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“If one can, why not more?": USWNT’s Naomi Girma on Ethiopian pride and passion for representation

Girma's Ethiopian pride influences love of soccer
USWNT defender Naomi Girma talks about her parents' sacrifices, the lessons she has learned from them, and how her upbringing influenced her love of soccer.

Naomi Girma will make her Olympic debut next month at the 2024 Paris Games. The San Jose, California native has not only broken barriers as the first player of Ethiopian descent to play for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the National Women’s Soccer League, but she also became the first true defender and second Black defender to win U.S. Soccer’s 2023 Female Player of the Year. Her success on the field and passion for the game are deeply rooted in the values of her Ethiopian heritage

In a conversation with NBC Sports in January, Girma reflected on her experience, often as the sole Black person on her soccer teams, what she’s learned from her parents’ sacrifices, and why she’s so passionate about representation.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I read that if the TV was on in your home as a kid then it was probably a soccer game playing. How did growing up in an Ethiopian household influence your love for the sport?

Naomi Girma: My dad loved soccer and that started with his childhood in Ethiopia, just playing with his friends after school. He would always tell us about how much he loved playing and I think when we were old enough, he wanted that to be our sport and to share that love with us. Just being in the Ethiopian culture and seeing how much appreciation there was for soccer was amazing and I think that really helped me fall in love with it.

Can you paint the picture of what it was like playing with the Maleda Soccer Club. What do you remember most?

Girma: On Saturday mornings, we would all gather at a local park and it was very fun and informal. We were split into small, medium, and big kids and we would scrimmage for as long as everyone wanted to. My dad was one of the coaches. [The club] was pretty much started by a group of dads in the Bay Area. It was just really fun and just very low-pressure. If someone wanted to stop playing, they could kind of just walk off the field.

I was the one who always wanted to stay out until the very end and I wanted the games to keep going. It was really fun to have that experience with other first-generation Ethiopian kids and for our parents, as Ethiopian immigrants, to have that shared space and be able to just spend time together and create our community in the Bay.

I recently watched the Giannis Antetokounmpo documentary “Ugo: A Homecoming Story” and he referenced a quote that said, “We don’t know who we are until we know where we’re from”. What are some values from your culture that you’re proud of that make you who you are?

Girma: [We’re] community driven. In a team [environment] that shows up as [putting the] team first, and valuing that over yourself. In my day-to-day life, it shows up as always wanting to give back to my community and strengthen those connections—just wanting to leave where I’m at better than where I found it.

That was really instilled in me by my dad. He would always give back to Ethiopia when we were growing up in San Jose. I just saw how important family and community were to my parents, and they definitely instilled that in us from a young age.

Your Dad, Girma, has an incredible story. He came to the U.S. in 1982 after fleeing Ethiopia to Sudan on foot during Ethiopia’s Red Terror. The hardships he endured are truly jarring—he battled malaria along the way, was jailed by Sudanese authorities, yet persisted and ultimately arrived in the U.S. He worked as a busboy and dishwasher to put himself through school and earned his electrical engineering degree. What has he shared with you about his journey, and how has it impacted you?

Girma: He’s shared more and more with my brother and me as we’ve gotten older, but I think just hearing all that he’s gone through for us to be where we’re at now was always something that I was so grateful for and so inspired by. I think he shows how much hard work can get you to where you want to be. His coming to the U.S., barely speaking any English, and then getting an electrical engineering degree and becoming an electrical engineer for most of my life was really, really inspiring.

He showed us how important it is to stand up for what you believe in too. That’s what he was doing in Ethiopia and he ended up here, and luckily, we ended up here too. He is just a huge inspiration for me and always encourages us to keep pushing ourselves and see what we can achieve.

At 19 years old, your Dad was standing up against a dictatorship. You’re 24 now—you’re older than your parents were when they left Ethiopia. When you put yourself in their shoes, what does their sacrifice mean to you?

Girma: I do remember realizing that. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m older than they were when they left their country, their family, and everything they knew. Yet here I am, moving to San Diego and being nervous.’

