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A Heart for Soccer, A Mission for Medicine: Nigerian Footballer Michelle Alozie’s Journey to Paris

Alozie is pursuing two dreams: soccer and medicine
Representing Nigeria on the Olympic stage has long been a dream for Michelle Alozie, but her ambitions don't stop there. An aspiring doctor, she doubles as a cancer researcher at Texas Children's Hospital.

The Nigerian women’s soccer team will make its first Olympic appearance since 2008 this summer in Paris. The Super Falcons announced their 22-woman Olympic roster in early July and among the list of standouts is Nigerian-American defender Michelle Alozie. The Apple Valley, California native is set to make her Olympic debut in Paris but Alozie, 27, is no stranger to playing on the world’s biggest stage. The Houston Dash forward was an integral part of Nigeria’s squad during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

But soccer is just one of Alozie’s passions. When she’s not representing the Nigerian national team or playing in the NWSL, the Yale University graduate is dedicated to finding a cure for cancer at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center.

In the conversation below, Alozie details how she carved out her own path to professional soccer, how she balances soccer and medicine, why she decided to represent Nigeria, what playing for the Super Falcons means to her, and her lifelong dream of becoming a cardiologist.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This conversation took place in November 2023.

How old were you when you first fell in love with soccer and what was it that drew you to the sport?

Michelle Alozie: I definitely got into the sport because my family is Nigerian. I think soccer, or football as they would say, is everything to them. I’m the youngest of four and all my siblings played soccer so I just blindly went into it just because it was what they were doing and I just had to copy them because I’m the baby. But I don’t think it was until I was around 10, when I actually loved the sport itself instead of doing it because my siblings did it. I think that’s when I started to take it a little bit more seriously and wanted to see how far things could take me.

Did you ever imagine that you would be doing this professionally?

Alozie: At the time, I think the professional women’s leagues in America just kept folding so I wasn’t necessarily sure if there was going to be a professional league or if I would have to go overseas to play football. As I continued to grow, the league here also continued to grow and be a little bit more established. It wasn’t until around college that I realized I could play professionally here in the States.

Houston Dash v Bay FC

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 30: Michelle Alozie #11 of the Houston Dash dribbles the ball during a game between Houston Dash and Bay FC at PayPal Park on March 30, 2024 in San Jose, CA. (Photo by Lyndsay Radnedge/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Getty Images

There’s a quote that says “If opportunity doesn’t knock, create your own door,” and you’ve done that. I know it wasn’t a straight path to the professional stage for you, you had a couple of doors closed in your face before you got there, but ultimately a few e-mails on your end led to tryouts. Can you talk about how your opportunities with the Houston Dash and the Nigerian national team came about?

Alozie: I give her so much credit for this, but I reached out to my old club teammate that I’ve known since I was maybe 13. She was in Houston and told me to email some of the head coaches in the [NWSL], particularly the one in Houston. She gave me the emails for them and the assistant coaches. I sent them an email just asking for an opportunity. I had my sister living here in Houston and I was able to just crash on her couch so it was going to be at no extra expense to [the team].

Thankfully, they allowed me to join and it’s been history since then. I’ve been with them for three years now and I’m really thankful for that opportunity. It was about believing in myself, taking a chance on myself, and allowing them to see my potential.

Orlando Pride v Houston Dash

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 03: Michelle Alozie #22 of the Houston Dash battles Kylie Strom #3 of Orlando Pride for ball control during the first half at Shell Energy Stadium on June 03, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Getty Images

That’s amazing! Fast forward to the World Cup last summer, Nigeria was eliminated in the round of 16 but you were a significant part of the team’s success. What was your experience playing in the World Cup like and what do you remember most?

Alozie: Man playing in the World Cup was surreal, honestly! I think even leading up to it once the roster came out, like a month or so before we went out to Australia, it still just didn’t hit me. I remember so many people asking me how I felt or what I was feeling and I think it was just like a shock factor.

The World Cup is something I’ve been watching since I was a kid—both the women’s and the men’s [tournaments]. So actually having an opportunity to be there just didn’t seem real, especially since I couldn’t get on a soccer team two years prior. So now to be at the World Cup with one of the best African teams in Africa I was like ‘What is going on?’ It just didn’t really hit me!

