Drinking, partying, and pressure to explore homosexuality are common within women’s sports, but this does not need to be the norm, according to former college athlete Samantha Kelley.
While the “transgender” issue is a new challenge in women’s sports, it has long been “statistically proven that college athletes party more [and] drink more than the normal student population,” says Kelley, the founder and president of FIERCE Athlete. Athletes are “under so much pressure and under so much scrutiny, and even more so today with social media,” she added.
An athlete herself, including playing Division I soccer at the University of Connecticut, Kelley founded FIERCE Athlete seven years ago after growing frustrated with the culture of women’s sports and realizing that her experience in college was not unique.
“We were hazed,” Kelley said of her freshman year of playing college soccer. “A third of our team was ‘lesbian’ and would try to convince you that you were, too.”
FIERCE Athlete serves as a resource to female athletes at all levels, providing them with training, mentorship, and resources to navigate the challenges of sport and grow in an understanding of femininity. FIERCE stands for Femininity, Identity, Embodiment, Receptivity, Catholicism, and Encounter—the core pillars of the organization.
Because coaches play a vital role in setting the culture of any sports team, Kelley launched FIERCE Coach with Tracy Guerrette earlier this year to empower coaches with the knowledge they need to lead female athletes.
Kelley and Guerrette join the “Problematic Women” podcast to share the challenges they faced as athletes and to explain how their organization is seeking to change the culture of women’s sports. They also discuss why culture’s definition of femininity is not God’s definition and how they have incorporated the teachings of (now Saint) Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” into their work as a tool to empower women to feel confident in their physical body.
Listen to the podcast below or read a portion of the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Tracy Guerrette and Samantha Kelley, thank you both so much for being with us today.
Samantha Kelley: Absolutely. It’s a gift to be here.
Tracy Guerrette: Thank you for having us.
Allen: I want to start asking you-all to share a little bit about the sports that you played growing up, what that was like, the experiences that you had.
Kelley: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I feel like women sports today is the focus of a lot of people and there’s a lot of focus on the negative going on, which I’m sure we’ll get to because we have some opinions.
But sport was so invaluable, I would say, in my own upbringing. One of my favorite quotes is that sport is the gymnasium for human virtue, or character, right, and I can say I am the woman I am today because of the adversity and things that I faced in sport growing up.
So I grew up in Connecticut, was a tri-sport athlete in high school, won nine state championships between soccer, ice hockey, and track. I was actually a pretty big track star, running on the same track where, in more recent years, men have been allowed to run, winning state championships on that same track, which is interesting.
But I had a love for soccer. Soccer was really my passion and my love. I loved the team aspect of it. I loved the game. I grew up, my dad was a college soccer player, my sister played college soccer. So we were just this very competitive family and it was what we kind of spent our free time doing.
We were just athletic and we still, to this day, I was out on the pickleball court last night with my parents getting my butt kicked by them. We just have this culture in our family of activity and sport and good competition.
So it was a dream of mine to play Division I soccer. And as the local Connecticut kid, and Tracy can relate to this, getting the opportunity to play at your state university is a big deal. And so I got the opportunity to play soccer at [the University of Connecticut], which is a top 25 program.
Going into that experience, though, I had a really, really significant knee injury. I tore my ACL, LCL, and meniscus, and they told me I’d never play again. As someone who would’ve, at that point in time, labeled themselves as primarily an athlete, that was a huge just dagger to my identity. And in many regards, I didn’t know who I was without sport.
Long story short, I did end up coming back from that injury. It took three surgeries and really three years of rehab and working with the UConn doctors and getting to play.
But it was in that time that I really discovered that I’m so much more than my sport. I possess other gifts and talents and I really had a kind of reversion, if you will, a really intense interaction with God, realizing that I wasn’t loved because of all of my talents, I just was loved.
Now, He delighted in the fact that I could play this incredible sport, but it became about honoring Him and honoring my team and loving my team and being grateful just for the opportunity to be able to compete.
And so that kind of sent me on the trajectory of what we do now, fighting for women and fighting for their true identity and helping them realize that there’s so much more than just their stats or their coach’s opinion or what the culture in this day and age is saying about them as female athletes. So that’s kind of given me that motivation forward.
