Catarina Macario followed her family’s dream to become a USWNT international and Olympian

Trying out for a spot on a travel soccer team can be intimidating for a young girl. But for 12-year-old Catarina Macario, “intimidating” didn’t cover it.

Her father had made the decision to move with his son and daughter some 5,000 miles from their native Brazil to the United States, in large part so Catarina could realize the family’s shared dream of her becoming a soccer star. Girls who played soccer weren’t taken seriously in Brazil, you see, and the U.S. was the land of opportunity.

Long before Macario won two NCAA titles for Stanford on a scholarship, a spot on ESPN’s best female players age 21 or under, or made the Tokyo Olympics roster for the U.S. women’s national team, she was a young girl in San Diego — a new place where she was unable to communicate in English — feeling unsure of herself.

After years of playing with boys in Brazil, she didn’t know how she would do when trying out for an American girls’ team.

“I was very nervous, especially because it was like, ‘We’ve moved here, this is the real deal, and I’m the reason why we’re here,’ sort of thing,” Macario told ESPN from Japan, where she’s part of the USWNT Olympic team. “So, there was definitely pressure I put on myself because I knew how much my family had invested in me and how much sacrifices they had made.”

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As a coach at San Diego Surf, Chris Lemay was used to families with the intention of relocating to Southern California contacting him about tryouts at the Elite Clubs National League-affiliated club. Most of the time, it didn’t work out: the players were not good enough, said Lemay, who is now head women’s coach at Utah Valley University. When Macario and her family showed up — her brother Estevao spoke English and acted as interpreter — Lemay didn’t think much of it. But then the young girl took her first touch on the ball…

“It took me 15 seconds to realize this player was like a whole different world,” Lemay told ESPN by phone. “A ball was played into her, she took it out of the air with her thigh, and she volleyed it into the top corner. And she struck the ball with such force, I was like ‘Whoa. Please, let’s get her on this team as quickly as we can.'”

As Macario remembers it, she came away from the tryout knowing she had to improve. Macario calls it the “American style” that she needed to mix into her existing skill set, which really just means she had to be more physical — especially so because her father, Jose, insisted she play a year-up with older girls, which was Lemay’s team. Still, the Surf coaches got to see who Macario was as a player that day — they got to see her soccer IQ and her technical skill — and that’s what mattered.

“At the end of the day, soccer is soccer,” said Macario, now 21 years old. “People may play it differently but it’s still the same game, no matter what.”

Coming to America

If you look up Catarina Macario on YouTube, you’ll find a lot of goal highlights.

There’s that time, while at Stanford, when she danced her way through three defenders, almost toying with them as if the ball was glued to her foot, before she laid off a perfect assist. There’s also the goal where she trapped a ball off her thigh, popped it off her foot and then smashed a volley from 20 yards out without letting the ball touch the ground. But there are also clips from Brazilian news programs interviewing a 10-year-old Macario and showing B-roll of her playing soccer with boys.

For Macario, there was no other option: If she wanted to play soccer, and she wanted to play for a real club, it had to be with the boys. But in soccer-mad Brazil, she was something of a curiosity. A girl was playing soccer with boys? On a team that won a trophy? And she was a top scorer? For some people, it was exciting, but for others, it was a problem.

“It was just a new concept to have a girl playing on an all-boys team because, at least when I was there, there weren’t many girls playing,” Macario said. “I was usually the only girl. It was something new, something different that people had not seen, and the fact that I was having success amplified that even more. I wasn’t just playing with them: I was doing well, you know?

“It was truly something that was unheard of, and some people reacted well, of course. Some people were supportive and they saw the talent that I had, so they cheered for that. Other people, of course, they felt a little hostile towards it. They said girls shouldn’t play.”

Entering adolescence and figuring out your place in the world is difficult enough. But for Macario, doing what she loved became a referendum on her gender and whether girls should even play soccer at all. Even the mothers of the other kids would tell her that girls should focus on other things. Not only is she a girl, but she’s Black — two subjects of the taunts she’d face from other kids. Sometimes it felt like too much, and she wanted to quit.

“There were definitely some times when I’d have a bad game, and it was just further reinforcing the idea that I shouldn’t be playing,” she said. “I would start to doubt my own abilities. Sometimes I would feel like, ‘Ugh, I can’t deal with it anymore, I want to be a normal kid.’

“There were a good number of times I remember bawling my eyes out.”

Her parents urged her not to let her talent go to waste, and her dad pushed her in particular. Macario’s experience was the subject of a Players’ Tribune essay she wrote earlier this year. “For him to see his daughter, competing with the boys — there were no girls’ teams where we lived — was the most amazing thing in the world, but the more he saw how good I was, the more he would push me,” she wrote. “The better I got, the greater the pressure and the tougher his feedback would get.”

