I lie still in the wet grass, panting, sweat rolling down my brow in beads. I’m on a roll—more than twice as many as last week, I tell myself, referring to the set of push-ups I just did.

It’s not quite seven o’clock in the morning, and the air around me is thick and humid and rapidly approaching 80 degrees. One of my dad’s friends, a soccer referee and cyclist, is watching me from the bench where we do triceps dips. Three times a week, he arrives at our doorstep at 6 AM sharp to put me through whatever intense workout he’s chosen for the day. It’s always killer.

Later that day, my mother says, “Sometimes I hear you laughing outside and wonder what he could possibly be putting you through.” I tell her everything we did that morning and she shakes her head. “At least you’ll be ready for club season in the fall,” she says.

For years, playing soccer for a statewide team/club seemed like an unattainable dream. Those teams were for the really talented girls who entered the program long before their teenage years. But now here I am, despite that fact that my years of “training” took place in totally recreational, noncompetitive contexts—the most official “coach” I ever had was my dad. I had little hope when I tried out for the team, but I tried out anyway, and I made it. And for the first time, I feel like I deserve it.

Whenever I start doubting myself, I think about Ella Massar. My family used to go to see her play for the University of Illinois back when I was still too young to focus on the game for more than a few minutes at a time. I was lucky enough to meet Ella last year at a soccer clinic she held in my town, where I learned that she didn’t start playing club soccer until she was 15, the same age I am now. Not long after that, she joined the Illinois team, and now she’s playing professionally for the Houston Dash. The night before a tough practice, I often write Ella’s number, 30, on the back of my hand.

When I walk into the kitchen after my next workout, my mom says, “I think you live and breathe soccer more than any of your teammates do.”

I say, “I try.” ♦