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Sunday, July 23, 2006
Growing up fast

Corina Knoll

She had always been crazy fast. At age 5 when she first began playing the beautiful game, she would outrun the boys on her team, flashing by them on her coltish legs. It was a natural ability that made her father beam with pride -- she had, after all, gotten her speed from him. Later would come dozens of titles and accolades from running track in her hometown of Vancouver, Wash. But it was to soccer that she ultimately gave her heart and speed.

By her senior year at Hudson's Bay High School, Tina Frimpong had been voted the Randy Myers Foundation Female Soccer Athlete of the Year, and named Greater Saint Helen League MVP twice. College coaches waved full rides at the bright-eyed forward with a knack for deconstructing defenses.

But then, right on the brink of a new city, a new college, a new experience, Frimpong found herself forced to grow up just as fast as she was on the field.

The 18-year-old athlete about to leave for Santa Clara University discovered she was pregnant. Suddenly the world stopped. "My family was disappointed and a lot of people were like, 'Oh my goodness, what happened to Tina?'" recalls the now 24-year-old.

So while twin sister Crystal went to play soccer for the University of Florida, Frimpong withdrew from SCU, disheartened and embarrassed. She saw her future slipping away and felt terrible for letting her parents down. Joe and Eka had left their respective homelands of Ghana and Nigeria years ago to attend college in America, and they had taught their three children to value education.

Eventually though, momentum gathered and Frimpong, her family and her boyfriend, Brad Ellertson, began devising Plan B. "Once we calmed down and just rallied together, I went on visits again to Washington and Oregon, just somewhere close [to home] because I knew that if I was going to have a child, I would need that support."

After a year at her hometown community college, during which she gave birth to daughter MacKenzie, Frimpong called Lesle Gallimore, coach of the women's soccer program at the University of Washington. Frimpong had been heavily recruited there and wondered if she was still wanted. She joined the Huskies in 2001 without a scholarship. Soccer, however, felt like a whole new game. The toll for having a child meant a loss of quickness and agility. And she now had motherhood as a day job, as well as an economics major to pursue.

But Gallimore, having recently adopted her nephew and become herself a single mom, understood. "The first thing I ever said to Tina was if this is going to work you have to understand that [MacKenzie] comes first and that I understand that," says Gallimore. "So if you ever need to miss something, you ever need to bring her somewhere, you ever need to leave, you ever need to come into my office and sit and bawl your head off because you're exhausted, I get that."

Such moments were rare, however, and Frimpong found herself a master of multitasking while sharing duties with Ellertson. By then the couple had split, but lived in the same apartment building and took turns watching MacKenzie.

After two years, Frimpong returned to her previous fitness level and earned a scholarship. Her junior and senior year she was the Pac 10 Player of the Year, the first player in the conference to receive back-to-back recognition. She finished her career with 42 goals, the school's all-time leading scorer. It didn't erase the stigma she carried for being a young, single mother, but she didn't mind.

"I think for everyone that wanted to judge her at the time, she was willing to take it all," says Gallimore. "She was willing to take all the criticism and say, 'I've done this, now how do I make it right by everybody, myself included? How do I still make sure that I get my education and play soccer and be a good parent?' She was determined to figure out what the best situation would be."

It was Frimpong's parents who pushed her to think big, despite having veered off her original path.

"They kind of painted the picture of my future and what my dreams are and said, 'Tina, you know you can still do this.'"

It helped that Frimpong's teammates were just as encouraging and embraced MacKenzie as their own. "I think that the team did a great job at being aunts in a way," says Melissa Bennett, 24, who played with Frimpong for three seasons. "Our team had a party for [MacKenzie's] first birthday. She knows us all and would come and play with us. MacKenzie was definitely a bonus to having Tina on the team."

Bennett roomed with the mother and daughter for two years and witnessed the sacrifices that were made by the family, including Ellertson who attended school part-time while doing construction and working at the YMCA.

The two got back together during college and are planning a December wedding. After Frimpong was called up to the U.S. women's full national team last summer, Ellertson, 25, has become somewhat of a soccer dad, caring for MacKenzie in Vancouver while Frimpong is at residency camp in Carson, Calif.

"It is difficult, but it's one of those things that I'm glad to do," he says. "She's getting to do something that so few people ever get to experience. Why wouldn't I do that for her?"

"He got me through college," acknowledges Frimpong. "He was there when I needed to study, when I was at trainings, when I had a bad day and when I had a good day. I know that he's my No. 1 fan and he's always been my support. He's the person that I'm crappy to sometimes, but he deals with it."

While MacKenzie sometimes stays with her mother, enjoying playing with the other teammates' children, she spends most of her time with Ellertson who is finishing up a degree in technology and culture at Washington State University. When father and daughter visit Frimpong, the two watch from the sidelines as Mom works at deflecting goals.

"She's so fast, strong, aggressive and mentally tough, we just said let's try and make a defender out of her," says head coach Greg Ryan. "If the other team has a star forward, we'll get Tina to shut her down."

Frimpong says she likes the pressure of being in the back and that she feels like she's gotten the hang of it. Mostly, though, she just likes playing. "I honestly didn't know I was going to be here. I've always wanted to play on the national team and I still kind of pinch myself, am I still doing this? God has really blessed me."

But the journey was never really about soccer. It was about showing her daughter the world's possibilities.

"I hope it's teaching her that she can do all things if she puts her mind to it. I hope that she's taking from it some of the passion [she sees]. She wants to be a soccer player now and it's cute to see her being like, 'I play soccer too, Mom.'"

Five-year-old MacKenzie is starting the game at the same age her mother did.

Yes, she's crazy fast, too.

Corina Knoll is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She can be reached at corinaknoll@mac.com.


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