But I’m just so proud of the group that we went with. I think that a lot of people counted us out, especially being in the “Group of Death”. I think we also grew a really big fan base from people who weren’t Nigerian, after beating Australia, tying with Canada and Ireland, and putting up such a good show versus England. I think no one really expected that from us. But it allowed us to grow a lot and show the growth of African soccer and [the growth] of Nigeria as well.

England v Nigeria: Round of 16 - FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 07: Lauren James of England and Michelle Alozie of Nigeria battle for the ball during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between England and Nigeria at Brisbane Stadium on August 07, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Elsa - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

FIFA via Getty Images

You talked about that shock factor. Did you have a “pinch me” moment at the World Cup? Can you describe it?

Alozie: This is so stupid but it was definitely when we had our media day and they were asking us questions and having us put on our different uniforms, and they were sending us photos and explaining what they were going to be for. They were like ‘This is going to be headlining for FIFA,” and I was just [thinking] ‘What is going on?’

I felt like a little celebrity! This has literally been a dream of mine—my childhood dream! I was so fulfilled! I felt like I was able to kind of close a really important chapter from my childhood from that.

I love that! You are Nigerian by blood. What was it like growing up in a Nigerian household as a first-generation American?

Alozie: Yeah, I remember discussing this in college with other first-generation Americans. I think it was kind of a state of confusion growing up. You kind of feel like you’re split between two cultures. I remember being almost embarrassed to be African or to be a Nigerian—to smell like the cuisine or to have my parents have the accent, which now I think is just so silly.

But I remember it just being a little tough for me, trying to appeal to both cultures. Now, I feel so sad that I was ever embarrassed by my parents’ accents and smelling like Egusi soup when it’s really so good and everyone wants to try it now! But I remember it being tough and me not necessarily understanding why it was so hard to be a part of two cultures at the same time.

Thank you for sharing that! What is your full Nigerian name and what does it mean?

Alozie: My name is Michelle Chinwendu Alozie. Chinwendu means “God owns life.” I think I really show that with the opportunities that I’m making for myself and just sticking to it. As you said, when opportunities aren’t available, you have to make them and I think that God is doing that with me daily, whether I see it or not. I think I live by my name for sure—my parents did well with that!

I love that, that’s beautiful! A moment ago you talked about growing up and wanting to hide your Nigerian roots, wanting to water down your parents’ accents. Why did it feel so embarrassing back then and what changed for you?

Alozie: I grew up in a pretty small town so I don’t know if people were just a little xenophobic at the time, but being different was just so not okay. I remember just having a baby identity crisis when I was younger, when people were like, ‘Oh, you’ve never like been to a barbecue or your family doesn’t have cookouts?’ And I would say ‘No, but once a month that Imo population in San Diego will get together and have this big party where we get all dressed up and meet new people. ' And they’d be like ‘What are you doing? This doesn’t sound right.’

But I think it was just the fact that I was just so different and it was a part of a culture that a lot of people weren’t exposed to, especially in my small town in California. It was just hard for them to understand that yes I am Black. I do live in America and have an American accent, but my actual culture is Nigerian. My upbringing and what we do in the home are completely different than what your Black American friends do. When we were younger, that was just a little bit difficult for people and myself really to come to grasp.

I don’t think it was until really college that I finally met friends who were also first-generation and they all kind of had the same experiences as me growing up, whether it was in New York, Florida, or Charlotte. I didn’t feel alone and it just made me feel a little bit at ease and not feel as bad for 10-year-old me being embarrassed about my parents because we all were. I think that was the turning point for me.

Yet you still wanted to play for Nigeria from when you were a kid so what made you want to play professionally for Nigeria and represent the motherland?

Alozie: I think really just having the pride that I had to be Nigerian and finally breaking through with that in college. I have this funny photo actually, of me in the Super Eagles jersey from 2015. I told myself if I was not on the Nigerian National Team in four years something [went] wrong.

I think a lot of people have that misconception that I wanted to [play] for the U.S. or I’m only on Nigeria’s [team] because I didn’t make it on the U.S. team. But [playing] for the U.S. was never the end goal for me. It was always to represent being from Nigeria, make my parents and my family back in Nigeria proud, and allow them to live vicariously through me and through this dream that we all had.

