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Norwegian soccer star Ada Hegerberg is world-famous for her powerful kicks, her joyful spirit, and her gritty determination. Ada has won trophy after trophy, including the first-ever Ballon d’Or awarded to a woman! But what she’s most proud of is the way she’s changing the soccer world by fighting for gender equality.
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The year was 2019. The women from Ada Hegerberg’s national soccer team were running onto the field for a huge match. This was the kind of match that every soccer player trains for and dreams about – the chance to prove you are the very best of the best. Over twenty thousand spectators were in the stands and more than seven and a half million fans were watching the game on TV.
But where was Ada Hegerberg?
It seemed like the whole world wanted to know the answer to that question. Ada was one of Europe’s finest athletes. She was focused and powerful, known for charging down the field and breaking into a wild grin after scoring goals, one after the other. In fact, Ada was the leading women’s goalscorer in the world! Ada was what Michael Jordan is to basketball, what Gucci is to fashion, what Rocky Road is to ice cream! So why wasn’t she lacing up and getting ready to get out onto the field in this historic game?
At kickoff, the referee blew the whistle and the roar of the crowd faded to a hum. The players from both teams came in fast and furious, but Ada’s national team gave up one goal and then another. Ada was crushed. As she watched the action on the television in her living room, she sighed with disappointment. She really would have loved to be playing with her national team at this game so why was she home instead of on the field? And why was this home of hers — filled with her muddy cleats and soccer trophies — not even in her home country of Norway?
First, let’s go back a few years to understand how this all began. Smiley, tow-headed Ada was born July 10, 1995 and grew up in a tiny village surrounded by mountains in the northern part of Norway. There, Ada’s parents taught their three children to find their own voices and to always dare themselves in following their dreams.
Ada’s parents were both soccer coaches and her older brother and sister loved the sport too. But soccer was not a priority for little Ada. She was so busy with all of her other activities, like dancing and climbing, skiing, writing in her journal, and even playing with bugs! But her older sister kept pulling Ada out onto the grass and begging her to play. Ada loved her older sister, so when she was six years old she said, fine, she’d give soccer a try.
It wasn’t long before Ada discovered that she loved this sport. And, she had a very powerful kick. Every time Ada sent the ball sailing between the goal posts, she felt like a superstar, a surge of energy coursing through her. People started gathering to watch her as she kicked, screaming and giggling with delight. It was so much fun to score! Pretty soon, Ada was hooked. She was the one begging her sister to come outside and play so they could practice their dribbling and shooting again and again.
By the time Ada was nine years old, kids were being split into girls’ and boys’ soccer teams. Ada and her sister opted to stick with the boys. They loved it! With the boys, the sisters were expected to be competitive. With the boys, they were loud and proud — hooting and hollering when they won and stomping their feet when they lost. But always getting back out there to try again.
After three years, Ada’s family decided to move to Oslo, Norway’s capital city. There, Ada joined an all-girls’ team, and right away, she noticed a huge difference in the way things were done. Girls’ soccer was not nearly as exciting as it was with the boys. Because she was a girl, Ada was expected to be cautious and take everything slowly. Her coaches and teammates were strong, but quiet and even reserved.
This made no sense to Ada. Having one set of rules for the girls’ behavior and one for the boys’ was not how Ada was brought up. Ada’s parents had always treated boys and girls equally. They’d encouraged Ada to give her all to the game and have fun. Soccer wasn’t supposed to be slow and quiet. It was supposed to be thrilling and fierce!
Why, Ada wondered, were girls not being given the same opportunities here?
As she got older, Ada and her sister turned professional. Quickly, they became known as two of the best women’s soccer players in all of Norway. But for Ada, playing at a more competitive level only made the double standards more apparent. Soon it became very clear to her that there were no women role models for her to follow. Men were the only soccer heroes being celebrated. Women were pushed to the side, given less money and less resources; their games were barely even televised.
All Ada could do was keep pushing herself to see what she could achieve. And she achieved a lot! When she was just 19 years old, she played in a huge worldwide tournament and scored three times. The next year, she was named Sportsperson of the Year in Norway, the first time in almost twenty years that a soccer player had received that honor!
