By: Denise Ferreira, EIC
When I created the Women of Influence edition of Fit in the Now, I decided that I would begin every introduction with a quote that I felt defined the women I had interviewed. A quote that captures the essence of who they are and what they do.
I struggled to find the perfect quote for this young lady who you are about to meet, not because I didn’t feel they captured her, but because I couldn’t find anything that quite describes the beauty, courage, resilience, strength, determination, kindness and empathy of her being, so instead I am beginning this interview by simply introducing you to Santana Ferreira, a beautiful young women, who is wiser beyond her years and who’s determination to succeed and story has taught me more in the minutes of this interview than I’ve learned in my lifetime. Santana is my niece.
At only 19 years old, Santana is a successful female athlete and is openly gay. She shares with us her story and powerful messages to any young woman who is struggling to come out, embrace their sexuality and deal with the fear of acceptance.
How old were you when you started playing soccer? Were you always into
I was only 4 when I put on my first timbits uniform and started playing soccer! I sported the number 7 and played a striker position… hilarious in retrospect. My older brother walked me out to our local field and kicked a ball around with me during my first ever practice. He had always been interested in sports before me, and I was interested in doing anything he was doing. All of my favourite childhood memories involve my older brother, a back garden, a sport I’ve just learned, and a skinned knee to prove it.
Was there a specific moment when you realized this was something you
wanted to pursue professionally?
Soccer very quickly became a love of mine and I think like most young kids who love a sport, there’s always the desire to be a part of it forever. I would spend my days playing soccer in the school yard, my evenings playing soccer on the pitch, and when I was home, I’d play soccer as quietly as I could in my basement (no ball in the house)! I’ll never forget the exact moment these ideas came together for me: I was 15 years old and I had spent the summer playing with a team from Southern California, touring Canada alongside the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. A group of my teammates decided that at the end of our trip while the team was in Vancouver, they would go see the final match of the tournament. This wasn’t on the itinerary for the trip and we all had to pay for our own tickets. I called my mom (and #1 supporter to this day) to explain our last-minute poorly developed idea and with a reasonable head on her shoulders she responded “Are you nuts? Absolutely not.” That was all the support I needed to squander the rest of my food money on a nosebleed seat to the final match. Within 16 minutes USA captain Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick against Japan, making history right in front of me. It is hard to describe the feeling of 53,341 supporters screaming for the sport you love all around you, but I can say that it was in that stadium in 2015 I knew I wanted to pursue soccer beyond the club level.
Being an athlete and going to school full-time takes a lot of
discipline, can you share how you balance it all? What does a typical day look
like for you?
I am a goalkeeper for the University of Guelph Women’s Soccer Team and entering my third year of study at the University of Guelph. Our team is fortunate enough to have access to an on-campus Health and Performance Centre in which we workout together alongside trainers. Our sessions usually begin around 8:30am so both in season and out, many of my typical days begin in the gym. After the gym I’m off to class- since practice is in the evening I try and schedule all my classes into my day hours. After my last class I’m off to the fields for a two-hour practice session and from there I head back to the on-campus library. Some days have more commitments to schedule in like video sessions, meetings, and labs. Some days have less as maybe we don’t have a morning lift, or we’ve been given the day off to recover. Regardless, each day is a full one and you have to learn to time manage FAST. Making meals ahead of time, writing out my calendar for the semester, and staying close in contact with my professors definitely helps, but the real balance comes from my teammates. With a busy day and lots to do, there’s no shortage of ways the day can go wrong, or something can be forgotten. Having teammates who are always willing to help me out of a tough spot is without a doubt my secret weapon. A true story from second year has me on my way to a pass or fail lab for which I have forgotten every single piece of lab equipment I own. With 10 minutes left before I needed to be in class, a teammate had run to their on-campus home, grabbed me their ROOMMATE’S equipment, and brought it to me outside of my lab. Growing up I was never one to ask others for help but, being a student-athlete has really taught me that sometimes- you can’t help it! As busy as the day is, as a student-athlete you’re never running from one place to another on your own, and the company makes all the difference.