Michelle Alozie 234 pride.png

Michelle’s Instagram

How much pride do you have in getting to represent Nigeria? What does that mean to you?

Alozie: It is literally everything! It didn’t hit me until I got my call-up in 2021. I remember calling my parents and letting them know, and they were just so shocked and having all my uncles and aunts call me. It was just so surreal and it made me so happy that even though I was born in America and I only had been to Nigeria once in my life before that, I would want to represent the family and our culture and show just the pride that I have in being Nigerian. Nigerian pride is strong, that’s for sure and I think I’ve definitely grown into that pride as I’ve gotten older.

Michelle Alozie Nigeria Flag.png

What do you think it means to your parents that you get to represent Nigeria?

Alozie: They love it! I think they’re all just so confused at how this little one who was just following her siblings’ footsteps, made it to the Nigerian team. They’re just so happy. They always take credit. They’re like, ‘Oh, remember when we were doing those shooting drills in San Diego in your backyard? That’s the reason you’re [playing for] Nigeria. I’m like, yeah that actually is the reason. So any opportunity I have to just make them proud and allow them to come to one of our games just makes me so happy and I feel like it really fulfills the family.

Nigeria Portraits - FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 16: Michelle Alozie of Nigeria poses for a portrait during the official FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 portrait session on July 16, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

FIFA via Getty Images

For people that don’t know, what kind of sacrifices did your parents make? What are some hardships that Nigerian immigrants that people don’t necessarily see?

Alozie: My parents came [to the U.S.] in their mid-20s to come to college. At first, my mom was in Canada, my dad was in Texas. Their whole focus—which I think we also forget when we’re younger—was to bring their family to America as well because they were the first to come to America on both sides. They were focused on making it successfully, [earning] money, and either sending it back home or [providing] for their family to come. As they were doing that, they were also just trying to figure out their life, make life for us as amazing as they could, and provide different opportunities that they didn’t have in Nigeria, or they fought really hard to then come to America for.

They weren’t allowed to make the mistakes that I’m allowed to make right now, or when I was 25 or 26, they had to be almost completely perfect. They weren’t allowed to be like, ‘I’ll just play soccer right now. I’ll figure out my life later and maybe go to med school later.’ They had to have a really strict plan because it wasn’t just them that they were worried about. They were trying to make life better for their whole entire family.

I think it’s just amazing because being [in my 20s] right now, I still feel like I’m a kid, and for them to have moved to a different country trying to make life for their entire family better and bring them to America—I just can’t imagine doing that at my age.

Michelle Alozie Family.jpg

That’s a really nice way of putting that. Thank you for sharing that! What are some things that only people who grew up in an African household would understand?

Alozie: Hmmm.. when family comes over and all you want to do is go to your room and you walk in and find like 14 kids just sleeping on you’re bed and you’re just like ‘Who are you guys?’ They’re your cousins and you’re just like ‘Alright, whatever I guess I just won’t be in my room today.’

That is hilarious! What are some values from your culture that have turned you into the person you are today?

Alozie: The worth ethic. That’s a really good stereotype that Nigerians have. They will work tirelessly and endlessly to get what they want. I think that I have done that throughout my scholastic career and also now in my professional career. I will put work into everything just to make sure that things come to fruition the way I see them. Regardless of my not sleeping or having to miss out on things. I will do what I have to do to make sure that something works out the way that I [envision] it.

England v Nigeria: Round of 16 - FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 7: Michelle Alozie of Nigeria and Keira Walsh of England battle for the ball during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between England and Nigeria at Brisbane Stadium on August 7, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Sajad Imanian/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

DeFodi Images via Getty Images

There’s a saying “Naija no dey carry last.” Can you explain what that means to people who don’t understand or have never heard it?

Alozie: It means regardless of what we’re doing or what situation we’re in, we will not be trampled. You will never catch us slipping. Nigeria will always come prideful. We’ll come right. We’ll come with receipts. We will come with everything, prepared to be the best. We always think we’re the best which also helps but [Nigerians] will always come on top at the end of whatever situation that we’re in.