Ada wasn’t just a national treasure though. All of Europe was coming to recognize her extraordinary talent. She was given medal after medal, trophy after trophy. As women’s soccer got more and more popular, Ada did too.
But despite all the applause, Ada still felt frustrated. She saw how differently women were treated than men in the world of sports, and it infuriated her. Men’s teams were paid much, much more than women’s, and they worked just as hard. There was a lack of respect for women’s efforts that Ada couldn’t ignore.
For instance, one day, when they were preparing for a big match, Ada’s team got a shipment of cleats that were late and in all the wrong sizes. Ada fumed. How could they win without the most basic equipment? Then, Ada noticed that the men’s team were given access to the best facilities to practice and train – even though the women’s team had qualified for the biggest game of the year and the men hadn’t qualified for a major tournament in over a decade!
Ada decided she had to do something about this. She asked her team’s general director why the women didn’t have access to better resources. Instead of answering, the director told Ada to be quiet and stop asking so many questions.
Ada was stunned, and madder than ever. She felt like some of the best players in the world — including herself! — were being pushed aside and told they didn’t matter, just because of their gender!
Ada was so angry that she decided she wouldn’t play for her national team if they were going to treat her this way. So in 2012, although she knew she’d miss her family and friends terribly, Ada packed her bags and left Norway.
Ada promised herself that she would only play for a club that represented her values. So she found a team in France that was known for being very dedicated to equality between male and female athletes, and she asked when she could join.
The French team was thrilled to have Ada in their line-up. After all, she was internationally recognized as one of the greatest players in soccer! After Ada joined, the team won match after match, earning them huge titles and sparkling trophies. Every year that Ada played with France, she scored twenty goals or more and she either led or tied for the league scoring title three times.
Then, Ada was invited to do something no woman had ever done before. She traded in her jersey for a spectacular gold dress and stood in front of a huge crowd. Coaches, players, even her parents were there! Everyone had come to see history being made: Ada Hegerberg was receiving the first-ever Ballon d’Or awarded to a woman! The Ballon d’Or is soccer’s most prestigious award. Since 1956, it has been awarded to plenty of soccer icons – but never to a woman until this moment.
Looking out over the audience, Ada held the golden soccer ball up for everyone to see. She felt like she had to share the moment to make it matter. Her accomplishment belonged to this sport she loved and to all young girls everywhere who might face their own obstacles. Standing tall, Ada dedicated this award to all the young girls out there who were following their dreams and fighting discrimination. She knew that it was the rebels who came before her and the ones who’d come after her, who deserved this honor too. And when the crowd cheered, they were cheering not just for Ada, but for this change she’d helped bring to the world of sports.
Ada’s career has not been all goals and trophies though. When she chose to leave her home country, there were people in the media criticising her a lot. And it was very hard sitting on that couch, watching her home team get beaten. Still, Ada would not compromise her values.
She knew that history was written by people willing to make hard choices. If she could stay strong, she’d be making the world of athletics more fair for future generations.
Then, in the beginning of 2020, Ada ruptured her ACL, the tissue inside your leg that keeps your shin bone connected
to your thigh bone. It was painful and the recovery was long. She battled physically and mentally to heal – and to get back to the sport she loves. But she did it!
Thanks to rebels like Ada, women’s sports are beginning to get the respect they deserve. After almost five years away from the national team, Ada will return to play for Norway this summer, and things surely will be different. The situation in Norway has gotten much better – athletes on the women’s and men’s teams are now considered the same. Plus, media attention and fan turn-out for women’s soccer is at an all-time high.
When Ada runs on to that familiar training field, she won’t be trailing her big sister or asking her coach for the right sized cleats. This time around, Ada will hold her head up high and let everyone see her triumphant smile. And no one will tell her – or any girl for that matter – to be quiet.
As Ada says, “Don’t be afraid to challenge the people above you. Don’t let the stigmas get into your head, go out and reach for the stars. But most importantly, keep having fun while doing all of it.”