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Openly gay pro soccer player Jess Fishlock shrugs off bigotry

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The Welsh Seattle Reign star makes an impact on and off the field.

Jess Fishlock plays for the Seattle Reign
Photo by Jane Gersovich

When I arrive at Seattle's Memorial Stadium one recent sunny morning, Jess Fishlock is sitting on a ball on the sideline, her taped-up left leg — she suffered an MCL sprain a few weeks ago — extended in front of her.

She watches with a manager's intensity as training wraps up, before crossing the field to sign autographs for a gaggle of young fans lining the railing on the south grandstand. Then, before she has time to talk to me, she still has to to check in with head coach Laura Harvey. I can't hear them from across the field, but it's readily apparent they're talking tactics ahead of an upcoming fixture against Sky Blue FC.

Injured or not, Fishlock, who's been with the Seattle Reign since the NWSL's inaugural season in 2013, is at the very center of this team. Over the course of her four and a half seasons in Seattle, the Welsh midfielder has consistently been one of the league's most influential figures — a physical but intelligent player who dictates play from the central midfield. She's also an openly gay athlete who's become one of her sport's loudest voices for equality.

Among NWSL fans, the 5-2 Fishlock — nicknamed "Tiny Dragon" by the Reign faithful — is well-known for her aggressive physicality, but she's as much a creator for her squad as she is a destroyer to the opposition.

"I'm very aggressive in the way I defend, but on the ball I'm very calm, very relaxed," she says of her style of play. "Off the ball, I'm trying to win it, win it, win it, but then when I get it, I just relax. I'm almost two different people off the ball and on it."

That physicality, as well as her intense competitiveness, is something she sees as still frowned upon in the women's game. "It's expected to be a lot less aggressive, a lot less professional," she says. "For the men, you can do whatever you need to win and that's accepted. For women, you're not supposed to make professional fouls, because that's not ladylike. You're not meant to swear. You're supposed to be supportive to the opposition even though they're the opposition."

That attitude doesn't sit well with Fishlock.

"By expecting women to be nice and try really hard and all these things, what we actually do is be quite disrespectful to what we are, and what we're trying to do. This is a professional sport."

Off the field, Fishlock is a pro ambassador for Athlete Ally, and has talked openly about facing homophobic abuse on social media.

"You know, you do something wrong in a game, and it's because you're a lesbian," she says with a laugh. "You have an opinion that somebody doesn't like, and it's because you're gay, and being gay is the worst thing in the world ... I truly, truly do nothing but laugh at the abuse I get."

Laughing it off wasn't always easy, though.

"I think it's understanding just how insecure they must be," she says, asked what it took to get to this point. "I feel sorry for them. It blows my mind, that that's what they do to make themselves feel good. That's the society we're in, and it's awful, but it's the truth."

She calls the decision to be so outspoken easy" saying, "I've seen firsthand the impact it has on other people. I get messages from people all over the world saying they were so close to committing suicide, or doing this, or doing that, and they see something I write or post about being so OK with who I am, and it's helped them. ... It impacts people, and saves people."

"I had one the other day, somebody said they went to a bad place, and then they watched the Reign, and they [saw] how happy I am with who I am, and the support that I have, and it keeps them going. That's not me doing anything at all apart from just being who I am."

W-League 2017 Grand Final: Perth v Melbourne
Fishlock, far right, played and coached in Australia in the off-season.
Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images

Fishlock also credits having the support of both her family and her youth club, Cardiff City FC. "If it wasn't for that club, who channeled my pathway not only as a footballer but as a human, if they were anti-whatever, who knows where I'd be right now."

As is stands, though, Fishlock has become one of the most dominant players in the NWSL, and, by extension, the women's game globally.

In addition to being in her fifth season with the Reign, Fishlock earned her 100th cap for the Welsh national team on April 5, becoming the first Welsh player, male or female, to gain that distinction.

The reality of hailing from a nation that's relatively low in the global football pecking order, though, is that she's never played in a major international tournament. It's something that's on the 30-year-old Fishlock's to-do list as a player. "We have a great squad, a great manager. Anything is possible. In Europe right now, the gap is getting a lot closer between teams."

After retirement, she says she knows "a hundred percent" she wants to go into coaching.

In her most recent season with Melbourne City FC, where she plays during the NWSL offseason, Fishlock wound up serving as head coach in addition to playing, after manager Joe Montemurro moved to Melbourne's men's side.

"I really enjoyed it, although at the same time I hated every second," she says. "I had a great support system around me, but it was extremely difficult to do." Things turned out well: she led her squad to the W-League final against the Perth Glory, where she notched the first goal in a 2-0 win.

As the list of openly gay athletes grows slowly but surely, Fishlock is resolute that adding to it continues to make a difference.

"The change made through athletes is probably one of the biggest changes you'll see, I think," she says.

To LGBT athletes contemplating telling the public their story, she says, "it's not going to be easy, but the bigger picture is eventually nobody will care. ... The only way we get there is if more athletes come out and they're OK with it."

Katelyn Best is a writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon. She covers the Portland Thorns for Stumptown Footy, and her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Excelle Sports, ESPNW, and elsewhere. She can be reached via her website: kabest.me or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BestKabes