I’ve heard you talk about the fight of the Nigerian national team. How does that saying and mentality spill over into the Super Falcon’s work ethic?

Alozie: I’m only going into my third season with the Nigerian team and just to hear what they have put themselves through from such a young age—some people have been on the team for 20 years plus and they have been able to triumph and work for so much.

I think a lot of people don’t see things that happen behind the scenes. With the Super Falcons, it’s way more than just performing on the field, we have to do so much behind the scenes that people don’t really know and we can’t really talk about. Football always brings so much pride and happiness to Nigerians and so I think for them to put everything aside and still be able to perform their hearts out—blood, sweat, and tears—just to make others happy shows our work ethic.

England v Nigeria - FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 - Round of 16 - Brisbane Stadium

Nigeria players react to a missed shot by Michelle Alozie (not pictured) during a penalty shoot-out after extra time in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Round of 16 match at Brisbane Stadium, Australia. Picture date: Monday August 7, 2023. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images)

PA Images via Getty Images

What is the overall team dynamic like?

Alozie: Oh, it’s so funny! I think when I first joined I was so confused. Some of them wanted to call them ‘aunties’ and I remember thinking ‘Whoa, what is this? You’re my teammate.’

But after getting to know them they’re all just so kind and friendly, and they genuinely want the best for you and the team. They are all willing to quickly sacrifice—especially the ones who have been there the longest—for the younger generation, which I think is beautiful. It’s the only way things can really change. It’s definitely a group of sisters and I’m so glad to have been able to meet all of the ones that I have these past three years.

Team Nigeria.png

Aww I love that! So did you grow up watching the Olympics at all? Do you have a favorite Olympic memory?

Alozie: Honestly I didn’t really watch the Olympics that much growing up. I really just watched the World Cup. I didn’t really watch the Summer Olympics but I do remember watching the Winter Olympics and loving curling for some reason because I just thought that it was so interesting and it looked really tedious.

You’ve had the opportunity to represent Nigeria at the World Cup and get a taste of playing on the world’s biggest stage. What would having the opportunity to represent Nigeria at an Olympic Games mean to you?

Alozie: The Olympics would be insane! To put it into perspective, the Nigerian team hasn’t made it to the Olympics since 2008. Although we’ve made it to every World Cup, it’s the Olympics that seems to hinder us a bit for some reason. So to just have the Super Falcons back at the Olympics would be amazing! But also after having such an amazing run in the World Cup, to be able to put on a performance again in the Olympics would be amazing! It would just show the gap that is closing between what everyone says is the best soccer—[teams] from Europe or the Americas—and show that African soccer is really closing that gap.

Africa has never hosted an Olympic Games. Do you think that will ever happen and what needs to change?

Alozie: Man, I actually didn’t even realize that the Olympics was never in Africa! I think having the World Cup in South Africa, showed that there’s value being in Africa. There’s the stereotype that there’s nothing in Africa and it’s kind of just barren, but in reality, there’s so much beauty in Africa! So many great infrastructures can be built for it to host an Olympics just like they did for the World Cup. I really hope that there can be an Olympics in Africa in the near future. I don’t see why there shouldn’t be one.

Soccer and Nigerian culture is just one portion of your life. You got your undergraduate degree from Yale in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology with the dream of becoming a cardiologist. How did that dream come about?

Alozie: From a young age, I was obsessed with animals and I really wanted to be a veterinarian. I remember telling my parents that and they were like ‘You’re not going to be a veterinarian. If you want to help animals, help humans they’re animals too. You can be a doctor.’ And I thought ‘Oh okay, I can be a doctor.’

I always enjoyed biology. That was always my favorite subject in school so it just seemed like a no-brainer. At the end of my senior year, I ended up working with a cardiovascular and therapeutics lab for my senior thesis. In working with the Dardik lab I learned that this was a really fun, niche field and that it wasn’t really populated with women or with women of color. So I thought that, that would be an amazing place for me to be in.

Michelle Alozie

HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 7: Texas Childrens Hospital Cancer Research Technician 3 Michelle Alozie laughs while talking to colleagues Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023 at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

I read that when you were younger you wanted your parents to bring you back a goat heart from the market. Did that actually ever happen?

