“Pursuing your passions makes you more interesting, and interesting people are enchanting.” - Guy Kawasaki.
This month I was fortunate to talk to Emma Clarke, a 21-year-old from Christchurch, who is pursuing her passion for soccer by representing the University of Houston in the American Athletic Conference. Although she is so modest to question my interest in interviewing her and even leave some of her impressive credentials out of the conversation, she was absolutely enchanting.
Emma grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. She began playing soccer when she was 9 years old. She instantly showcased great talent that was accompanied by a great passion for the game. “I was always playing soccer and kinda became obsessed with it.” Whilst she grew up and her sporting and academic accolades grew, she was also developing a fascination for the United States. She had friends who had been, and loved it, but had not been herself apart from a short trip she can’t remember as she was only an infant. The US Women’s Soccer Team is the best in the world and soccer is seen as one of the “most important sports, especially for women”. She knew it was somewhere she wanted to be and saw soccer as the gateway to get there.
In 2017, Emma’s final year at St Margaret’s College, she represented New Zealand’s Under 20 team in their World Cup qualifier against Papua New Guinea. She now regards this as her “foot in the door” for what has since eventuated. Her coach for the New Zealand squad had contacts in the US and began discussing opportunities for some of the girls who were keen to go abroad. The coach at University of Houston (UH) asked for footage of their games, after which he showed
interest in Emma and began contacting her directly. She also received interest from a college in California, but since she wanted to play for a Division One team she most reciprocated the interest from UH. Later in the year when she traveled with her father to visit the two colleges, it was at UH where she instantly “loved the campus, loved the coaches, and the girls were super nice”. Without physically seeing her play, she was offered and accepted a full scholarship to play soccer and study civil and environmental engineering.
Being in the Northern Hemisphere, it wasn’t until July 2018 before Emma made her move to Houston for pre-season and the start of the college year. In the meantime, after finishing year 13, she worked for six months doing “random jobs” and played club soccer. Although it was hard for her to leave friends and family at home, when her time to depart rolled around in July she was “so ready to leave”. In her first experience outside a schooling system she grew tired of the mundane routine, and as “one of those kids who loved school...loved learning and being in class” she was ready to begin the adventure that lay ahead of her. She bought a one-way ticket and was “hoping that it was going to all work out”. Before starting at UH, Emma says she battled nerves before games which lead to inconsistent performances. This is something she has worked on a lot with her coach, and the team is “really big on the mental side of the game.” They do weekly mental training, keep journals and use meditation and visualisation practices. “I think every athlete should really focus on their mental side because it can make such a huge difference.”
In her first year representing UH, she appeared in 18 matches and made nine starts. The following year she appeared in 19 matches, for which she started 16. In the most recent season she started every game and led the team with a total of 971 minutes played.
As the 2020 season developed, so did the Coronavirus pandemic. The season “got put on pause here because everyone was getting Covid”. The team began getting tested twice a week, having socially distanced practices in masks “which was horrible, especially since it is so hot here, like 36 degrees and humid”. As the season continued to be postponed, Emma received a positive test result for Coronavirus. Scared the borders would shut, she made the decision to return home to New Zealand after she’d recovered from the virus. Whilst at home, she continued her schooling through online classes that were live in a time zone 17 hours behind. She struggled but adapted to the new routine which demanded she fulfil her academic schedule before sporting, whereas when in Houston she trains for soccer in the morning and then goes to class in the
afternoon. “It was manageable...it was definitely worth it to spend that much time with my family.” Whilst at home she also was able to play for Canterbury Pride, a representative team which named her ‘Best Defender’ in 2016 and which featured many of the girls she’d grown up playing with.
As Emma is an athlete, I expected her to dribble past the Coronavirus as if it was nothing. I had held a belief, that has now changed, that being a health issue, for those who are already healthy the virus would not have a consequential effect. However, Emma became “so sick”. She experienced flu symptoms in the beginning which progressed to a loss of taste for almost three weeks. She feared she would, like so many who had had Coronavirus, lose her taste buds for good. Having been in an environment where many have had the virus, she has witnessed no correlation between the effect the virus had on an individual and that person’s health prior to infection.
The situation in Houston is now starting to improve, and although it is not mandatory, a large percentage of the population has been vaccinated. For Emma and the others in her team who have been vaccinated this has meant mask wearing is optional and they no longer need to be tested weekly. This does create a problem where people pretend to have been vaccinated and go about in public without a mask however Emma says the situation has “gotten so much better.”
Emma will graduate at the end of 2022. As her degree is a STEM Major, she is entitled to continue living in the US for three years after its completion. At this stage she does not plan to stay for more than two years after university however it will depend on the line of work she takes on. She hopes to work in renewable energy. She does know it will be hard for her to return to New Zealand due to having grown used to the great pace and population of Houston, but she looks forward to
being back with family. She also looks forward to playing with her club here, although after graduating she may consider the value of having a break from the game after what will be 14 years of playing. Despite growing up with the dream of being a professional soccer player, she does not wish to make soccer her profession. She now understands the level of dedication required to be a professional athlete and believes she could not do it without bringing detriment to the career she wishes to pursue in renewable energy.
Emma set an ambitious yet achievable goal that aligned with her passion and therefore has enjoyed the journey to a destination she will continue to redefine. Whether it be in sport, career or in the name of fun, she knows “you only live once”. Her eyes are open to opportunity and she’s willing to “give everything a go” for it can only either be great or something to learn from.
For someone who’s granted a great opportunity and does not know whether or not to take it, Emma would tell you “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity”. She regards taking the opportunity to go to University of Houston as “the most amazing decision of my life”. She was aware that if she didn’t like it she could always return to New Zealand however would not put herself in the position to “regret it one day” by not going.
Congratulations Emma on all you have and are achieving. I am lucky to have been able to talk to you and am grateful for that. I greatly admire how you’re living your life. You have an amazing journey ahead of you and I am excited to watch it unfold. Best wishes, love and support from New Zealand.
Max Anderson (Christchurch Youth Council).