Oct. 2, 2015
By Pete LaFleur
When you’re the University of Notre Dame’s first three-time Olympic gold medalist, in any sport, that usually is enough material for an amazing success story.
It’s extra special when there is something deeper, a meaningful subtext beneath all the surface glory. That’s where the best, most genuine role models typically are found.
Notre Dame soccer alumna Shannon Boxx, who was a guest of honor at the Sept. 26 football game against UMass, is just such an individual.
Boxx’s story takes on a different dimension when viewed through the prism of her ongoing battle with the autoimmune disorder lupus.
“I’ve learned there is no standard trajectory in life,” says Boxx, a freshman starter on the 1995 NCAA championship team, which will be honored Oct. 16 during the Notre Dame-USC football game.
“Everyone eventually finds their path. Mine took me to places I never thought possible.”
One of those places was the 2015 World Cup gold-medal podium, as she and Team USA washed away their disappointments from failing to hoist the famous trophy at three previous Would Cups. The victory celebration yielded another memorable scene: Boxx’s daughter Zoe frolicking amidst the confetti at Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium.
The 38-year-old Boxx recently announced her retirement, effective at the end of Team USA’s current victory tour.
Boxx and former Notre Dame teammate Kate (Sobrero) Markgraf are two of only 13 women’s soccer players who have won NCAA, Olympic and World Cup championships. Only Notre Dame and North Carolina have multiple players on that list.
Despite being a typically unheralded defensive/holding midfielder, Boxx was on the short list for FIFA World Player of the Year three times in her career. She finished third in 2005, behind forwards Birgit Prinz of Germany and Brazil’s Marta.
University of Virginia head coach Steve Swanson, a 2015 Team USA assistant, compares a holding midfielder to a slow drip: “Play the position well over time, and people will appreciate it.
“You also notice when teams are weak at holding midfielder; they have trouble linking together. It’s a ball-winning and distribution position, things average fans won’t appreciate. Shannon Boxx redefined the holding midfielder. She has such a physical presence, but also tremendous distribution and bonus goalscoring ability.”
Early in her professional career, Boxx was extremely fatigued and diagnosed with chronic autoimmune Sjögren’s syndrome. Later in 2002, she had to cope with suddenly being traded from San Diego to New York.
Boxx confided in family members but otherwise kept her medical condition private. In New York, she rededicated herself through an intensive regimen. Five years later, Boxx learned she actually was suffering from lupus, a more severe autoimmune disease.
“Lupus tricks the immune system into thinking healthy tissues are foreign invaders,” explains Boxx. “It then attacks those healthy tissues, affecting organs, skin and joints.”
Lupus affects only one person in 1,000, but 90 percent are women. Women of color are most susceptible. Boxx is biracial.
As a flaring disease, lupus worsens before remission. Joint pain often has prevented Boxx from laying on her side. Opening a jar, or holding a fork, suddenly can become monumental tasks. One doctor even cautioned that Boxx ultimately could lose the ability to walk.
“Initially, Shannon’s body and soul were out of sync, and she was facing a weakness that could’ve ended her career” observes former Notre Dame teammate Monica Gonzalez.
“Shannon decided, if her body was struggling, she would train it to get stronger and last longer. Her mind and spirit took control of her body, not the other way around. She blazed a trail for others who think sport isn’t an option, given their diseases.”
Boxx publicly disclosed her lupus in 2012. She helped raise awareness for autoimmune diseases, twice as prevalent as cancer but receiving one-sixth the research funding.
In a roundabout way, Boxx’s pregnancy two years later provided similar motivation. She already had been sidelined due to 2013 knee surgery and her ultimate 2015 return to international competition ended a two-year layoff.
“That comeback took my body a lot longer than I’d expected,” concedes Boxx. “I had been off the radar with only a few months to play my way back.”
Her baby daughter provided the decisive boost.
“Zoe’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. She brought great balance to my life, making me a better player.”
Boxx turned heads in 2003 while starring in the Women’s United Soccer Association with the New York Power. But with the rumored demise of the WUSA, she returned at season’s end to California, set to become a psychology graduate student at Pepperdine and assistant coach at Cal State Dominguez Hills. She did plan on being at the World Cup in nearby Carson, as a spectator.
That career path dramatically returned to its original track, when then-National Team coach April Heinrichs surprisingly called Boxx into a training camp. Team USA had a clear void at the back of its midfield, after Hall of Famer Michelle Akers had retired in 2000.
It likely was Boxx’s only true shot at an extended career in soccer’s upper echelon. Non-sports alternatives were ready and waiting. The WUSA was set to fold, followed by five years with no top-tier domestic league.
It was now, or never.
A self-described “no-name,” Boxx was given no assurances. Best cast scenario? She was told that maybe a spot would open for the 2004 Olympic team.
“Turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Boxx says. “With nothing to lose, I played loose. When I play loose, I play well. I ended up forcing my way onto that World Cup team.”
