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Some Things Never Change

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Some Things Never Change

In 1991, a team of doctors performed open-heart surgery on a 3-year-old girl from Indiana named Lauren Cheney, trying to close what was a literal hole in her heart. If successful, Lauren’s heart would begin to function properly and forever pump life-sustaining blood.

The surgery went well, and Lauren’s doctors encouraged physical activity as part of the recovery process. That meant her older brother, Aaron, quickly gained a “second shadow.”

“I followed Aaron around like a little duckling,” Lauren said. “Any sport he played, I played; so when Aaron played soccer, so did I. For some reason, soccer stuck for me.”

Quite the understatement.

Lauren—who now goes by the surname Holiday after she married former UCLA classmate and current New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday two summers ago—was named the 2014 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year while starring for both the United States Women’s National Team (U.S. WNT) and NWSL champion FC Kansas City.

No short list of achievements (including four NCAA All-America awards and two Olympic gold medals) to her name, Holiday said nothing comes close to the opportunity she’s been given to follow Christ, who made her spiritual heart whole, too.

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Growing up, Lauren enjoyed playing anything from soccer to street hockey. When she was 11, she (along with the rest of the world) watched as Brandi Chastain and the U.S. WNT claimed a 5-4 shootout victory over China to win the 1999 FIFA World Cup.

“That’s when I realized how badly I wanted to play for my country,” Holiday said in a previous interview with FCA. “The World Cup made it real to me. That’s when I knew I wanted to play on that stage one day.”

Because her skillset was so advanced, Lauren played on Indianapolis-area boys' soccer teams until she was 12. She continued to play other sports, but none of them held a candle to soccer.

“I think what made me so successful was how free I felt playing,” she said. “I fell in love with the game and felt like it came easy to me.”

Lauren was “all-everything” at Indianapolis’ Ben Davis High School, gathering awards as high as Parade All American and 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year. As a senior, she had to decide whether to finish school with her classmates on a “normal” schedule, or leave Indianapolis to train with America’s best young players for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

The choice, Lauren said, was easy.

"I don’t remember ever being concerned with being another ‘normal kid,’” she said. “My goals and my ambitions were not things I was shy about … I graduated early to train with the U-20 team.”

The U-20 squad, which included current national team member Tobin Heath, was led by former pro midfielder and youth coach Tim Schulz. Lauren was raised in a Christian home, but she said she “didn’t have a personal relationship with Christ at that time.”

“I remember being so enraptured by how Tim lived his life,” she said. “I knew the Bible and understood Christianity, but I could see so clearly that Tim was passionate about soccer and God. It made me realize that, whatever he had, I wanted.”

After a fourth-place finish at the U-20 Women’s World Cup, Lauren narrowed down her college choices to UCLA, North Carolina and Virginia, but she’d long dreaded having to make the final decision.

“I was—and maybe still am—very stubborn sometimes,” she said. “Constantly having to listen to different coaches selling me on something that was so uncertain was just overwhelming. The whole process was draining, since I knew that I could be happy anywhere.

“So, I ended up drawing UCLA out of a hat.”

That unconventional method worked. Lauren’s collegiate career began with a bang—19 of them, to be exact. Her 19 goals led the Pac-10 Conference and earned her National Freshman of the Year honors. More importantly, her faith continued to flourish.

“UCLA ended up being a great fit for me to continue growing in my relationship with Christ,” she said. “The class ahead of mine had quite a few believers who really reached out to me.

“Having other believers on the team was a great source of accountability. Even with a busy schedule, I was able to stay in the Word, go to church and spend time talking with other believers, which all helped me keep my focus on God.”

Pulling UCLA from the hat proved beneficial in Lauren’s personal life as well. Had one of the other schools been drawn, she probably wouldn’t have ever met her husband, Jrue, a freshman point guard on UCLA’s men’s basketball team.

“I was good friends with a couple girls on the basketball team at UCLA, so I would try to make it to their games,” Lauren said. “One game, Jrue and his friend, Malcolm, sat in front of me.

“Then a man came up to Jrue and said ‘Hey, Darren [Collison, the Bruins’ starting point guard at the time], can I have your autograph?’ and I started to laugh. Once the guy left, I told Jrue not to worry; he was cuter than Darren. And we became friends.”

