Sophia Smith pays tribute to her late friend ahead of World Cup opener

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — United States defender Naomi Girma made headlines Tuesday with a powerful article she wrote in The Players’ Tribune about the importance of destigmatizing mental health — a story that was driven by the suicide of her close friend and former Stanford teammate Katie Meyer last year.

Girma, along with fellow Stanford alum Sophia Smith and other members of the American squad aiming to win the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, partnered with Common Goal and FOX Sports to highlight the importance of mental health throughout this summer’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

“We know firsthand how many people, especially student athletes, are struggling in silence,” Girma wrote. “And we want to use our platform in this huge moment for something bigger than soccer.”

Hours after the post went live, an emotional Smith spoke with the media about how Meyer’s death impacted her.

“Any time I talk about Katie, it’s obviously emotional,” the 22-year-old forward told reporters three days before the Americans meet Vietnam in Friday’s opener (9 p.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app). “With everything coming out today, it kind of brings all those feelings back to the surface. But I feel like I’m in a place where I can talk about it and talk about Katie in a really positive light.”

Inside the USWNT, mental health has been a priority for some time. The players talk openly about it. And they’ve taken steps to protect themselves — something that is even more critical now, with the global spotlight of a World Cup on them and the added scrutiny and pressure to perform that comes with it.

“I think a big thing is leaning on your teammates and knowing that we’re all in this together,” Smith said. “Whatever those emotions may be, everyone’s probably felt it at some time.”

One way Smith has tried to stay focused and not get caught up in what strangers on the internet might be saying about her is by deleting Twitter from her phone. “Best thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

In place of social media, she and her teammates have tried to find other, more productive diversions. Famously competitive in games and training sessions, the USWNT team has made a point to try to stay loose when they’re not on the field or in meetings and video sessions.

For example, Smith is an avid reader.

“There’s definitely a team book club,” she said. “I’ve gotten Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman, who were not readers at all, to read now. And like I’m really proud of that,” she said to laughter.

Despite the lighthearted exchange, the seriousness of the subject wasn’t lost on anyone. There’s nothing funny about mental health issues. Smith and her teammates know it, and they want to honor Meyer by sharing that message every chance they get during this World Cup.

“It changed the whole way I view life,” Smith said of losing her friend, with whom she won an NCAA championship in 2019. “I now don’t take things too seriously. I realized that there’s so many more important things happening.

“I think that’s a good thing because it puts things into perspective,” she added. “[It] just makes you value life a lot more.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDougMcIntyre.

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