The Ones: Tobin Heath
The soccer star talks about pushing boundaries and having an instinctual connection to the game.
Words: Tara Aquino
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It’s an incredible feat that Tobin Heath, one of the most in-demand soccer players in the game, is able to stay as grounded as she does. On this cloudless day in Los Angeles, the Portland Thorns midfielder and U.S. National Team Forward. maintains her chill against a sky blue backdrop, where her Jumpman shoot is taking place. In one hour, she’ll be hopping in a car to go straight to another shoot, before heading to the airport. Tobin appears unfazed and energetic despite all of this.
We do our interview in the car to the second shoot, where — and this is no exaggeration — cameras start clicking as soon she steps out of the car. (The stylist gave her a jacket, she put it on, and the lights flashed. She was already in make-up from the last shoot, after all.)
I had a theory about Heath’s effortless cool before meeting her. Yet after speaking to her, and watching her move about the photo shoot to various songs she requested, I realized something about her groundedness: it’s completely real and natural to her. It comes from an inherent, deep well of knowing that there’s more to life than this — fame, football and championship wins, included. She’s entirely unaffected by mundane inconveniences.
The most defiant thing about the 30-year-old champion is that she is so wholly herself that she possesses seemingly no contradictions. It makes sense that she’s not only one of the most inspiring leaders on the USWNT but also a role model for all young people searching for a captain to support their conviction.
When did you first start playing soccer?
I started playing when I was four years old in the back of a YMCA. I learned everything at the YMCA. I instantly fell in love with the game. Ever since that moment, without even knowing it, I committed my life to the sport.
When did you realize that soccer could be a career?
I don’t think I ever realized it. I’m definitely a dreamer, but I very much live in the moment. With soccer, it was always like that for me. I wanted to learn the new trick or make the next team, so I always had my next steps and goals in mind. That’s how I’ve approached my whole career. Growing up, there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for me to become a professional athlete, as a woman. It’s pretty cool that this cycle of dreaming and doing throughout my career has paid off.
Did you have any heroes?
I’ve had a lot of people believe in me, including my family. I’ve always felt super blessed, because for some reason, people have just wanted to help me without asking for anything in return. In terms of football, I always admired Ronaldinho, because I worshipped Brazilian football. I thought it was beautiful. I love that everything revolves around the love of the game and the artistry of it. That’s what I’ve modeled my game after.
If you think that Tobin’s simply a standout on the field, she’s also an enigmatic talent. As one of four siblings in a “tennis family” from New Jersey, she’s the only one who ended up picking up a soccer ball.
As a stylist fixes her snapback — a signature look for the laidback soccer star — she smiles wide and cracks a joke. Everyone on set seems impressed with how cool she’s been all morning, despite the rush to get her to the next location.
Your style is so fun to watch. Beyond the Brazilian inspiration, how did you develop it?
I had this love affair with the soccer ball. I wanted to achieve this feeling, where I could control the ball without even thinking. The only way you can do that is by spending so much time with it. Whenever I’m practicing, it’s less about accomplishing something and more about having that feeling.
I’ve always followed the beat of my own drum. I never wanted to go down the same path as someone else. If I was the only one doing something or standing for something, I did so because I thought it was the right thing to do.
How did you bounce back after your injury in 2017?
It was super tough, because soccer is something that I absolutely love doing. My heart gets ripped out for a second whenever I can’t play, but then I do such a good job reframing life and putting things into perspective. It’s really important, especially when you have a profession where everyone tells you that it’s all about you. Nothing is really about you at the end of the day, so it’s about being thankful for that time instead of being miserable. I also have a lot of self-belief, so it’s not like I’m waiting until I can get back on the field. Worrying doesn’t add anything to your life.
After suffering an ankle injury that required her to have surgery and miss the first four games of the 2018 NWSL season, Heath returned to the field incredibly strong. Not only did she score in her first game back, but she helped carry her Portland Thorns to the finals.
What does defiance mean to you?
A lot of people look at defiance as a bad thing. I prefer to reject society’s prescribed ideas about what everything has to be like. Even with women’s soccer, I try to redefine what it looks like and how it can be played. In everything I do, I want to defy the status quo, educate people and reject the small lens that people often see things through.
What are those steps?
I want to change the culture of soccer in America. The first step is through my own playing. I want to have a meaningful impact on the game and the people I come across. The second way is giving back to the next generation. We’re so lucky that girls can now dream of being a professional athlete. Nowadays, people can get so close to their role models through social media. I also choose to promote the style of football that I want to play, which encourages freedom and less organization. Nobody has to tell you how to do something. If you don’t know how to do it, you’ll figure it out. I want to bring back the creative side to playing.
For me, the field is also a place of thanks, and that’s what I want to express through the way I play
What does it mean for you to be here today then, repping Jordan?
I love Jordan Brand. Basketball is the other sport I watch and love. MJ made basketball absolutely amazing with his athleticism, ability, creativity and innovation. I’ll watch old hardcourt classics because I’m just amazed by him. His attitude is just out of this world. I love how an individual can just take over the game like he did. When I was at UNC, I remember everyone wanting the number 23 on our team.
What did it mean for you to wear the “Blue Chill” kicks today?
I was so stoked. Air Jordan 1s are my favorite shoes. It’s just funny, because kid Tobin would literally think this shoot is the coolest thing ever, and adult Tobin also thinks this is the coolest thing ever.
As you grow, how will you continue to reinvent yourself?
It’s not something I really think about. It’s more of a lifestyle. Every day, I try to push the boundaries for myself, because I hope that it will help me push the boundaries for the world, in a way.
The Air Jordan I High OG “Blue Chill” is available starting February 14 from SNKRS and at select retailers.