Lauren and Jrue regularly hung out with mutual friends and played pickup basketball together, but it wasn't until both left UCLA that their relationship grew into something more.

By January 2007, Lauren had already stepped up to the next level of international play, earning her first start with the U.S. WNT in a match against Germany, and scoring her first goal in a 5-0 shutout against Mexico.

“I was extremely nervous but excited at the same time,” she said. “It felt like I was on top of the world.”

During her sophomore season with the Bruins in 2007, Lauren led the Pac-10 with 23 goals and shattered the Bruins’ single-season goals and points (57) records. She was named Pac-10 Player of the Year.

Lauren was an alternate on the U.S. WNT’s 2008 Olympic roster, and a leg injury to star forward Abby Wambach bumped her up to the official roster. She played in three matches and was essential in helping set up Carli Lloyd’s dramatic overtime goal in a 1-0 gold-medal victory over Brazil.

“At that time, I was one of the younger players on the team and still in college, too,” Lauren said. “I knew I had to make the most of every chance I got. So, as hard as that was, I really embraced and accepted that role. Looking back, I think it was perfect for me, because I knew my role was to encourage everybody else and be ready when my time came. It’s so much fun for me to build up my friends and teammates.”

In March 2009, Lauren joined the Pali Blues, a California-based United Soccer Leagues (USL) developmental team that allowed college players like Lauren the chance to play alongside established international players while maintaining collegiate eligibility. The Blues went undefeated, capping off their season by winning the W-League championship over Washington.

Lauren left UCLA as a four-time first-team All-American and the school’s record holder for points (173) and game-winning goals (28). (She tied the UCLA career record with 71 goals.) Despite her busy schedule, Lauren was careful to put even more focus on her relationship with Christ, making sure to connect with Him every day whether she was home or abroad. It’s a discipline that continues to this day.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in a busy lifestyle,” she said. “I try to make sure I have quiet time at least once a day and read a devotional, read my Bible and pray. Sometimes it’s actually harder at home than on the road, because at home I feel like I have so little time to get everything done that I want.”

One of Lauren’s favorite ways to draw close to God is through music. She listens to worship music as often as she can.

“Worship makes me feel closer to God,” she said, “and the lyrics stir up questions and emotions that encourage me to seek Him even more.”

Following her UCLA career, the Boston Breakers selected Lauren with the second selection in the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league draft. She was chosen behind only Heath, and Boston head coach Tony DiCiccio was more than ecstatic when she was available with the No. 2 pick.

“I believe Lauren was the best pick in the draft,” he said on draft day. “She’s an outstanding player who reads the game well. She has the ability to play in the tightest spaces, especially in the penalty area, [where] we were lacking that last year.”

Lauren tallied five goals and two assists in her first season with the Breakers and was a starter in the WPS All-Star Game. Meanwhile, she finished as the U.S. WNT’s second-leading scorer with seven goals and two assists. Drawing on her ability to play multiple positions, Lauren played a huge role in the team’s 2010 Algarve Cup championship run, tallying goals in three matches— including the game-winner in a 3-2 championship win over Germany.

After a second season with Boston, Lauren returned again to the international pitch, gaining more and more experience with the U.S. WNT. For the first time, she logged more than 1,000 minutes in a season for the U.S. and moved into the team’s starting lineup prior to the 2011 FIFA World Cup.

“Every team has to have a balance between youth players and veterans—although I’d rather say experience,” former U.S. WNT head coach Pia Sundhage said. “I think experience breeds a veteran outlook. You have someone like Lauren, and people think she’s probably the youth of the team, but she was actually a pretty experienced player after playing a ton of minutes and being a crucial player in the World Cup.”

n 2012, Lauren played in 31 games for the U.S. WNT, including all six Olympic matches. After suffering a minor injury in a semifinal win over Canada, she came off the bench in the gold-medal match to play the final 23 minutes of the Americans’ 2-1, gold-clinching victory over Japan.

Following the Olympics, Holiday was one of three U.S. WNT players to be allocated to the upstart FC Kansas City in advance of the inaugural 2013 National Women's Soccer League season.

“Even though we were a brand-new franchise, Lauren was really excited about our team,” FCKC general manager Huw Williams said. “She was thrilled to be allocated to us by U.S. Soccer along with Becky Sauerbrunn and Nicole Barnhart – two of her U.S. national teammates who she thought were great people and players alike.”

