One of the stories of 2016 in women’s football has been the highly successful introduction of Orlando Pride into USA’s NWSL. The Pride opened to a league-record crowd in excess of 23,000 in April and have since engaged strongly with the city, setting something of a template for future prospective clubs as the league seeks to expand.
For one of the Pride’s players, featuring at this level is in itself a story of triumph. Sarah Hagen grew up with a poster of USA FIFA Women’s World Cup™-winning heroine Brandi Chastain on her wall. And the early signs for the young teenager from Wisconsin was that she could one day achieve her goal of becoming a professional footballer. Then tragedy struck. The 15-year-old Hagen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. A cruel blow for anyone, let alone a budding athlete still in high school.
Hagen, however, clearly has the fighting spirit of a champion. Six months and three gruelling doses of chemotherapy later, Hagen was declared cancer-free. Every year she marks the day the good news came through. Celebrating is a chance to take stock on the important things in life, but equally to be motivated for further personal growth.
“That day definitely inspires me and motivates me, and especially that day reminds me what I have been through and overcome,” Hagen told FIFA.com. “It is an inspiration to keep going and improve and hopefully improve other people.”
Equally Hagen, who has previously worn the colours of FC Kansas City and German heavyweights Bayern Munich, has become something of a beacon for football fans going through similar illness. And Hagen enjoys being able to use her status as a professional player to inspire others. “I have had plenty of fans reach out to me over the years and tell me how much it has inspired them to keep fighting and keep going on,” she said. “I have had fans that either have cancer or gone through cancer, and to hear them say how much they look up to me is quite humbling and amazing.”
*The apple and the orange *Nicknamed 'Apple' in reference to her hometown of Appleton up in the Great Lakes region, Hagen now has the honour of playing in the city’s cavernous stadium once known as the Florida Citrus Bowl. Capped twice for USA by Tom Sermanni in 2014, Hagen - a striker by trade - was brought to Orlando by the same coach earlier this year. And she couldn’t be happier donning the purple shirt for a well-supported club, one that also boasts a family sense to the way it goes about its business.
“It is unbelievable the atmosphere the fans create there,” Hagen said. “Even doing something like going to the grocery store, people recognise me and it is pretty cool to be almost like a local celebrity. But it is very humbling, and to see all the fans come out to our games, and interacting with them at different events, it all feels like being more of a professional athlete here.”
The interaction with the club’s men’s team - Orlando City SC - is significant. The two teams train at the same ground, share the same cafeteria and attend promotional events together. “It has been such an amazing experience playing in the city of Orlando, and for the Pride. The whole organisation has done such an amazing job of doing everything the right way. It is by far the most professional organisation in the NWSL.
“I have never been on a team where the owners talk to you on a weekly basis. Our owners do a great job of making you feel as important as the men’s team and make sure everyone feels involved. And I think our fans appreciate their support within the community. This has definitely been the most positive experience I have had.”
And if you think Hagen has it all, think again. There is more. Hagen partners modern-day USA poster-star Alex Morgan in the Pride forward line. Those dreams inspired all those years ago by Chastain, are now very much reality.
“Even training with her (Morgan) it has been great to see how she approaches the game and the training drills,” said Hagen, whose aerial ability compliments the free-running Morgan. “She is a top-level player so to be surrounded by that and to watch first-hand is very cool.”
But above all Hagen, more than most knows the value of appreciating what she has. “Knowing that I had been through something so difficult or challenging always keeps things in perspective.”