By Daniel Priore
The sun did not rise that morning, or if it did, it was impossible to see past the thick, rolling grey clouds. The snow came down at a steady pace, etching a foreboding frost onto the field. Below-freezing temperatures only made conditions more unbearable as the shaking players prepared themselves for the mental and physical test of wills that was their upcoming 8 a.m. match. Shouts of pregame encouragement and frustration enclosed the stadium, but the crowd noise was almost inaudible for the players. To them, the silence was mainly broken by deep, painful heavy breaths and gushes of wind. It was a scene from an early winter’s game at Lambeau Field; however, this frozen tundra was just outside Raleigh, North Carolina, and there were no grown men to be seen.
A team of 10-year-old girls from West Virginia took the soccer field to play in a tournament featuring other youth female travel teams from across the country. Rocking their white cotton shirts with blue bottoms and taped-together cleats, these West Virginians looked far from professional. Naturally, they had earned themselves as the pushover group of the competition.
In addition, the opposing squad had the upper hand in talent to go along with the apparel to fit the weather conditions and the tournament environment.
Despite the unfavorable odds, a self-admitted gangly girl with pigtails and braces from the mountain state was focused on something else.
That 10-year-old was Jorden Thornton, and all she wanted was to hear the referee’s whistle blow. Thornton knew that once that piercing sound cut through the air she could make a statement about those misconceptions. She knew all of the preconceived stereotypes about her body and skill set could be soon buried away just as her surroundings were in snow.
“Eventually, it got to a point where I was not thinking about how cold it was anymore,” Thornton reflects. “The team and I blocked it out because we knew we were getting every element thrown at us, and we really needed to prove ourselves.”
Close to 13 years later, Thornton is still making the most out of situations she cannot control. Although this time, the challenge is one which cannot be so easily defeated on the field.
It is the struggle of dealing with the unfair assumptions and labels as a female athlete.
Small Town to Soccer Seeking Scholarship
“My town isn’t a town full of opportunities. My state isn’t a state full of opportunities,” Thornton says. “And I’ve had to fight for everything that I have been given.”
Thornton was born and raised in Culloden, West Virginia. With a population of just over 3,000, the town with no stoplights only consumes a small fraction of Cabell and Putnam counties sitting in the southwest part of the state. Needless to say, Thornton knew she would have to look elsewhere to succeed.
“Everyone from my town always seems to come back because it is their comfort zone,” Thornton explains. “From a young age, my parents have told me, ‘You have to do it for yourself.’”
Her family had no connection to soccer, but Thornton’s parents signed her up for the sport when she was 4, just as an activity. Thornton took to soccer, and she quickly developed the sport into a serious passion, giving her hope for a purpose outside of Culloden. She was all-conference and all-state in her freshman and sophomore years in high school and performed her way onto the Richmond Strikers Football Club.
Despite these achievements, Thornton soon found herself in another position where her positive attitude would have to safely stride her past unfortunate ignorance.
Thornton was being recruiting by a university, and shortly before her official visit, her potential scholarship was given away. She knew this meant she would be given a walk-on status, but she still decided to go on the visit. However, the soccer team’s head coach had other ideas.
“I remember he pulled me into his office, and we’re just sitting there talking, and at one point, he says, ‘So you want to play at the collegiate level, but you’re just way too skinny.’”
Thornton admits this is one personal experience which has always stuck with her because it reminds her of a way not to treat someone.
“He said, ‘These big girls are going to push you off the ball,’” Thornton says. “I was thinking to myself, ‘You don’t know me. You don’t know how I play. You don’t know anything, essentially. It’s really disrespectful that you attack my body as opposed to knowing my body of work.’
“He definitely had a type he went after for girls because I saw their practices, and there were these, for lack of a better word, muscular beefy girls,” Thornton explains. “I told myself, ‘Well, I just don’t fit that stereotype. I’m not going to just gain a ton of weight all of a sudden.’ That is just not fair to a young woman to be so insensitive toward female body types.”
Duquesne University Highs and Lows
“(Thornton) always wants to make everyone happy,” Sammy Kline, a fifth-year physical therapy major and member of Duquesne’s women’s volleyball team, says. “She has become the mediator for all of our friend groups and tries to make sure no one is fighting with each other or mad at each other.”
Kline, who has known Thornton since early August of their freshman years, says Thornton is one of the few people who she knows who consistently has a positive outlook on life.
