The word forward comes up a lot in Alex Morgan's life. There's the fact that she plays forward for the Orlando Pride and U.S. women's national soccer teams, of course. And by the nature of her soccer position, Alex is always moving forward. "I need to forget any shot that I don't score," she says, "and make the most of every opportunity that is in front of me."
Alex has been laser-focused on her sport since she began playing competitive soccer at age 13 in Diamond Bar, Calif. She swiftly worked her way up to become the youngest member of the U.S. women's team in 2009 and its youngest player at the 2011 World Cup. We all know what happened next: Alex and the U.S. women's team won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and clinched the Women's World Cup in 2015. (Best. Televised. Sports. Ever.) And, right now, the 26-year-old is looking forward to bringing home another gold this August, from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Off the field, the soccer standout—who has written a middle-grade book series called The Kicks—is low key. She likes to hang out with her husband, Major League Soccer player Servando Carrasco. During a break from training, Alex took time out of her insane schedule to share the secrets to making your dream a reality and discuss what she's learned about not trying to go it alone.
Right before you head onto the field for a big match, what's your inner dialogue?
I have to be extremely confident, almost to a point where you feel invincible. Every time you step onto the field, you have to set goals. My goals are to either score a goal, to have an assist, or to play well. I put a lot of pressure on myself for every game. I never want to half-ass anything. I'm not going to take something on if I know I'm not going to be 100 percent.
What breakfast gives you the most energy to compete?
I eat a pretty big breakfast. I'll usually have yogurt with granola or some honey and fruit. And, on top of that, two eggs—fried or hard-boiled—with a piece of toast if I want some extra energy. But I usually don't eat too much bread or pasta.
How do you decide what to eat before and after exercising?
Before a workout, I need substance, so that'll be, like, eggplant lasagna or veggies with meat and beans. I don't eat many carbs before training, but around three hours before a game, I'll have banana pancakes; they help me last six or seven hours. Bananas really help with the state and the recovery of your muscles. After, it depends on the workout. For lifting, it's important for me to get a protein shake in right away, whereas if I'm running, I'll do a salad with granola, fruit, and maybe some chicken or beans for protein.
What are your workouts typically like?
I'm always looking to get my heart rate into certain zones. Because sometimes I feel like I didn't have a great workout, and then I'll look at my heart rate and I'm 175 beats or higher, which is a really hard workout! My workouts are mostly interval-based, so I'm never running at a constant speed. I'm always switching it up because I don't want my body getting used to one thing in particular.
So what kinds of interval moves will you usually do?
With the team, we'll do full-body circuit lifts in the gym—so if we're doing lunges for one or two workouts, the next workout we'll do squats. If I'm training on my own, and one day I'm doing intervals where I'm striding for two minutes and jogging for one minute, the next day I'll do something like a spin class. Or if I'm running, I'll do it on a different surface, like the sand. And twice a week, I'll do yoga.
Why is yoga so important?
I love yoga. There's a lot of stretching involved, which helps with my flexibility and injury prevention. Vinyasa is my favorite, as a recovery tool and for me to continue having my legs feel good.
What else do you do to prevent injuries?
Making sure I'm properly warmed up. I do a lot of dynamic stretching, and I'll also try to help the mobility of my ankles, hips, and spine. I use the foam roller and a lacrosse ball to get a trigger-point massage. Recovery and warm-ups are just as important as training. So if I'm training with my team, I literally warm up for an hour before. It's tedious work, but that's what helps me stay healthy.
What would you say is your biggest health regret?
I grew up always having dessert after dinner. Always. It's such a hard habit for me to break. It's fine to have dessert every once in a while, but not seven days a week! So I'll switch it up: Instead of having a full dessert, I'll do a piece of chocolate or some herbal tea with a little bit of honey. But, really, I don't know if I have regrets, because the bad habits I've had have helped me learn the good habits I need.
You've been in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue a couple of times. Do you feel self-conscious modeling?
