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In collaboration with Nike.
Romina Calatayud was three years old when she realized girls and boys were not treated the same way. So she started Girls United, which gives girls around the world equal access to sports and helps them feel confident on and off the pitch.
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Once upon a time there were three cousins playing soccer in their grandmother’s yard in Mexico City. They were all boys.
“Wait, two against one isn’t fair,” said one of them.
“Well, who else can play?”
“Let’s get Romina!”
Romina, who was just three years old, was the youngest of all the cousins. Also, she was a girl, and in Mexico City in the early 2000’s, nobody allowed a girl to play on a boys’ soccer team.
But as Romina toddled over to join their game and launched herself at the ball, all three boys had to wonder why not?
That day in her grandmother’s backyard, with the sun blazing bright and the mountains rising all around them, Romina had no idea that she was already changing history. She was just thrilled to be included — kicking the ball, and having fun.
Fast forward a few years, to when Romina was in grade school. She’d been playing soccer ever since that first day in her grandmother’s yard, and she was very skilled. But she often was the only girl on the pitch. Romina loved to write and play guitar too, but there was something about being out on the soccer pitch that made her feel strong and confident. She loved finding her flow as part of a group, and she was a really dedicated player. It was so frustrating for her to have such few chances to play. And when she did play pick-up games with boys, she felt like she had to win them over in order for them to pass her the ball or involve her in plays.
One day, when Romina was at King’s College in London, she shared this frustration with some of her friends. No matter where they were from, they’d all had similar experiences — one of Romina’s friends even dressed up like a boy when she was little so she could play soccer!
It was infuriating!
Then, Romina went to volunteer at a children’s school. On Mondays, she and some of her fellow volunteers got together to play soccer on a local pitch. They were from all over the globe and didn’t always speak the same language, but they all connected through their love of the game. Dribbling, defending, passing, scoring — they learned so much about themselves and each other by playing as a collective.
If only everyone could have this kind of experience, Romina thought. No matter what gender they are!
It wasn’t just about getting to strike the ball or dive after a goal. It was about being treated as an equal; about trusting her voice and celebrating her strengths.
When Romina got back to the university, she put together a business plan so she could start her own organization. It would be called Girls United and it would offer girls a safe space to play soccer, make friends, build some skills, and most of all, have fun.
The first session would take place in southeast Mexico. She was so excited that first day — and nervous. She’d asked so many people to come and had such high hopes for making this empowering new community for girls, but as she stood there waiting with a group of eager coaches, she wondered, Would anyone show up?
And then, a little girl wandered towards the soccer pitch with a shy smile. Followed by another. And another. Soon, there were one hundred girls running around with coaches, chasing the ball and laughing.
Great job! Try kicking with the inside of your foot!
It was such a glorious moment of victory for Romina. This was better than scoring any goal. This was her heart bursting with pride and hope. This was a new beginning.
Girls United has grown in so many ways in the past five years. So has Romina. She’s expanded her vision to develop programs for girls that are about so much more than sports. Yes, every Girls United practice starts off playing and practicing new soccer techniques. And often they are preparing for games or tournaments. But Girls United coaches also use practices to talk to players about leadership, girls’ rights, and even how to take care of their bodies.
As Romina says, “We are constantly thinking of how we can create more opportunities for girls to play – and to grow – throughout their lives.”
That means on the pitch, off the pitch, as players, coaches, and advocates for themselves.
Girls United now has programs running in Mexico and London, and hopes to expand across the globe. Each community they visit has different needs, so some girls will have no soccer equipment while others might have great facilities but very little confidence. No matter where they go, Girls United is dedicated to sharing a love of the game so girls can know the game, understand the game, and eventually change the game.
Just like that three-year-old Romina, walking out into her grandmother’s yard and blasting the ball with her head held high…every girl deserves a chance to get out on that pitch and show the world that she’s unstoppable.