Perhaps it comes from Thornton always considering herself as a bounce back person.
No doubt this type of attitude was needed given her fair share of ups and downs as a member of Duquesne’s women’s soccer team. Recruited to be a dominate force as a freshman only led to riding the bench and sustaining a concussion as an underclassman. She only played in one match in her first two years.
Jubilation finally came in 2015, though, when Thornton and the team won the Atlantic 10 Conference championship. In the following season, a teammate solidified Thornton’s would-be position, seemingly destining her senior year as another lowly venture as a spectator. However, the friendly competition did not stop Thornton from earning herself more minutes and ultimately playing in over half of the team’s games.
At the start of her fifth and final year on the team, Thornton faced yet another roadblock.
“We didn’t have our uniforms at the beginning of the season because no one put in an order for us,” Thornton says. “We’re never a priority. We understand football and basketball are revenue-driven because you pay for games and our games are free. But, at the same time, we always feel bottom of the barrel.”
Morgan Fink, another fifth-year physical therapy major who is a part of Duquesne’s swimming team and friend of Thornton’s, shares the feeling.
“The whole recognition aspect of our accomplishments go unnoticed,” Fink says. “After the women’s soccer team won A-10s a couple years ago, they barely got any recognition.
“Something like that deserves a lot, especially because it was their first one. That happened with the women’s swimming and diving team this past year too when we won our first A-10 championship ever.”
Fink explains she has steadily seen improvements from Duquesne athletic director David Harper to promote all sports on campus regardless of its revenue return. Harper assumed this position in late 2015.
Fink adds receiving even a little bit of credit goes a long way. And for her, Thornton has always been one of her biggest sources for encouragement.
“Student athletes support each other, so (Thornton) would come to my swim meets and that was always great to see,” Fink says. “I remember making signs and putting them on her doors after they won A-10s, and she returned the favor before my senior meet.
“She is a goof, but can also be super quiet and reserved. She is such a hard worker and always has a smile on her face. She doesn’t like having the attention all on her.”
Young Adult Realizations
Thornton has no more years of soccer eligibility at Duquesne; although, she continues her studies in physical therapy and expects to graduate in August 2019.
In the meantime, she is contemplating a semi-professional career in the sport she loves. However, in order to do so, she knows she needs to keep her game at the top of its level.
Thornton currently plays in a coed league, and while this enables her to satisfy her soccer crave, it does not mean she can avoid disparaging actions taken toward her and her female teammates.
“The men will not pass us the ball,” Thornton says. “This happens constantly – even when we’re completely open because they have these preconceived notions about us losing the ball even though they do it just as much, if not more.”
In addition, Thornton explains that her male teammates will also advocate for the women to switch positions if they believe they will be too slow or will not be able to matchup physically with opponents. She adds this is increasingly apparent to her based on years of experience playing with males and females.
“I think, once we break through the barrier of seeing differences, and if people see a girl as another competitor rather than just how she looks, it will help people come around,” Thornton says.
This is a belief which has grown national attention as well. Sana Mir, a Pakistani cricket star who was the captain of the women’s national team, is advocating for corporate sponsors and celebrities to start empowering young girls to be confident in their own skin. This comes in response to a hair removal cream advertisement which focuses on the smooth skin of a female athlete playing basketball. The woman is admired for her appearance rather than her talent.
“The worst thing is that, instead of sending a message to young girls that the colour or texture of their skin does not matter, we are promoting body shaming and objectification,” Mir says in a Facebook post. “Make no mistake: you need strong arms, not smooth arms, on a sports field.”
Regardless of the sport or the amount of people watching, Thornton feels this act of degrading women and young girls is deep-rooted in society.
“People still look at women as more of the sexual object,” Thornton says. “So, even if we play a similar sport to men, we have to make it look good. We have to look good doing it. I think that can be a struggle for a lot of girls because you just want to be the best, and then, there are people who judge you for how you look while you do it.
“This goes beyond the sports environment too. Any woman wants to be treated as an equal, but it is hard when you are focused on how you look and not on how you are actually performing.”
Whether a semi-pro soccer player or a physical therapist, Thornton knows, as she continues adulthood she will be confronted by society’s female stereotypes. She also knows this is not going to stop her from being the best she can be.
That is one mentality which has not changed from that 10-year-old out on the bitter cold soccer field waiting for her chance to brush away the judgment.