April’s right around the corner, and just ten days into April, the Courage will be back on the pitch in their first home match in front of fans since winning the 2019 championship. Battling back from a season-ending injury in 2019, followed by multiple surgeries, defender Merritt Mathias sat down with Courage Country virtually last week to be the second to answer our 2021 Starting XI Questions.
2021 Starting XI Questions: Merritt Mathias
During quarantine what’s been your biggest struggle in training and fitness?
Okay well, I’m going to be quite real with you, I didn’t. This is really hard to say, but I didn’t experience that much of a change in terms of quarantine in working out and fitness. I actually found this loophole in the whole thing. This is really hard to say, but I didn’t experience that much of a change in terms of quarantine in working out and fitness.
I actually found this loophole in the whole thing. I was in PT so that allowed me to get into the gym and my gym was connected to my PT, so in that way, I was like, “everyone else is with their kettlebells at home and I’m in here with my whole rack.” No one’s in the gym. I’m literally in my element. I don’t have to be with anyone. No one’s allowed in here and I have everything that I could possibly need, so in that way, I was a little bit fortunate during the time of COVID, when it got really bad that I had the ability to still get into the gym.
I will say if I didn’t have that, I would have been freaking out. I would have had a really hard time because I just wouldn’t have had access to what I really needed it to have access to. Fortunately, I was in Portland, and it all kind of worked out. Overall, I think everyone can agree on that, like just not having access to a gym and a community in that way, that’s really hard. It’s really hard to if it’s not your job or occupation, to do — to stay committed to doing it. I don’t know if I could do it, so I empathize with everyone who’s still out there, a year later, getting it in and getting out to their local park, or at home gyms or a Peloton. For me, sorry everyone, but I kind of sidestepped the whole inability to work out and I’m quite happy about it.
What’s been one silver lining for you during COVID?
I will say this. I tore my ACL in September of 2019, had surgery in October, and on my journey of getting back, COVID hi. I think at that time I was like, “What the hell? This is not the plan. How is this going to all workout? Am I going to get an opportunity to get back on the field? Am I going to be able to compete with a national team spot? This is not how this was meant to go.
The biggest silver lining is, I think I was given time that a lot of athletes aren’t given, especially in this type of environment. You don’t really get the luxury of coming back from an injury with a stress-free mindset, in terms of, “I’m going to take all the time that I’m given and get back to being absolutely 100%.”
I think, for me, it has been the biggest blessing for me, because I was able to just really focus on, one my ability to give back, but in the way that was going to propel me further and, really put me in a place that I can go on, and I can compete, and I can really push for this. It might not be the timeline that I was expecting but I’m in a much better place than I was than I would have been.
If COVID wouldn’t have happened, I think there would have been a lot of stress around coming back, and winning your starting spot back and I wasn’t ready. I actually had to go back and get another surgery done. There was stuff that kind of were roadblocks that were not anticipated in my recovery process that having the ability to not have to worry about what that roadblock was really going to mean in a time of nothing really going on, it allowed me to just really focus on myself and be like, “This has been a long process, but it’s going to be one that you’re going to get to the other side of and be really fortunate for and be ready to take on what you’ve been ready to take on for a year and a half. That’s just really exciting. There’s a lot of momentum.
Going into this year, when you have time to really just also contemplate and just reflect on how much the sport actually means to me. You get to this place of not complacency, but you can complain about the little things, or you take for granted the small things or training is a pain in the ass sometimes you know, like the double days. Then it’s all taken away from you pretty quickly and taken away from you for longer than anticipated. Coming back from any ACL surgery is hard enough, but I think it has given me a sense of just really reenergized pride and just excitement around what I do and how I do it. That’s just a gift in and of itself.
What’s one thing you’ve learned since becoming part of the Courage?
Since becoming part of this squad, one, you are going to make mistakes. It’s all about how you respond to the mistake you make. You learn that when everyone’s committed to one thing, on the field or off the field, when that message is consistent, really powerful things can be done, especially by a group of women — very incredible powerful things can be done — and inspiring things.
I also think I’ve gotten here and I’m like, “Oh, I’m not alone.” That makes us in the sense of my mentality and who I am and the way I compete — not to say that there haven’t been parts, like every team that I’ve gone to there aren’t parts of that, like you, don’t align on. You have to be here on this level, but the intensity that’s expected here, and the way that we train and the grind of it all I think it’s really hard.