“Catarina’s dad was very influential: he wanted his daughter to be a superstar,” said Lemay.

But with the pushing came support and Macario credits Jose, and her mother Ana Maria, with not letting her give up.

It was her father who typed “best women’s soccer player ever” into YouTube and found highlights of U.S. great Mia Hamm. By then, Hamm had already retired, but Macario was able to see stadiums full of people cheering to see this amazing soccer player, who happened to be a woman. It was a powerful motivator and an image she would hold onto.

Before she turned 12, she hit a crossroads. The rules in Brazil meant that she was no longer allowed to play on boys’ teams. She could either quit, or find a new place to play. It was obvious where that was — while her mother stayed in Brazil to practice medicine and serve as the family’s breadwinner, Jose, Catarina and Estevao moved to America. It might seem like a difficult choice to leave your home country and everything you’ve ever known, but Macario wanted to make the move.

“It was an easy decision: I either stay and let my talent go to waste or we try to pursue this dream,” she said.

“I realized I want a country that actually values what I want to do and has that support. Even when it comes to education, it was just better. So, my family decided to move and I just fell in love with the U.S., and it’s where I became the person and the player that I am today.”

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Ali Krieger reacts to Vlatko Andonovski’s decision to start Lynn Williams as the USWNT advances to the semifinals at the Olympics.

Becoming an Olympian

Catarina Macario knew that Vlatko Andonovski, the U.S. women’s national team coach, was going to call. Having recently signed to play club soccer with Lyon, she was in Stanford visiting college friends when Andonovski, who was in the process of narrowing down his roster for the Tokyo Olympics, texted her to expect a call.

Macario had been involved in some national team camps and figured she’d hear from the coach either way. The call came and, after the two engaged in some small talk, he said the words: “Congratulations, you are coming to the Olympics.”

“It was pretty surreal because I feel like this year has brought so many wonderful things — getting my citizenship, and then getting first cap,” Macario said. “It was truly a blessing to be called up to the team for the Olympics, and I know there were probably so many players who were probably more deserving than I was. I was just in a little bit of shock in a way.”

The call-up completed a meteoric rise. In January, three months after becoming a U.S. citizen and being called into a USWNT camp on the same day, Macario made her debut against Colombia. A few days later, she started for the first time, scoring her first goal against the same opponent.

“Physically, she is already ready to be at this level, which is a huge jump to go from college to this level,” Megan Rapinoe said after that game. “You saw she can hold it up, she’s quick, she’s fast, she thinks fast. She is just going to be one of those fun players that you love to see, someone that is going to excite the fans, someone that is going to come out with something creative.”

Macario’s big-time firsts have kept coming, and last week she proved herself again when coming on to make her Olympic debut as a late substitute in the USWNT’s 6-1 win over New Zealand. Having originally made the team as an alternate before a rule change put her on the full roster, she looked ready for the stage, despite being the youngest player on the squad.

Lemay hasn’t coached Macario in years, but still talks to her regularly and watches all her games — he compares her to Neo from The Matrix movies, slowing down time when she has the ball at her feet.

He thought her performance against New Zealand showed promise, although there was one critique:

“The minutes she got against New Zealand were a good representation of who she is — she completed every pass and she was good on the ball,” Lemay said. “I think, in that environment, she needs to be more selfish, and that’s probably difficult. There are a lot of veterans and big personalities.”

Indeed, when asked by ESPN at a different point in the conversation if there is anything people don’t know about Macario that they should, he did not hesitate.

“Everybody wants to talk about the transition to the United States and wants to talk about her playing ability, but one of the most fascinating things to me is just how humble she is,” Lemay said. “There’s no sense of arrogance or entitlement.”

In some ways, that might seem incongruous with her rise to stardom or playing style. Players like Macario, who have the dribbling skills to embarrass defenders and the finishing instincts to leave goalkeepers in the dust, are often the attention-seekers or the braggarts.

But she has kept herself in check, often discussing things to improve instead of what she has already achieved. Beyond the minutes she got late in the win over New Zealand, Macario has been left off the matchday roster for the U.S.’s other games in Japan. If she is involved in Monday’s semifinal against Canada, though, it could be a pivotal moment in her young career.

When she isn’t playing or training, Macario talks to her parents on the phone every day — her dad is in France, where he moved to be closer while she plays for Lyon, and her mom is still in Brazil — and they ask how she’s doing and what the Olympic Village is like.

Nothing, though, will top the phone call she made to let them know she would be part of the American team going for gold.

“I should have FaceTimed to them to see if they would actually cry,” Macario said. “They were both so happy. It was the icing on the cake of what we’ve been wanting to achieve. As a family, that’s what they sacrificed everything for, so I could be able to represent the U.S. at a world stage.”