The Legends Campaign, a partnership between Reign FC and Avanade, honors women for their extraordinary contributions in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Prior to our June 15 match against the Washington Spirit, Reign FC will recognize Jan Smisek as a Reign FC Legend.
Before Brandi Chastain made her iconic pose in 1999 and before Michelle Akers poured in a brace to help the United States hoist the first-ever Women’s World Cup, there was a generation of women that had no infrastructure to play the sport they loved.
Growing up in California, Smisek fell in love with soccer at an early age playing pickup with the neighborhood boys. With no formal league for girls to join, Smisek and her friends would steal a ball out of the bag during organized boys’ matches and play pickup with her friends. When her parents took notice, they helped get a girl’s league organized. The process repeated in high school.
By the time she began attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, the situation remained the same.
“When I went to UCSB, it was the same thing (as my childhood),” Smisek said. “There was no women’s play. I joined the men’s intramural team and signed up for a men’s soccer P.E. class. They didn’t even offer a women’s class, you still had gender-segregated P.E. classes. To play, I had to sign up in the men’s class. I made a lot of friends with the guys so I’d play pickup games on the side. I played in the men’s varsity soccer spring training, but at the same time decided to try and start a women’s soccer club with the intention of hopefully having the administration turning it into a varsity program.”
Smisek was able to assemble enough women interested in playing and the club team began to organize a league that included the likes of Stanford, Cal, St. Mary’s Occidental Chico State and several other branches of the University of California.
Eventually, Smisek made the jump to coaching. She became the first woman to receive a USSF C License in 1975, before getting her B License in 1981. One year later, Smisek became the first woman to receive a USSF A License, the nation’s highest certification.
Smisek went on to be an influential figure in the coaching community. She helped coach for the Olympic Development Program (where she coached future Reign FC owner Teresa Predmore) and later served as a U.S. Soccer developmental coach for five years in the 1990s. Today, Smisek works with the Reign Academy as a coach for the 2008 and 2009 Pre-Academy East teams.
Smisek sometimes finds herself disappointed that later developments in the women’s game—like the creation of the U.S. Women’s National Team in 1985 and the inclusion of women’s soccer as an Olympic sport in 1996—didn’t occur in time for her to take part as a player.
Still, she takes pride in the recognition that comes from those who followed her. When Akers signed an endorsement deal with Umbro following the 1991 World Cup win, she gave a poster to Smisek, signing it: “Jan, thanks for starting it all.”
What was it like being the first woman to pursue a USSF A license?
There was that initial tension of ‘okay, what is she doing here?’ The barrier got broken down once we got on the field and starting playing and I could play. The guys became more accepting of me being there. Then, when we started doing our sessions and I had to do some coaching, that was another revelation to them, that I actually had ability. It was a big challenge for me and I was prepared to prove myself. When I actually got the news that I had passed and was awarded the A license and was the first woman to do it, it was a combination of excitement, relief and pride, because I had sort of opened the door, I felt, for other women behind me.
What did you learn from having to construct your own opportunities growing up?
As a player, I had to put myself in a leadership role early. It was an outreach program trying to get people to join me and build something that hopefully would grow. Thankfully, it did. When I played my last youth game, I felt like it was the last soccer game that I would ever be able to play. The same thing happened when I got the program going at high school and I knew there wasn’t a team (in college). It was like ‘oh my god, I’m never going to play again.’ We wanted to play so badly, that was our driving force. Whatever we created for ourselves, I think we appreciated it a lot more because it always felt like it was our last chance. Whatever we wanted didn’t exist.
How does it feel to see the state of the women’s game now?
I feel like my generation’s contribution to the game in the bigger picture is overlooked. That’s always a little disappointing. The media doesn’t recognize women’s soccer before Mia Hamm hit the scene, but somebody made it possible for Mia Hamm to be able to do that.
At the same time, while I’m a little bit envious of the opportunities that female athletes have now that I would have loved to have had myself, I’m also excited to be able to experience watching the World Cup, going to the World Cup, knowing players who I have coached in the past who are playing in World Cups.
There’s little connections even though I’m not directly involved, but there are some players like Teresa (Predmore) who recognized the behind-the-scenes contributions to the game. I know some of those women out there recognize that there were people behind the scenes that paved the way for them. It’s nice to get that recognition.
Who are you most excited to share the experience of becoming a Reign FC Legend with?
The first thing I did when I got off the phone with Teresa was that I called my dad to see if he could make last-minute flight arrangements to come up, so he could be there to be with me. He and my mom were both really supportive (of me wanting to play as a child). I thought the recognition from the Reign was special enough that I wanted him to be able to be there and enjoy it with me.
What has soccer meant in your life?
When I discovered soccer, there was no going back to anything else. My friends, my teammates that I played youth, high school, college and even amateur women’s division soccer, those people are all still my friends. The majority of my friends and my memories of all sorts of good times come from my involvement in the game. Whether it was building programs, playing myself, coaching, sharing the joy of the game with others and then being able to watch them excel and have those same experiences. It’s a pretty special thing to be able to have in your life.
What advice would you give to women who are pursuing a career in a field where they are underrepresented?
I think it’s always easier to do something like that if you have a friend or two or three that are like-minded and you can band together to pursue it. It’s not always possible, but if it’s something you want to do, be confident and say ‘I belong here, and I’m going to go and do this.’ I think that was the mindset that I had. I loved soccer and I didn’t care if it was a man’s world, it was what I wanted to do. Going through that process, getting support not just from the adults in my life and my peers really helped me.
If they can seek out a mentor to help them, a woman who has gone through the same process but is willing to talk with them and share their experiences and how they felt and how to persevere, that’s an incredible resource, too.