Allen: Tracy, is your story similar to Sam’s?
Guerrette: It is. I think we share a lot of similarities in the fact that I think a lot of time athletes could be overachieving and I think from a young age, I had this checklist of things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime, and playing Division I sports was one of them.
And so that checklist kind of became my identity and as I checked things off the list, it kind of gave me my self-worth and my confidence and my motivation.
But yeah, so, I’m from a small little town in northern Maine. It’s actually very French. We’re on the border of Canada. Very French, very Catholic, surprisingly. And so just this little hub of Catholic community, which was a blessing growing up. And same thing as Sam, my aspirations were to play Division I sports and I was very blessed.
My parents didn’t play sports, they actually both grew up on potato farms. So I grew up around farms, around my, I have two older brothers, around many cousins who were boys.
And so just that hard work ethic and determination, dedication, commitment was instilled within me from my parents, but they also supported me in anything that I did. And so I think being athletic is such a gift from God, and my parents just saw that and fostered it in me and were so supportive.
So I played all sports growing up. I was in Taekwondo. I was just speaking to my father about this. He taught me how to ski when I was 4. Just very, very active, and I think they put me in sports because I was so active.
And so, yeah, my aspirations were to play Division I basketball, so I did. I stayed in the state. The University of Maine was very good at that time. They were really competitive. They were winning the conference, making the NCAA tournament. And so that was my dream, was to have “Maine” across my chest and stay in the state.
So, by the grace of God, I was able to play at Maine, not only Division I basketball, but I also wanted to be a doctor. So it’s kind of like thinking of the best thing that I could possibly achieve was Division I basketball, pre-med.
And I think by God’s grace, by many prayers and a consecration to Our Lady, the Lord just really, gently kind of took down those idols in my life that I had. And so, yeah, I struggled with my identity. When you’re not doing well in school, where does your self-worth lie?
Same thing on the basketball court. I could have the best practice or have my coaches’ affirmation and feel great about myself. And then the next day, just—my coaches were really hard on me and I just desired that relationship with them. It’s something that I never really got, and that’s why I’m so passionate about coaching right now.
So I think the Lord just really taught me that my self-worth, just my love, my identity is in Christ. I’m a daughter of the Father and He really just taught me that through basketball.
And so sports for me, it continues to be just this crucible for my conversion and my sanctification. I see that now as a coach. I think coaching, same thing. It’s a wonderful platform for ministry to really make a difference in the lives of these young women, but also for my own sanctification and my own growth and holiness and closeness to the Lord.
Allen: Sam, as the founder of FIERCE Athlete, when did it become apparent that we need an organization like FIERCE Athlete that will support the players, support families, and help young women navigate the challenges of women’s sport?
Kelley: I don’t know if I would’ve named it at the time or knew that this would be my response at the time, but my freshman year of college. I mean, I showed up, we were hazed. A third of our team was “lesbian” and would try to convince you that you were too. I mean, these were completely new, just environmental experiences. I had never been exposed to that, just the toxic party.
Allen: And what year was that?
Allen: OK. This has been going on for a long time.
Kelley: Oh, yeah. And I mean, those issues have always been apparent in women’s sports. I think, obviously, the transgender issue is new, but I mean, it’s statistically proven that college athletes party more, drink more than the normal student population. It’s like just this pressure gauge.
You’re under so much pressure and under so much scrutiny, and even more so today with social media and I mean, any college team has media day and video content on you, and they follow you on social media and it’s just a lot. Now you can get sponsors.
There’s a lot of pressure and the way that athletes let that out is just unhealthy relationships. We had girls on our team struggling with eating disorders, and it was kind of like, “Hush-hush, don’t talk about it.” The drinking—
So then it was this whole new world and trying, I grew up Catholic, trying to maintain my foundation of values amidst that culture was really hard. And by my sophomore year it’s like, “Oh, I guess I’ll start drinking,” because I was the only girl on the team that didn’t.