It was definitely a crazy realization. Their sacrifices are the only reason I am where I am today. I don’t think those sacrifices ended with them leaving Ethiopia and coming to the U.S. It’s been throughout my whole life and childhood. They’ve given up so many things so that I could play soccer—so that I could get to every practice, game, and tournament.

It was them always being there on the sideline, supporting me, and showing that they loved me and wanted me to do well. Their sacrifices mean the world to me, and they’re literally the only reason why I’m here.

Naomi Girma Family 2.png

Naomi’s Instagram

Naomi Girma Family 1.png

Naomi’s Instagram

You’ve said, ‘In our culture, when one person makes it, everybody has made it.’ When you look back at the myriad of successes you’ve had—getting a scholarship to Stanford, making the U.S. Women’s National Team and playing in the World Cup, becoming the first true defender and second Black defender to win U.S. Soccer’s 2023 Female Player of the Year—what do you think your success means to your parents and the Ethiopian community?

Girma: For my parents, I feel like it’s all of us who have won these awards, who have made it to these tournaments, or who made it to Stanford. When I talk to them about it, they tell me how proud they are and how much they’ve loved watching me and supporting me, which always feels good.

For the greater Ethiopian community, [it’s about] showing that if one of us can do it, then why can’t more of us? That’s always a cool thing to see when you’re growing up and you see someone do what you want to do. You’re like ‘Whoa, I can do that too.’ I remember moments like that growing up. So I think for me, [it’s about] being that representation for us and hopefully inspiring younger people to pursue their dreams and work hard at it, and hopefully they’ll become successful.

United States v Brazil: Final - 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup

SAN DIEGO, CA - MARCH 10: Naomi Girma #4 of the United States moving with the ball during the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup Final game between Brazil and USWNT at Snapdragon Stadium on March 10, 2024 in San Diego, California. (Photo by John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Getty Images

What would it mean for you to represent your Ethiopian-American culture in Paris at the 2024 Games?

Girma: It would mean a lot to me. I remember watching the Olympics growing up, it’s always been such a special event no matter what sport you’re watching. Seeing the pride to represent your country, your community, your family, and where you come from. I think for me to be able to take that into the Olympics would be just a really, really special feeling.

RELATED: U.S. women’s soccer roster named for 2024 Paris Olympics marks new era

Africa has never hosted an Olympic Games. It has the world’s youngest population and is the fastest-growing continent. Do you think we’ll ever see an Olympics there in our lifetime? If so, what needs to change?

Girma: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I hope it will. I think it’s just such a special event and to have the whole world watching and to have that in Africa would be really cool.

What are some misconceptions that people have about Africa?

Girma: Just that it’s behind. I think there are a lot of incredible individuals, groups, and communities that have shown that’s not the case. Africa demands the same respect as everyone else.

You are the first player of Ethiopian descent on the USWNT. There have been many instances growing up when you were the only Black person on your teams. I read an article where you said, ‘As nice as it is to be the first, I never want to be the only.’ Can you talk about what representation means to you?

Girma: It’s so meaningful and inspiring to see someone where you want to be. It’s hard to imagine it, set that goal down, and really work towards it until you see it. For me, growing up and being one of the only Black girls on a lot of my teams was something that I wish was different. I feel like I was embraced and had a good experience, but I always wanted it to be more accessible. I feel like the barrier to entry was really high with a lot of the pay-to-play youth sports.

It can be really hard for young kids to get exposure to that and to get into the system and be able to reap all the benefits that come from playing a sport at a competitive level. That’s something that I’m really passionate about. Now, with the national team, seeing more players of color and more representation there, it’s really fun to be a part of this generation that’s changing that narrative. I feel grateful to the players before me who have allowed that shift to happen. I think now for us, it’s important that we keep speaking out about it and making it a priority.

United States Women's National Team vs Ireland

Soccer: United States Trinity Rodman (25) and Naomi Girma (27 in action pose for a selfie photo with fans vs Ireland during an international friendly at Q2 Stadium. Austin, TX 4/8/2023 CREDIT: Greg Nelson Photo by Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X164337 TK1)

Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

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.