"Adversity Can Be Your Best Friend": Julie Johnston Talks Soccer, Rio & Equal Pay

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images.
The elite athletes who make up the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team are the ultimate champions, and they have the titles to prove it.

With four Olympic gold medals, seven victories at the CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup, and three World Cup championships since 1991, it's safe to say the team is killing it. And in August, they're heading to Rio de Janeiro to see if they can keep their winning streak going at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Defender Julie Johnston, 24, is ready to go. This year, she made the U.S. qualifying team for the first time, after missing the mark in 2012. Though the final roster isn't confirmed, she's already got her eye on the prize. "Just take it one day at a time," she said.

Refinery29 talked to Johnston about her Olympic hopes, her advice for young women, and the gender discrimination controversy that has surrounded the sport she loves.

How did you feel when you made the Olympic qualifying team? You didn’t qualify the first time you tried out, back in 2012.
"I’m a different player because of all the things that I’ve faced. All the adversity in not making the team [in 2012] was an experience that also pushed me so that I never had to, you know, feel that again. To make the qualifying roster, again, I was so excited just because I wanted to have a different role on the team this time around. So, it was really, really special."

What are you most excited about if you make it to Rio?
"Just the chance to represent Team U.S.A. I'm still an Olympic hopeful, obviously, as the roster will be named later, but just to have the chance to represent Team U.S.A. is such a special thing. I’ve dreamed of it since I was so young.

"I literally am so surreal right now about the fact that I’m on a cereal box! You dream of going to the Olympics, and you see those athletes on cereal boxes. To have that is just so surreal. I’m just trying to take it in."

Adversity can be your best friend, if you can look at it in a positive light.

Julie Johnston
The U.S. Women's National Team's experience at the 2015 World Cup highlighted what a lot of people saw as gender discrimination. What is your view on the difference in how male and female athletes are treated?
"Right now, we’re trying to grow the idea of women’s sports in general. We understand that there’s a gap, and I think it’s our responsibility to keep growing that. [We want to] push the limits that maybe people didn’t think are possible [to get past], and it’s [about] continuing the growth that we want to do together. As women’s soccer, specifically, but also just in women’s sports, in general."

After the U.S. Men's National Team was paid more for making it to the second stage of the World Cup than the Women's team was paid for ultimately winning the tournament, f
ive of your teammates filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging wage discrimination. What are your thoughts on equal pay?
"I think it’s about knowing your worth and what you can give back. This team has, over and over again, pushed limits [in ways] that many people didn't think was possible, and I think that it’s a responsibility to be able to grow and continue that. The next generation is very important to us. We take it seriously. We want the continued success of this team, to get better and improve, and that’s a part of that."
We tend to look at athletes as superhuman and inspirational. Tell me about some of the things you’ve had to sacrifice in your day-to-day life to play at your level.
"'Sacrifice' is a very, very common word for any athlete. I know that all too well.

"A big one is time away from my fiancé and family. That’s really hard, because that’s my support group. But I know wherever I am, I have their support keeping me going. You sacrifice a lot of events, as well, with your friends and family and all that stuff. You probably sacrifice your choice of eating a donut! [laughs] I wouldn’t say that’s so much of a bad thing. There’s many things for sure, but those are the top."

What advice do you have for young women and girls who might see you as an inspirational figure?
"I could give you a thousand things that I’ve learned from this sport, but I think one is that adversity can be your best friend if you can look at it in a positive light. During the hard times, it’s super easy to go the negative route, but those are the moments that are really going to push you and make you better and come out stronger. And those are the times that you should cherish and really be thankful for, because you learn so much [more] about yourself in those moments than you do at any other time."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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