And you just start to slowly become more accustomed to that culture and God really took me out of that, but not before some damage was done. A lot more damage could have been done, looking at how I was preserved from some of these movements.
But when I kind of, again, had that experience where I realized my identity is as daughter of God and there is truth and there is right and wrong that I can fall back on, I looked back at my team and I just saw the brokenness. I just saw the desire for love. We all desire love, but how unfulfilled these women were.
And I went on to work with a missionary organization that served college athletes, which also was great. I was working at University of Texas, I mean, national champion level athletes, but I kept hitting these problems. I kept hitting these identity crises, these very serious issues that women were struggling with.
And when I left that organization, I just saw that, while there were a lot of great Catholic and Christian organizations out there, none were female-specific and admittedly, none were willing, because I’ve talked to them, willing to talk about the hard issues, willing to talk about the same-sex attraction, the party culture, now the transgender issue. A lot are fearful to speak out. And those were the things that I needed to hear about. I needed to learn about my true identity, my true femininity, my true worth.
So it was just this moment of, like, “Well, there’s nothing else out there. God, let’s do this.” I felt a very strong call to just, I mean, it’s totally the athlete mentality. It’s like all of us strong women, right? It’s like you just, “OK, here’s a problem. I’m going to start an organization, though I have no idea how to do that,” and that was seven years ago, and here we are.
So it’s been blessed and as we’re seeing there’s just this, as the culture’s continuing to kind of pivot—and I’d say in the wrong direction in a lot of ways—it’s like, “Wow, I’m glad we’re in this space now.”
Kristen Eichamer: What are some of those common conversations happening with those female athletes that you’re working with?
Kelley: I mean, just these last four days I was on a college campus working with three college sports teams. There’s some common themes we see. I mean, again, we’ve talked a lot today about identity. That’s where we always start our formation because that’s really where the crisis is.
If we look at every major issue that female athletes are struggling with or even in the culture, it’s a lack of understanding of who we are as daughter. I don’t have to earn my worth. I just am. I just am good. I just am loved. I don’t have to perform a certain way or prove to a coach or prove to a teammate or succumb to this peer pressure because that’s all ways that I’m almost falsifying myself.
And so, yeah, that is just the theme that I hit home primarily.
But then I talk a lot about, “OK, well, then how do we live from that place? How do we live in freedom from knowing that we are loved, knowing that we are good?”
And we talk a lot about the body/soul union. We throw the mind in there. So we talk about developing athletes physically, mentally, and spiritually because they all relate to one another. So I’ve spent a lot of time with women giving talks and mentoring them on just the goodness and the holiness and the sacredness of the human body.
As athletes, it’s interesting because you’re hyper-aware of your body, you’re hyper-aware of what it can do and can’t do. You’re hyper-aware that you can “manipulate it” in certain ways in order to run faster, jump higher. But the result of that can be a disassociation from the body. It’s just something that I manipulate. Amongst women in general, 96% of women don’t think they’re beautiful, so there’s just this disassociation.
And my point to these women these last few days is, if you don’t have peace with your body, subconsciously you’re never going to be able to play your sport the best you can play because there’s this lack of trust in who you are, in your own goodness. And so talking a lot about that.
We spend a lot of time just on mental toughness. And mental toughness, I bring it back to your identity, right? If you are in a game and you fail, which happens in sport all the time, are you beating yourself up? Did your confidence completely crumble? And are you going down this deep dark hole, which is the common response with women especially, or do you come back to who you are? Do you have a statement?
And then, I mean, none of that would really make sense without a spiritual life, without a relationship with God. And so however the woman acts out because of the pressure, whether that be an eating disorder or promiscuity or almost a crippling perfectionism, mental health issues, helping them come back to who they are, it’s been so key as we’ve experienced when we’ve worked with women on that journey to healing and integration.
Allen: One thing that I really appreciated when you were at The Heritage Foundation and we had lunch was that you addressed the fact that all women are so different.
And especially for female athletes that don’t fall into this stereotype of femininity, that can lead to believing the lie of, “OK, I don’t fit this stereotype of the women that I’m seeing portrayed in movies or magazines or whatever, or even among other friends, and so maybe I am lesbian.” Or just feeling insecure, like, “Gosh, I can’t get guys to ask me out because I can lift more than them.
