believe it will, we’ve got to have people coming out to support their local NWSL team every week. I remember a home game that was sold out last season. The power went out for a little while and all the fans held up their phones. It was so cool to see all those thousands of lights in the crowd, and it seemed like the whole city had turned out to support us. Then we had all these little girls lining up to meet us afterwards.
In terms of the national team, we’ve always relied on our physicality and work ethic. But now other countries have caught on to that and have different schemes to stop us. We’ve got to keep becoming more skilled and have tactics that can adapt to any situation.
How do you honor your mom in everything you do?
When she got cancer, she woke up and was sick for two hours every morning. But she still went off to work to support me and my siblings. That makes any small problems I have seem insignificant. It’s not about what you’re going through that counts, but how you approach it. I remember when I was in my senior year, I got several full ride offers from schools in the Midwest and was tempted to take one of them. But she asked me, “What about your dream of playing at UNC?” and reminded me that you should never make a decision just because of money.
That challenged me to attend UNC as a walk-on. By my sophomore season I’d earned a scholarship and once I was a senior, I captained the team. That’s all because my mom pushed me to never settle. She also believed in never giving in to a fear of failure. Keeping this in mind has freed me to chase my biggest goals and pursue every opportunity without worrying about falling short.
Speaking of UNC, what was it like to win a national championship there?
I learned so much about teamwork. When I was a freshman, I wasn’t fit enough and I’d puke after some workouts. But my teammates wouldn’t let me quit. I remember falling down during one run and someone picking me up and pulling me behind them for a while. If Crystal Dunn saw me struggling she’d yell, “Do it for the natty! [national championship].” That season when we went all the way to the championship, she put the whole team on her back. It was amazing and I remember thinking, “That’s the kind of leader I want to be.”
After you graduated, you played in South Korea for 18 months. What was that like?
It was a unique experience as the culture is so much different to the US. I lived with my teammates in a dorm and every day was full-on. We’d get up at 6 AM and practice, and the losers had to buy the winners coffee. Then we’d eat breakfast together, go to another practice, grab lunch, have another session, eat dinner, get a massage. Curfew was at 10 PM, then we’d sleep and do it all again the next day. I lost a lot of muscle because of how much work I was doing, but as it was like a year-and-a-half bootcamp, I improved my technique and developed a better understanding for strategy and tactics.
You also played in Australia for a while. What did you enjoy most about your time Down Under?
The beaches! I’m only half-kidding. I was given the freedom to be myself and play the way I wanted to. Because the game is so physical there, it helped improve my athleticism. There was a lot of downtime, so I learned to surf, even though I’m still not that good. It was a complete culture shock going from the intensive environment in South Korea. As there was less pressure, I was able to perform and gain confidence. The athletic style of Australian soccer complemented the technical and tactical elements I’d learned in South Korea, which prepared me well for going back to the NWSL.
What’s your main team goal for the upcoming season with the Spirit?
To win a national championship. Last year we had a lot of promise and got so close to the playoffs. Now we have several talented players coming from overseas and more from the draft, so we’re stacked. The new owner Steve Baldwin has done so much for us already. He wants the very best for the team and is player-centric, so we don’t want to let him or our coaches down.
How about an individual aim?
I want to make it to the national team. I think I’m really close, but there’s still a lot of work to do. This off-season was the first time in years I’ve paid for coaching, and it’s making me push even harder. I’m playing pickup games with some MLS players twice a week, and it’s so fast-paced and physical. Plus I’m lifting three times a week, doing two skills sessions with my coach, and running twice.
That’s a lot of training volume! How are you recovering between sessions?
I’m sitting in an ice bath while I’m talking to you. Beyond that, I learned a few years ago that nutrition is key to bouncing back between games. Right out of college I was vegan for a while, but couldn’t get the protein to keep muscle mass on. Then I tried keto for a month, but it upset my stomach. So now I’m back to eating a balanced diet and timing when I take in carbs. I was also looking for a clean, high-quality protein supplement, which led me to Momentous. I mix a scoop of ArcFire with almond milk immediately after lifting, and in a smoothie with blueberries and chia seeds after longer sessions. Then at night I’ll put another serving in almond milk and warm it up.