I’ve always enjoyed that and to be around like 20 other players that also are just like committed to that in a way that’s just slightly different — a few percentage points — to be surrounded by that type of mentality also just makes you walk with a little bit more confidence and like a little bit more authenticity and a little bit more of a bite to your game, and to what you do. That becomes a spark throughout the team and that’s why it becomes what you see on the field becomes really special because everyone kind of influences everyone to be just a little bit better to want to achieve a little bit more. Only great teams get that only great teams do that.
Who is your go-to on the team for advice, questions, and just venting?
I will say that Crystal [Dunn] my best friend, so this might be bad, but I still call her. That is the person that I still go to. She’s my sister in a way that’s it’s a connection. It’s just really really special. She’s definitely the person. We’ve definitely created this bond that’s just like, if we need anything or need to be there, we’re there for one another. She is one of those people that every time you pick up the phone, I’m like, “What is she about to say?” Usually, it’s something ridiculous and I’m laughing or you know she’ll call me in bed and I’ll call her and be like, “Yo, you’re three hours behind.” I’ve collected myself but, I still need to talk through this. So yeah Crystal is a dear dear friend. Even though she’s not on the team anymore, she’s definitely in my heart, all the time.
What’s been your biggest “a-ha” moment in your professional career so far?
My biggest a-ha moment has probably been when I was around 26-27. You get out of this age of being able to drink and be able to recover, or go out after the game and be fine. Then you also get to this point where it’s like you have to make a decision. What am I doing this for? I always knew that I was going to take really seriously. I wanted to be the most professional that I could be, but it was around when I was in Seattle and I was really struggling. I would get really fit going into preseason and then by the end of the season, I would still be fit but, my body composition would change in a way that I just looked puffy. I don’t really love and I don’t really know what’s going on. Luckily, I had Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird’s expertise. They were like, “we think it has a lot to do with your diet. We’ve experienced kind of the same thing. This is something you need to consider.”
Anyway, I kind of went through this whole process and it became this huge realization. At the time I was struggling with cramping. I would get to the 75th minute of the game and my calves would cramp. I’d either be cramping and running or trying to find time to stretch and prolong the ability to play a full 90-minute game. People were like you need to hydrate hydrate. I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you, but I’m hydrating. It’s not for a lack of hydration and so basically, I found out that I was severely under-eating. In a sense, what I was asking my body to do, I wasn’t fueling it. My relationship with food — like for a lot of women wasn’t seen as this very healthy relationship. It was seen as I don’t want to eat too much. I want to be able to look good and be fit. What is that going to look like? It was kind of this mental talk that was not healthy. I didn’t look at food as a sense of fuel. I didn’t look at it as something that I needed routinely or what I needed to eat, at what times, what vitamins when to take my protein. It was at that time of shifting my mindset [to] food is fuel. It’s not this bad thing. That changed my ability to really perform in games and start eating in the right way that was going to be able to propel me in a way that I could play and sustain my energy throughout like a 90-minute game.
I think that was one of the biggest changes in my life in terms of just my relationship and how I saw eating and feeding my body. Now it’s a totally different mindset that I have now and I’m so thankful to have had Sue and Megan to guide me through the process and help me change what that looks like because I think it ultimately did allow me to just be a better soccer player.
What’s been the biggest adjustment training and playing for the Courage?
I don’t think I ever really had this moment of like “Oh, I really need to adjust here.” I think that speaks to a lot of who I am as a player and a person that this environment just kind of suited me in a way that was like, “this is where I’m going to be challenged to get better.” It’s also going to be a place where I can thrive if I take the appropriate steps to do so, and so.
I don’t think I ever felt this adjustment period. I came here and found myself seamlessly fitting in and just really enjoying the environment in a way that I can be the best player that I can be. I can also be who I am, really just show people my personality, and do what I do. I think that coming to the Courage has had its ups and downs for sure, but I think, for the most part, it was a change that I needed, It was a change that I thought was going to probably put me in the best place to compete at the highest level.
Who was your role model in the soccer world growing up?
My biggest role model in soccer I would definitely say it was Mia Hamm. As a women’s soccer player, she was just at the forefront of the game and just the spotlight. I had a huge poster in my room of her and had her jersey. I met her when she played in DC. That is, who I wanted to embody, and I think that’s the same for a lot of the girls that have come through during the early 90s and growing up in the sport.
