Shannon Leigh “Boxxy” Boxx, a defensive midfielder on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team, will indulge in one important tradition prior to her first 2012 Olympics match Wednesday: banana pancakes.
“Yes, I'm hoping to keep the tradition alive by eating banana pancakes for every pre-game meal,” Boxx said in an email from Glasgow over the weekend. “We have already had pancakes a couple of times, so I believe I will be (all right). Other than that, I just make sure I have my hair French-braided.”
The 18-member U.S. Olympic team and four alternates arrived in the U.K. on July 11 and trained in Darlington, England until traveling to Glasgow on July 17 to prepare for the first game against France on Wednesday.
Housed in the official LOCOG (London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) hotel in Glasgow, the Americans play their opening match at Hampden Park two days before Friday's Olympic Opening Ceremonies. (See the website for dates of matches and times.)
“So far Glasgow has been great,” said Boxx, who hails from Redondo Beach and plays locally at The Home Depot Center in Carson. “It has been a bit cold and rainy, which is very unlike Southern California, but the sun has come out for us during our training sessions, which is always good to see.”
A gold medalist in soccer in two previous Summer Olympics (2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing), Boxx—elated to be back competing on the Olympic stage at age 35—said the “training fields are in great condition, the hotel is very nice, and the people have been amazing to us since the moment we arrived.”
Born in Fontana, Calif., she grew up in the South Bay, playing every game with the word "ball" in it since the age of 4. Her love of soccer bloomed at South Torrance High School, where she lettered in soccer, volleyball, softball and basketball. The honor-roll student and athlete earned a soccer scholarship to Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., where she helped the team win their first women’s national championship in 1995.
But when it came to her professional soccer career, Boxx has had to overcome everything from Children’s Lupus to numerous surgeries.
In a speech about overcoming obstacles at Chapman University in 2011, Boxx talked about how multiple surgeries, battling Lupus, and a coach’s alienation helped shape her career.
In 2002, at the start of her second season as a Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) player with San Diego Spirit, a coaching change led to her being benched for a year, Boxx told students at Chapman.
“The coach didn’t like the way I played,” she said simply. Cheering her team from the sidelines, Boxx cried her eyes out at home, feeling she would never be good enough.
Next thing she knew, she was traded to New York Power.
Although she almost gave up then and there, she decided to look to her own shortcomings. “I was weak at fitness and it showed,” she said in her speech. Hiring a trainer, she told him, “I’ll never say no to anything you ask me to do, and I’ll never quit.”
In New York, Boxx returned to fighting form, starting all 21 games, scoring once and assisting a career-high eight times. Chosen for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team in 2003, Box became the first uncapped player to be selected to a World Cup squad. (Uncapped refers to individuals who have never played a national team game.)
That same year, the 5' 8" player they call "Iron Woman" was named to the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Women’s World Cup All-Star Team.
Everything came to a halt in 2006, however, when, at age 28, she faced her “biggest physical challenges,” she told the Chapman University audience.
"I tore my meniscus in my left knee, and I needed surgery," she said. Seven months after she returned to play, she tore the cartilage in her right hip, which required another surgery.
“Two months later, my first day back at practice, my goalkeeper tackles me and I tore my MCL and my ACL (in my right knee)," she told the audience. "So it was a really hard year.”
Through the whole process, the old fear of never being good enough returned. “I feared I’d lose my spot on the national team,” she said.
As she had learned to do in the past, however, Boxx focused on “getting stronger, mentally and physically.”
But there was another obstacle, one she has faced for the better part of ten years—Lupus.
“My immune system can’t tell the difference between good and bad tissue,” said Boxx, who struggles with extreme fatigue, joint pain and various other symptoms.
“In recent years, there are days I can’t even work out,” she told the university audience. "There are days that my joints hurt so bad I can’t touch them. But through it all, I’ve been able to continue playing.”
Although she knows she will battle it for the rest of her life, “in terms of my soccer career,” Boxx said, “I know [Lupus is] not going to beat me.”
Although she joked from Glasgow that “recovered knees” are supposed to warn of approaching rain (more than a possibility in the U.K.), Boxx said her knees are great. "Definitely no lingering effects from the (injuries) or the surgeries.”
As for the Lupus, she is “very thankful” that is under control. “I take medicine that is allowed by the USOC which helps keep my symptoms at bay," she told Patch. "The biggest thing I will continue to try to do is get as much rest as possible so that all my energy is used for the games.”
Looking forward to Opening Ceremonies and marching in the parade, Boxx hopes to have “the opportunity to go to the Village in the later rounds so we have a chance to meet some athletes,” she said. “I met Sanya Richards (-Ross, track and field) in the last Olympics, and (it) would be fun to see her again, as well as see her race.”
She’s also excited to watch women's gymnastics and see Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt run.
Olympic gold runs in Boxx’s family.
Her sister, Gillian, won a gold medal in softball at the 1996 Olympics, and both women have identical Olympic Rings tattooed on their ankles.
The 2012 Olympics will be one of the first times Boxx’s sister and mother will not be in attendance, however. “They have been amazing over the past 11 years, traveling around with me to all (the) major events,” said Boxx, who continually boasts about being raised by a single mom.
“I will miss them here, but know they will be cheering me on back in the States with the rest of my family," she said. :I’m not without support here though. My boyfriend and two very good friends are going to make the trip.”
Boxx’s mother, ironically, had initially discouraged her daughter from trying for a college soccer scholarship, saying there weren’t that many offered. “She told me to focus on softball,” Boxx told Patch.
Boxx played softball for one year, "didn’t love it," and went back to soccer.
As she told the Chapman audience, “I ended up at the University of Notre Dame on a full ride, and my freshman year I helped my national team to a championship. By senior year I was captain of the team.”
At Notre Dame, where she majored in African Studies, she also learned a lot about herself.
"One of the biggest things is, I’m half black and I’m half white, but I’ve always lived with my mom who is a single mom and is white," she said. "For me, I really learned about my other half. … I think that was one of the best things I could have ever done.”
She credits her Olympic success, as well as her sister's, to their mother.
"None of this could have happened without the support she gave both of us," Boxx writes on her website. "Although she was a single parent with a full time job, she found a way to be there for both my sister and me. I don’t ever remember a time when she said I couldn’t play a sport because she didn’t have the time or the money. She never pushed me to do one thing or another in sports; she just guided me along the right path."
What does the future hold after soccer?
“I know I want to keep playing as long as my body is able and the joy is still there,” Boxx said from Glasgow. Although she once thought of becoming a firefighter like her sister, she wants to start training and coaching kids next year.
"Through all my experiences playing at the highest level, I would like to give back to all those young girls who want to strive to be at this level. My goal is to start an academy/program to help in that development.”
Hoping to win gold again, her pride is firmly rooted in family and hard work.
“I am very proud of being a spokesperson for the Lupus Foundation," she said. "I am very proud of coming from a single family household, working hard to go to Notre Dame, graduating with a great degree and being part of a family that has two siblings with gold medals in two different sports.”