Alozie: No they didn’t! I was so obsessed because I think pig and goat hearts are actually very similar to human hearts. I thought that’s the closest thing I’d have to a human heart which would be so cool! I was like if they just put it in formaldehyde, I can preserve it, and I can have it on my bed. They probably thought I was the weirdest child ever. But I just thought that’d be so cool to have a heart because they were going to a slaughterhouse anyway. So that never happened but it was probably for the better.

When you’re not playing soccer you work as a cancer research technician at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center. Can you explain what you do there?

Alozie: Yeah, so in my lab with Dr. Alexandra Stevens, alongside Dr. Adel, we work on chemotherapies and see how these different cancers are able to resist these chemotherapies. We try to figure out the best ways to give these chemotherapies in conjunction with another or just by themselves, and how they’ll be able to eradicate these patients’ cancers.

I’m [working] more on a smaller base scale but hopefully, with the research that we do, it will be able to go to clinical research, and then it would be able to get to these patients who really need these chemotherapy drugs.

Michelle Alozie

HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 7: Texas Childrens Hospital Cancer Research Technician 3 Michelle Alozie logging data at her cubical Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023 at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

That is amazing work that you’re doing! Do you still plan on going to medical school after your soccer career to be a cardiologist?

Alozie: I still have that passion for sure! I think being out of school for this long, does make it a little weary, I will be honest. Being able to work with Dr. Stevens and Dr. Adel, and seeing the interactions they have with their patients, and just how much they care for them is something that I yearn for and I still really want to do, obviously, in a different field. But I think the dream remains the same. I’ll be 30-something in med school but that’s just what it will have to take.

Hey, it’s never too late! I know everyone always asks you how you balance it all but I truly believe that if you love something enough, you’ll make it work so my question for you is what keeps you going?

Alozie: I think it’s just the genuine love that I have for doing both things. Football has been just a childhood love of mine. I just can never give up that dream or stop myself early from doing that and fulfilling that. The medical field has been a dream of mine that’s continuing to grow... it’s like my adult dream.

Since I have genuine love for both of these, I’m willing to sacrifice the other things like not really having vacation time since I have to be full-time at the hospital, or not being able to hang out with my friends too much since I have to be at the field and go to the hospital after. I think it’s all worth it just because I have genuine love and care for doing both of the things that I’m doing.

Orlando Pride v Houston Dash

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 03: Michelle Alozie #22 of the Houston Dash celebrates her goal with Diana Ordonez #11 and Maria Sanchez #7 during the first half against the Orlando Pride at Shell Energy Stadium on June 03, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Your passion, drive, and talent are so impressive but I have no idea how you’re able to find the time to braid your own hair!! I saw that TikTok you posted. How did you learn to do that and what was that process like?

Alozie: Growing up my oldest sister Cynthia used to braid my hair. It wasn’t until I got to college that she wasn’t able to braid it that often. In Connecticut like five years ago, I think it cost around $150 to get your hair braided. As a broke college student, I couldn’t even fathom giving someone that much money to braid my hair. I would just go on “YouTube University”, and slowly braid the back of my hair and try things out over and over again. After so many years of trial and error, I’m just so comfortable with braiding my hair. I save so much money!

Wow, well it looks amazing and at this point, I’m convinced there isn’t anything you can’t do! Switching gears, I’ve got a lighting round of cultural-themed questions to close out with. Who is your favorite Afrobeats artist?

Alozie: Oooh, Burna Boy!

Jollof Rice or Pounded Yam?

Alozie: Jollof Rice.

Plantain or Fried Yam?

Alozie: Ooh plantains, easy!

Afrobeats or Amapiano?

Alozie: Afrobeats.

What would you say has been your most listened-to song this year?

Alozie: I don’t remember the name of it but it was something by Rema.

Editor’s Note: By Way of Africa is a series committed to highlighting the talent and stories from the African continent and its diaspora. African stories are worth telling, and the culture—all of the languages, tribes, and traditions—is worth celebrating. Embedded in these narratives is a profound testament to the diligence, discipline, and work ethic deeply ingrained in African heritage. Whether born on the continent or dispersed across the globe, the contributions of these stories to society resound uniquely, by way of Africa.