Totally. Obviously, you have to be confident in who you are, but there are definitely times where I feel self-conscious about the body that I put out there. So many people are looking and judging—people can just go online and hide behind their computers and judge people every day—so that's the hardest part. It's hard to not hear or read what people are saying. But if you really are happy with the lifestyle you're living, no one should be telling you otherwise.
There have been concerns about the condition of the fields for women's soccer versus men's. What is your take on that?
It's all about gender equity. It's not just about the playing surfaces or the different treatment of women versus men or the pay. The issue of us having to play on artificial turf for the World Cup? That's just proof to us that FIFA doesn't see us as equals to the men. I feel like the best teams in the world deserve the best playing surfaces, and they deserve the fair pay for fair play. We had the most viewership on TV of any U.S. soccer team in history—more than any U.S. men's game—so that just tells you something. Even with much less marketing for our World Cup than the men's, people still want to watch us play. So we wanted to tell FIFA that we didn't want to play on surfaces that were second class to what men would play on. And I think that it did bring awareness that it's not always equal. Half the battle is getting awareness.
Women's prize money is still much lower than men's. Do you think that will change?
I think that will change. The men's World Cup has been going on for so much longer than the Women's World Cup—there have only been seven Women's World Cups, and the men's has been going on since the 1930s, so I get it. It takes time to build something.
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You've become such a role model for young women. Is there anything you wish all young girls knew?
Something I wish I knew when I was younger is that whether you make a right or a wrong decision, it's not the end of the world. Making one wrong decision doesn't lead you down a downward spiral. Failing a couple of times does not mean you are a failure. It means you are learning and have an opportunity to pick yourself up. I feel like I was so hard on myself. Yes, have an ultimate dream, but know that you have to fall down a few times before you make it somewhere.
How have you learned to deal with failure and loss?
I try to turn failure into a positive thing, but at the end of the day, it's the people I surround myself with who have to pick me up sometimes. It's my husband, my parents, my sisters, my teammates—they are my backbone. I couldn't get through a World Cub or an Olympics or anything major in life without them. You're not always going to be able to talk yourself through something; you will need help. You can't do it alone.
Do you want children? And, if so, are you concerned about the threat of Zika?
Yes. The Zika virus is definitely a concern. You don't know how long the virus lasts in your system, and that's an issue for someone who's trying to get pregnant. I am concerned, but I really do trust the International Olympic Committee about traveling in Brazil. It is kind of scary.
What famous women do you find inspiring right now?
There are a couple of women—actually, none of them are in sports. Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, and Jessica Alba: All of those women have been able to break barriers and stand up for themselves and gender equity. That's something huge right now in sports, and they have been able to fight for that in their own way. Taylor is the most down-to-earth, humble person you'll ever meet. And Reese Witherspoon wants to change the world. It's inspiring!
If you could play any game against any athlete, what and who would you choose?
Tennis is my favorite sport to watch other than soccer, so I would love to play against Rafael Nadal. It would really be amazing to just step on the court and play against him.
I love your fearlessness. You picked one of the top players in the world.
I mean, maybe I'd ask him to take it easy on me!
What scares you?
When you say something that people might judge you for, that can be scary. Standing up for what I believe in for women? It's not always easy to step outside of your comfort zone, so maybe that's scary. Bugs are scary. Little tiny spiders, those are scary.
Is there anything you're just not good at?
I'm sometimes really bad at sharing my scars—really digging in at what makes me sad or makes me mad. I'm also very bad at singing. Like, do not ask me to sing. This raspy voice does not sing at all!
You have a lot of pressure on you. How do you handle the stress? Do you have a favorite way to zen out and relax?
We live on a lake, so I like to just hang out and have a glass of wine on our dock. Just spending quality time with someone, when I don't even need to talk.
How do you get centered?
Before games, I'll close my eyes and do a mental visualization. I start with four to six seconds of deep breathing in, holding it for one or two seconds, and then four or six seconds of allowing myself to exhale. That slows my heart rate, and I can think more clearly and be a little more calm.
To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Olympics begin on August 5.