Not a soccer player, but Michael Jordan. I loved Michael Jordan. I think, just like his mentality from a very young age, I had a Bulls jersey. I had the shorts. Both to their credit, they’re winners, and I think that’s what I wanted to be. They’re just all-out competitive and they were going to do what it took to win and I don’t know if I knew that as a five-year-old, but I know now that I was like much respect to both of them.
What’s the one essential possession that goes with you wherever you live?
I would say it’s Ax, my dog. He is essential to my life and honestly, he goes with me everywhere. He’s the biggest baby and the biggest Prince. He has an expectation of how he would like his life to be and I probably created a monster. Some days I’m so obsessed with the person [laughs] the dog that I created and then there are days like today, where I’m exhausted, and you want to go outside and I’m annoyed. But no, having Ax, you know it’s just wonderful to have a dog and coming home and he’s there and excited to see you, I don’t know, just a sense of comfort. I just think he just knows the mood that I’m in and can kind of sense it. I mean when I tore my ACL, he knew something was wrong, didn’t leave my side was in bed, just laid down, and just knew that like things are going to be different for a while. But yeah, he’s essential to my life. He goes with me everywhere.
What sport would you play if soccer wasn’t an option?
I would have played tennis I think. I played basketball from fourth grade through eighth grade. I could defend, could dribble really great on a transitional layup, but couldn’t shoot for shit, so I think that was out for me. I was never going to be a great basketball player. I grew up in an area that like we had our country club, and I would go to like tennis camp when I was younger, just to you know, bring some variety.
My parents were like, “you need to play other sports.” I’m like, “No, I just want to play soccer.” So it was with a lot of protests that I would go into other things. But yeah, I remember a tennis pro at the time, he said she should really try to play tennis and you know she has a great serve. She’s quick athletic like beforehand backhand she could be quite good.
Nope. I’m committed to soccer and now I look back and I’m like, “Yo, maybe I should play tennis.” Naomi’s a multimillionaire and 24 years old. But no, I really also enjoy the sport. I think tennis is one of those things that you watch and it’s always entertaining it’s just so fast and engaging it’s so so fun. I think there was a small part of me that wanted to do gymnastics and my mom was like, “Absolutely not.” So yeah I think tennis might have might be my best route, if I wouldn’t have played soccer so we’ll see but I chose this one and I’m pretty proud of it so. Yeah, I’ll stick with it.
What have you binged on lately?
Ooh, I, first of all, love a good series. I just binge-watched Formula One. I love and got addicted during the beginning of quarantine. I watched seasons one and two like that. Now I’m into Formula 1. I will be going to Monaco as soon as possible to see a race, but I just been binge-watching that I love that I need Ozark to come out because the ending of season three was shocking.
Netflix has been kind of like here and there, so I think I watched Firefly Lane, which I’m like, “I don’t know if I love this,” but it was something to watch and I also binge-watched Georgia and Jenny, and the same type of thing. I’m like Why am I obsessed with this. This is like high school drama.
I can always sit down and have Frasier on. That can always be on the screen but yeah I need some new shows to come out because I love to binge-watch shows. It’s part of my personality, I think, at this point.
Question from Jess McDonald: What would you do if fear was not a factor and you could not fail?
Honestly, after watching Formula One, I’d be a Formula 1 racer if fear wasn’t an option and I wouldn’t fail. The whole thing is just so intriguing to me and I love cars like I love driving fast. I love the whole idea, but I also know I’m a walking ball of fear so going that fast and doing what they do I’m like I would never put myself in that situation, but yeah I think if I was without fear and knew I couldn’t fail, I would for sure get behind a Formula 1 car and like take on Lewis Hamilton and be like, “Yo bro whatcha got? Let’s go.”
I’ve done a driving experience and I loved it but they kind of are there like chaperoned in a way I’m like I don’t want to be chaperoned. I want to be able to go as fast as I can but no they’re super fun. I just think it’d be so fun to be able to do that. I couldn’t imagine what that whole experience feels like and how pumped up you’re on adrenaline and how focused, you have to be it’s actually amazing.
Maybe this will go viral so someone’s like, “Hey we’ll let you come down and drive a car.”
2021 Starting XI Questions
While this is just the second set of answers for the 2021 Starting XI Questions, check out all of the previous Starting XI Questions.
Look for more articles on Merritt Mathias and the entire North Carolina Courage squad throughout the 2021 season here on Courage Country.