Boxx figured she made a solid long-term impression for the Olympic team. Her hometown of Torrance was nearby, and Boxx famously asked, “Is it cool if I just leave?”
The coaches no doubt chuckled.
“Actually, come talk with us,” they replied. “We’re naming you to the World Cup team.”
“And I was just like, `Excuse me?'” recounts Boxx, laughing at the memory.
The move sent shockwaves through the soccer subculture. Boxx became the first American ever picked for a world tournament who had yet to play with the National Team.
Boxx’s trailblazing ways were just beginning. Despite her defensive role, Boxx scored in tuneups versus Costa Rica and Mexico, and again in the World Cup against Sweden.
Had a National Teamer ever scored in her first games? Again, the answer was no. Boxx capped her meteoric rise by being named to the 2003 World Cup All-Star team.
The bookends in Boxx’s National Team career — earning World Cup roster spots in 2003 and 2015 — were as unlikely as they are inspiring.
The 2015 team’s only natural holding midfielder, Boxx would have played more if not for “the injury she suffered during World Cup” training, notes Swanson. Instead, retiring veteran Lauren Holiday and 22-year-old Morgan Brian shared withdrawn midfielder roles. Both made their mark in the past as attacking players, but each benefitted from Boxx’s sage advice.
“I quickly learned that Shannon Boxx is a classic competitor and first-class teammate,” says Swanson, who coached Brian at Virginia. “Shannon made huge strides to earn her spot and I know Morgan learned so much from Shannon about work ethic, defending, reading the game and breaking down opponents.”
Boxx’s most valuable advice actually had nothing to do with style of play. “I always encourage young players to have fun, enjoy the process. My goal was to be that leader on and off the field, helping them become better.”
Notre Dame and North Carolina are the only schools to produce multiple players with 170-plus career starts on the Women’s National Team. Markgraf totaled 187 starts while Boxx’s 175 rank eighth all-time.
“I was incredibly fortunate to be teammates with such a brave, talented and thoughtful player as Shannon,” says Markgraf. “Maintaining a National Team starting spot for 10 years requires tremendous discipline and a consistently high level of play.”
Boxx’s college coach Chris Petrucelli notes that “Shannon became the world’s best holding midfielder, but systems are changing. Now you often see two players doing the work that Shannon was able to do herself.”
As a youth, Boxx’s multi-sport talents extended to basketball, volleyball, baseball/softball, flag football and even ice hockey. Older sister Gillian was the family’s first Olympian, with the 1996 gold-medal softball team.
“We were extremely competitive with one another, but Gillian always was my No. 1 role model. I really admired how she handled herself,” says the younger sister.
On the recruiting trail, Petrucelli witnessed Boxx excelling, “everywhere as a playmaking midfielder, winning balls in the air; slotting teammates in with great vision and passing; driving her own shot with both feet.”
After receiving great guidance from her sister, Boxx quickly realized she would “love Notre Dame even if I didn’t play a sport. The beautiful campus. The tradition. The widespread alumni connections. I watched the Irish play and could see my style fitting in.”
Boxx’s versatility allowed her to play right-flank midfielder in 1995. She started the rest of her college career in the defensive/holding role, settling in behind Cindy Daws and, later, another elite attacking midfielder, Anne Makinen.
“I grew up playing many positions, knew the role of every player and could direct them like a quarterback,” says Boxx. “That elevated my game, because I usually was in the right position.”
Notre Dame pulled off a stunner in the 1995 NCAA semifinals, beating 12-time NCAA champion North Carolina on its home field. The Irish outlasted Portland in a three-overtime marathon title game.
“If we weren’t the most talented, we were the best in terms of being a team. Those always were my favorite type of teams,” notes Boxx.
The Irish lost a 1-0 overtime thriller versus UNC in the 1996 title game, following by season-ending losses in the ’97 semifinals and ’98 quarterfinals. The dominant 1997 squad went 23-1-1 with a 135-9 scoring margin.
“That final loss was upsetting, but I never just look at how things ended,” says Boxx, who did not miss a game (101) while helping the Irish go 89-8-4 from 1995-98.
“The four years were a tremendous success and I grew so much at Notre Dame. I regularly remind myself what a great decision I made.”
Surrounded by elite-level teammates, Boxx never was named All-America, or even all-region. She was second team all-BIG EAST Conference from 1995-97.
Not exactly a resume befitting a future national teamer. Of course, Boxx’s success story ended up veering far from the typical script.
“Shannon usually was quiet, but became super competitive when it came time to win,” notes Petrucelli. “To this day, Shannon is soft-spoken, appreciative, easy to talk to. A real class person.”
Boxx — who has settled in Portland, Ore., with husband Aaron Spearman, the PGA Tour’s Director of ShotLink Productions — naturally loved having her daughter at the World Cup, even though the spunky one-year-old likely won’t remember it.
“I will show Zoe pictures, explain how she was part of it,” says Boxx. “I’ll tell her about my journey; the obstacles I overcame and how nothing was handed to me. She will know that she can do similar things.
“Those are great life lessons.”