At age 15, soccer star Becky Sauerbrunn was starting to question her ability to compete on the elite stage.
The future FIFA Women’s World Cup champion showed up at the Olympic Training Center near San Diego, California, in 2001 for her first day of practice on the U.S. national team, eager to impress. But the day did not go as planned.
Her coach, Steve Swanson, who had recruited Sauerbrunn as a defender, was running drills that were new to her, and she was struggling. Eventually, Swanson stopped the practice and pulled Sauerbrunn aside to show her some film of how the formation was supposed to work.
“I just remember being so taken aback and just so frightened because this coach, this really important coach, was showing me all the things that I was doing wrong,” she recalled. “He kind of noticed that I was freaking out a little bit during the film session. He stopped it and was like, ‘Look, I’m doing this because I see something in you. I want to introduce this to you. I think this is something that you will be very good at.’ I just think that’s huge as an athlete to have someone see in you something that you don’t quite see in yourself.”
The bond of trust was forged and Sauerbrunn redoubled her efforts to develop her game, becoming one of the top female soccer players in the country. She was recruited in 2003 to the University of Virginia Cavaliers, where Swanson was head coach of the women’s soccer team, and her education as student-athlete continued for four more years.
During one punishing day on the pitch, Sauerbrunn recalled, she tried repeatedly to execute a tough workout that her coach had designed — and failed.
“I remember just being so disappointed in myself and he was like, ‘You didn’t give up. You easily could have. This was a pretty outrageous session. Look how well you did,’” she said, noting she left practice realizing that she had not yet tested the limits of her physical ability. “He pushed that and now I knew I could do so much more. That was a pivotal moment for me. That’s huge for any athlete to know that you just pushed your boundary. That you did get better today.”
Those are the moments that make coaching worthwhile, said Swanson. “I think that’s the most critical job of a coach, to look beyond where they are now and say, ‘Hey, if you keep working hard, and you’re motivated and this is a dream of yours, you potentially could reach that,” he said.
Sauerbrunn and her coach
After graduating from UVA, Sauerbrunn played soccer for a series of professional club teams including the Boston Renegades, Richmond Kickers Destiny, Washington Freedom, magicJack, D.C. United Women, and FC Kansas City, winning two National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championships along the way. She’s been named to the league’s "Best XI" player each year since it was created.
And she played for the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 and 2016, bringing home a gold medal. Currently, Sauerbrunn is captain of the Utah Royals FC.
She and Swanson, who is still coaching at UVA, remain close.
“We’ve grown together,” he said. “I think that my respect and my mutual admiration for her and for what she’s accomplished, where she’s come from, has grown. That’s been a key aspect of our relationship. I got into coaching because I love sports, but also because of the relationships that sports can develop. Not just between adults, but between young and old, different races, different diversities.”
As one of the most award-winning athletes in women’s soccer, Sauerbrunn said she credits her coach, who has been a mentor and friend for more than half her life, for her professional success.
“I think I would have gotten lost in this system without Steve,” said Sauerbrunn, noting his focus on her development rather than just performance helped her dig deep. “I don’t think I would be at this level without Steve.”
His dedication to personal growth, character, and kindness have also positively influenced her private life, said Sauerbrunn.
“The things that he taught us are very applicable to being a good person,” said Sauerbrunn. “You need to show up. You need to be present and when there’s work to be done, you need to make the effort. I think that’s huge. If people show up every day in relationships, with our family and our loved ones, that’s how you cement relationships and really make them strong and healthy. Those things last a lifetime.”
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