On April 15, just 12 minutes into the Washington Spirit’s 2017 season, midfielder Joanna Lohman stepped to a ball in the center of the field, coming down hard on her right foot and then planting awkwardly on her left. Her left knee buckled and she fell down in a heap.
”I knew when I went down I’d injured myself,” she remembers, nine long months of recovery and rehab later. “But there was no way I was coming out of this game.”
She got up immediately and kept playing, only for her knee to give out again a few minutes later. The third time she fell, she knew she couldn’t keep playing. “At that point, I had to come out, because I was a liability to my team.” (Although she did, she notes, complete 100% of her passes during that stretch.) She subbed out, and the team’s trainer confirmed Lohman’s worst fear: she’d torn her ACL and would be out the rest of the season.
Incredibly, Lohman now calls the injury, and the months-long recovery that followed, “one of the best things that’s happened in my career.”
”I’ve always been really terrified of a season-ending injury,” she explains. “I think when something you’re really scared of happens, and you thrive through the process, it’s really empowering.”
It’s almost surprising to hear Lohman admit she’s always feared injury, because the 35-year-old has overcome just about every other setback a professional athlete can experience.
She’s kept playing through the collapse of two professional leagues in the U.S., and the slow, sometimes painful growth of a third. She’s gone overseas more than once to keep earning a paycheck. And throughout her career, she’s been one of the most outspoken openly gay players in the sport.
Early retirement is something of an epidemic in women’s soccer. Even today, with the National Women’s Soccer League about to head into its sixth season, good players often hang up their cleats while still in their athletic prime, worn down by low paychecks and the instability of a job that lasts just six months out of the year and can force a cross-country move on a moment’s notice.
In the past, things were even worse. Before the birth of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first women’s pro league, in 2001, college players essentially had two choices: make the national team, or quit.
Lohman was in her senior year of college when WUSA folded after just three seasons. She’d been projected as a first-round draft pick. It would be six long years before Women’s Professional Soccer, the second attempt at a league, started — and at the time, there was no guarantee there would even be another league. Many players would have, and did, quit. Lohman soldiered on, playing club soccer at the amateur level and continuing a career with the national team.
”It was never a question in my mind whether I would keep playing,” she says. “I truly believe that nothing else will give me the fulfillment and value I feel from playing this sport.”
Since then, her career has taken her all over the world — to Sweden, where she had a stint with Bälinge IF, a club that’s since slipped into the lower divisions, and later to RCD Espanyol in Spain. She spent time in Japan, training with NTV Beleza, where she was, she told the Equalizer, “the worst player, literally, every single day.” All told, Lohman lived out of a bag, as she describes it, for a decade.
The only time she quit playing, in the six years between WUSA folding and WPS starting up, was a brief stint in 2008 when she sold commercial real estate (plus, she’d just had back surgery). “I was good at it,” she remembers. “But I’m so used to doing what I love that if I don’t feel that passion for what I do, it’s hard for it to be sustainable.”
In short, Lohman doesn’t do things halfway, when it comes to her career or anything else. “I always say I got hit by the gay stick and came flying out of the closet,” she laughs. She thought of herself as straight until well into college, and was engaged to a man by age 21. “Then I realized I had feelings for another woman.”
”From that point on, it wasn’t all roses and cotton candy, but I knew I was a lesbian, and I wanted to live that life authentically.”
Although there are plenty of gay women soccer players, many choose to be queer quietly; they might post an Instagram photo with a girlfriend without explicitly referring to her as a girlfriend.
While that kind of “out but not loud” approach is a completely valid choice — as is keeping one’s orientation totally private — it’s not for Lohman. Although women’s soccer is a welcoming space for the LGBT community, she doesn’t take that level of safety and comfort for granted.
With her distinctive mohawk and affinity for rainbow flags, Lohman is visibly queer, and she’s worked with programs like Athlete Ally and the Human Rights Campaign.
“I’ve been to 39 different countries, so I have a lot of perspective on what it’s like to be a lesbian around the world,” she says.
She openly dated a teammate while playing in Spain, the U.S. and Cyprus — where, at one point, she chose not to give an interview to a Cypriot reporter who wanted to run an article about the relationship, saying “just living, breathing, and existing as who we were was already a statement to be made.”
”I take this platform I have as a responsibility to stand up for others who feel unsafe, who are forced into silence because they can’t speak out for who they are, out of danger, out of fear of losing their life.”
Although she has a global perspective, she’s having an impact right in her hometown of DC. “Just this past weekend I went out, and someone came up to me and said, ‘Are you Joanna Lohman?... You’re the reason why I came out.’ ”
”To hear the effect I can have on another human being, that makes you want to do even more, to speak out even louder.”
While she was recovering from her ACL tear, Lohman took part in a bid by Washington, DC to host the 2022 Gay Games. “This past summer, the committee came to DC, and we spent three days showing them around ... the facilities, the energy and diversity we have in the city, and how united it is in terms of supporting LGBTQIA rights.” She later, as part of a committee that included Briana Scurry and Mayor Muriel Bowser, got to attend the ceremony in Paris where the host city was announced.
The Games were awarded to Hong Kong, but Lohman was still grateful for the experience. “Oftentimes, as someone who looks a bit different and expresses gender a bit differently, I feel a little bit out of place,” she says. “When I was part of this group, this bid committee, I never felt that way.”
Lohman’s advocacy isn’t limited to the LGBT community. The Spirit midfielder also participates in the state department’s Sports Envoy program, which has taken her to Thailand, Botswana, and, just this fall, Côte d’Ivoire. In fact, it was on that trip, with a group of National Champions of Unity — specially selected participants from a series of soccer camps intended to foster ideals of tolerance, dialogue, and democracy in Ivorian youth — that she hit a personal milestone.
”I’m out on the field playing with this whole group of champions, and music is pumping,” she remembers. “I wasn’t able to really think about it ... I stepped off the field and sat down and said to my coworkers with the State Department, ‘I just made my comeback from my ACL.’ ”
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