So, how do you-all unpack that for women, to get them to a place where they can actually celebrate their bodies?
And I know that this gets in a little bit to “Theology of the Body.” I did a podcast interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” a little while ago and talked a little bit about “Theology of the Body” with Abigail Favale, on her book “The Genesis of Gender,” but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it here on “Problematic Women.”
So share just a bit about what is “Theology of the Body” and how do you-all bring that in to conversations as you’re talking with female athletes who might be feeling uncomfortable about how their body looks.
Kelley: Sure. Yeah, we love this. This was one of the biggest inspirations for starting FIERCE.
I mean, I worked in ministry spaces for five years and it was encountering this teaching that actually drove me to understand that I think that, in many ways, this is the anecdote to the issues we deal with in female athletes, but also, I think, to our times, because there’s a lot of confusion today on identity, on the sexual difference, and on the human body.
And basically, “Theology of the Body,” to break that down, is, what does the body reveal about God? And I pose the question to people, “Well, why did God create two sexes and only two sexes?” And people are like, “Oh, to procreate,” which, OK, yeah, that’s part of the answer, but we’re made in the image and likeness of God.
So this is a super-simple analogy, but when we think about, as Christians, we believe that our God is Trinitarian. So we believe that there’s a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So very simply, the Father loves the Son, the Son receives the love of the Father because God is love, and that love is so powerful and so creative that we believe that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
Now, similarly, God respects the freedom of the human person, but man, in a very physical, emotional, spiritual way, has the capacity to love the woman. The woman receives the love of the man and gives that back. And again, God respects our freedom, but nine months later, that can result in a third. So the family unit—man, woman, child—is the greatest sign and icon, within marriage, we have of the Trinity.
So one, just helping human beings understand the beauty of the sexual difference, but we take that a step further in that, because male bodies and female bodies are different, that reveals that masculinity and femininity is different and they’re both good.
Now, we have to be so, so careful with our language these days, but if you think about it, we’re a body/soul union. And so the fact that I, Samantha, was created biologically as a woman makes me feminine in my whole being. I just am. I almost can’t even deny it. I can try. I can try to maybe deny it.
But so often in our culture, we define masculinity and femininity by cultural norms, which shift and change, right? They’re subjective, where our masculinity and our femininity are basically objective to our biology.
But my female body reveals, and Tracy kind of alluded to this earlier, the male body is external, and so in the sexual act, they’re external. So the height of masculinity is sacrifice. The opposite of that is dominance. We can go down a whole thing there, but we’re speaking of kind of the woman. The woman, the height of our femininity is our receptivity and our ability to bear life.
And so we work with women all the time who, yeah, like you said, Virginia, they don’t feel feminine because they can out-bench a guy. That’s happened many times to me. Or they’re more muscular. Or, Kristen, they have trouble finding pants because they got these awesome soccer thighs. I get you. But we almost give them permission to accept that, “Wow, I am feminine and just as unique as I am is the way that I’m going to live that out.”
And in sport, you look at it and I realize, “Wow, every time I play, I’m being receptive to pain. If I’m on a team, I’m being receptive to my teammates.”
If you actually look how men play basketball and women play basketball, it’s different. Men are more individualistic. There’s more the spirit of strength and sacrifice, where women, we’re actually more receptive to one another. It’s a prettier game, there’s more passing.
It’s a very secular example, but it reveals, OK, there is a sexual difference, which is why we need to protect that within sport.
And you can keep going with it, but we kind of found, like, yeah, this teaching on the body, on femininity, just has given myself—and I’m speaking a little bit for Tracy here—given us freedom to embrace our femininity and our athleticism, but really given a lot of freedom to just embrace the athletic woman that God created them to be.
Allen: That’s awesome. Well, we will put a link in today’s show notes for your website as well as for the book and your podcast. Thank you-all so much for what you’re doing, for giving us your time today, and for being this well of resource for so many women who are just navigating the world of female sport right now. So appreciate of the work you-all are doing.
Kelley: Thank you.
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