More importantly, Williams said Lauren’s outstanding character proved she was the type of player he was looking for when assembling his team’s first roster.

“For FCKC to be successful as a franchise, we need to represent ourselves in the right manner both on and off the field,” he said. “Our players need to be involved in the community, and having a person with Lauren's integrity representing our team—as well as women's soccer in general—is ideal.

“Lauren is the perfect role model to show youngsters that you can excel in whichever field you decide to go into without compromising your character.”

It was the first year Lauren switched from “Cheney” to “Holiday” on the back of her uniform, too. She and Jrue tied the knot in July 2013 in an outdoor ceremony attended by teammates past and present, many of whom are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Back on the pitch, Holiday’s first two seasons in Kansas City were beyond successful. She earned NWSL Golden Boot and League MVP honors in 2013 and, last year, tallied assists on both Blues’ goals in FCKC’s 2-1 NWSL championship win over Seattle. Following the season, she was named the 2014 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year, becoming the first player in U.S. Soccer history to win both the Female and Young Female Athlete of the Year awards in a career.

In addition to her soccer gifts, FCKC chaplain Lori Krueger said it’s Holiday’s ability to build solid relationships with teammates, fans and strangers that has allowed her to impact the world for Christ.

“She makes everyone around her better, and the joy that shows on her face when she plays comes from the joy she’s found in her relationship with Christ,” Krueger said. “Lauren is a hard-core competitor, and she competes in a way that brings glory to God and not herself.

“On the field, you can see that Lauren’s a game changer, and the same is true off the field. Personally, as a parent of a young female soccer athlete, I can't tell you how much of a blessing it is to have an athlete like Lauren as a role model for my daughter. I’m constantly telling my daughter's teammates that if they want a role model to look up to, choose Lauren, because she's the real deal.”

Prior to one game during the 2014 season, FCKC team members were huddled in the team’s field house waiting out a torrential downpour. Holiday approached Krueger with plans to invite others in attendance—from the front office to security guards—to join a pre-game prayer session.

“Lauren’s really welcoming to everyone, and she confidently and boldly shares her faith in a way that is contagious,” Krueger said. “She’s a catalyst who really tries to makes the most of every opportunity.”

In fact, before each FCKC home game, Holiday goes to the opposing locker room and invites everyone to pray together. When the Blues are on the road, she leads the team and others in prayer, too.

“Lauren’s love for Jesus is not a secret—it’s something that she’s proud of, and she’s willing to share the gospel with anyone,” FCKC head coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “Everybody throughout the league knows—whether we’re playing in Kansas City or it’s an away game—that there will be a prayer group that’s open to everyone.

“It’s an amazing feeling to see a large group of young athletes—who are about to compete against each other —praying together while understanding that there’s something more important than the game itself.”

Life as a professional athlete and Olympian isn’t always as glamorous as it's portrayed, especially when you’re traveling internationally away from family and home. Sometimes, Holiday said, she wrestles with the easier decision to just hunker down and separate herself from everyone.

Life as a professional athlete and Olympian isn’t always as glamorous as it's portrayed, especially when you’re traveling internationally away from family and home. Sometimes, Holiday said, she wrestles with the easier decision to just hunker down and separate herself from everyone.

“That’s the greatest struggle I face on the road—to be present wherever I am,” Holiday said. “Being married and away from Jrue, it’s easy to wish I was home, which makes me less intentional with the people around me. I know I’m not on the National Team to wish that I was at home, but sometimes I lose perspective.”

To help keep her Kingdom mindset, Holiday said she’s blessed with strong accountability partners in Heath and Jill Loyden, another U.S. WNT teammate. Skype helps when it comes to staying close to Jrue, who juggles their marriage with a full-time NBA travel schedule of his own.

“The first thing you see when you walk into our house is a large sign of Romans 12:9-13,” Holiday said. “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

Above all, Holiday is confident that she was blessed with her on-field talents as a way to praise Christ and bring glory to Him through the game she’s grown to love.

“I know I wasn't given these talents to be mediocre,” she said. “God has blessed me abundantly with the ability to play soccer—the world’s game.

“Every time I step foot on the field, I know that, through my effort and play, I’m glorifying Him. He gave me the world’s stage to share His gospel, and that is what I hope I do."

-Dave Pond