For Naomi Girma, The Next Step In Adulting Could Come At The Women’s World Cup

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Naomi Girma during an interview at a USWNT training camp on Jan. 13, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s a big life transition, going from being a college student to graduate, and then working in the real world. You’ve got to deal with new co-workers, pressure to keep up with experienced pros and the challenges of learning how fully adult outside of work.

U.S. women’s soccer team center back Naomi Girma tackled all of that since she graduated from Stanford University in 2022, and then transitioned into the NWSL with San Diego Wave FC.

She was the top pick of the 2022 draft, taken by the expansion Wave, and settled into her new team and city. Girma was also called up to the USWNT last year, playing in her first friendly on April 12 against Uzbekistan, and hopes to be on the final U.S. roster for the FIFA Women’s World Cup that kicks off July 20 in Australia and New Zealand.

Now in her second year with San Diego, Girma feels more clicked into the pro life — on and off the pitch. Girma sees the 2023 season as a springboard to deepening her game and being at her best for her first World Cup.

“I’m definitely still learning new stuff,” Girma, a native of San Jose, California, said. “Coming in last year to the Wave was huge for me, like I grew a lot as a player and a person. … Everything’s already meshing better, having a year of experience. 

“I just feel like I’m adjusting to being a professional: it’s different on the field, the game is faster, more physical. I’m kind of learning how to fit in and play my style. It’s different than college, for sure.”

Girma fit in well with the Wave last season, playing in 21 games. On the USWNT, she logged 10 appearances. So far this season, she has played in five games for the Wave and five for the USWNT.

Part of the transition from being one of the best college players in an elite program to the pro world is handling details. Girma lived at Stanford all four years, so things like prepping meals and off-field training aspects were taken care of for her. Now, she needs to maintain her health, from fueling to wear and tear, to be at her best over a more intense period of games in the U.S. and internationally.

“It’s more important because our season is longer, and with the (USWNT) camps, management is more important. … It’s about maintaining and getting through it,” Girma, 22, said. “I’m learning what my body needs to take care of myself.”

Naomi Girma fighting for the ball against Paige Satchell (New Zealand) during a women's friendly against New Zealand on Jan. 21, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Getty Images)

Girma has learned to cook some go-to meals, taking tips from the veteran players. She’s noticed they tend to do the same things — from pre-game rituals to meals — as part of their routines. She’s watching, learning and talking to them about their habits, trying to develop what works best for her life.

She admits, with a laugh, that she won’t be auditioning for the Food Network anytime soon with her baby culinary skills. But she can consistently pull off a chicken with rice and broccoli dish, and some pasta with meat and peppers.

Girma is on her own now, but definitely not alone. She credits her family — parents Girma Aweke and Seble Demissie, and older brother Nathaniel — for being a strong source of support. 

“My mom always keeps me grounded,” Girma said. “She doesn’t let me get too ahead of myself or too caught up in awards or things like that. It’s about stay present. I remind myself of that, I’m playing the game I love.”

Girma’s resume is already glittering: she won the 2019 College Cup with the Cardinal and was named the tournament’s most outstanding defensive player. She was U.S. Soccer’s 2020 Young Female Player of the Year and has been all-everything at every level. She has a bachelor’s degree in symbolic systems and is studying part-time, online, on her master’s from Stanford in management science and engineering.

She is a smart defender, praised by teammates for being sharp in her anticipation on the pitch. Her role model is veteran USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn, with Girma hoping to follow in her footsteps.

Girma’s presence on the Wave and on the USWNT is groundbreaking, as she is the first player of Ethiopian descent to reach the highest echelons of American soccer. Her parents came to the U.S., settling in San Jose, and became involved in the area’s strong Ethiopian community. Girma’s soccer path was through small teams at the YMCA and in the Ethiopian community team formed by her dad.

She knows her play, and success, are a source of pride for other Ethiopian Americans.

“It’s really cool, like a massive honor,” Girma said. “It’s so sweet that people are proud. I’m a representation for all the kids to see somebody Ethiopian playing for the U.S. My parents sacrificed to come to the U.S. I want to make them proud. 

“In our culture, when one person makes it, everybody has made it. It’s a special moment. To be honest, I’ve never thought of it as a burden. It’s support, like unwavering, how it always feels like love and support coming from that community.”