As a female athlete- what have been some of the challenges you have had to face especially in a male dominated sport?
I am incredibly fortunate to belong to a program and community at the University of Guelph in which female athletics are not only valued but celebrated. However, not all female athletes are so lucky, especially at the professional level. A severe gap between male and female marketing, branding, and exposure in soccer directly translates into a lack of female opportunity. Growing up there wasn’t any kind of “professional women’s soccer league” to be spoken of. It wasn’t until 2009 that the first professional league began, becoming what we know today to be the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League). With that being said, in the present day we still see huge gaps in wage among comparable male and female competitive levels. The issue is best addressed by representatives from the US Women’s National Team and is a slow battle that I believe female athletes at all levels will continue to fight for many years to come. In my personal experience as a female athlete, I have often felt that there was a high standard to uphold and an expectation to excel outside of sport. In efforts to continue the work of many female athletes before me, I must be good on the field, off the field, in my team, and in my community. While this is a challenge I recognize, it is also one I welcome, and I see it as a small barrier by which I can pay homage to the hard work of female athletes who came before me.
You are an openly gay, confident young woman- unfortunately this is not the case for so many young females. What would you say or advice that you would give to any young woman who is struggling to come out, embrace their sexuality and deal with the fear of acceptance?
The most valuable lesson I have learned throughout my journey of coming out is the overwhelming necessity of self-love. When I was very young, I really struggled with my sexuality. Much of my time was spent ignoring it entirely, and when I wasn’t ignoring it, I was fighting against it. I think like many people I didn’t want to be different, and I was scared about the consequences that might follow deviating from a norm. Self-love for me began with self-efficacy, or understanding of self. When I stopped ignoring who I was and began to face it head on, I opened pathways for self-love, because I understood myself. This part involved a lot of saying the words into a mirror home alone, “I’m gay.”. It was painful, cheesy, and necessary- just like the stereotypical Chicken-Soup stories will tell you, I needed to suffer to heal. After I learned a bit more about myself, I was able to share those parts with others, and I leaned on my support net for love and acceptance that I couldn’t always find in myself. So, my advice is to have a conversation with yourself, learn about yourself, stop hiding you from you. I truly believe once you’ve been open with you about who you are, who you love, what you need, you can start to be open with others. Sharing that part of yourself with your loved ones (family, friends, teammates, coworkers, whoever is in your tribe) will be one of the most freeing feelings of your life, and the love your circle will give you back will make the entire journey worth it.
Is there something that you know now, that you wish you knew when you first came out?
When I first came out, I wish I had known how big the LGBTQ+ community was. I hear many coming out stories that carry a common theme of feeling like you’re completely on your own, and certainly mine is one of them. It would have made all the difference if someone had told me just how wrong I was, and that there were so many people near me that were just like me, who I could make a part of my support net.
What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring female athlete?
Learn. In the days leading up to my first training camp session as a Gryphon, my Assistant Head Coach Onkar Dhillon held a group phone call with all the incoming recruits in my year. I have never forgotten the final note he left us all with, “Wherever you’re coming from, whatever league or standing or position, the way you think the game is supposed to go; leave it all at home. You’re going to spend the next 2 weeks of training camp learning things about this sport that are going to make you a better athlete than you’ve ever been, so let yourself learn.” I remember writing that message, that ideology, down on a cue card and pasting it to my mirror, so every morning I would get ready and see it. Following training camp, I tried to take Coach Onkar’s advice that day and apply it to every lift, every session, and every game. It’s made me a better player, it’s made me a humbler player, and most importantly, it’s kept me coach-able.
Who inspires you?
My biggest inspiration in my life is my mother. She’s the person who woke up every day at 4am for work, got home by 6pm, and had me at practice for 8pm, 5 times a week for a decade. Nothing I have achieved would be possible without her unlimited love and dedication to the success of my brother and I. When days are too much, she’s my first call. When everything goes my way, she’s the person I share it with. When I just need to feel a piece of home, she’ll sit on the phone with me for hours, saying nothing, just so I can feel like we’re close. To me, she exemplifies everything I could hope to be when I’m older: hardworking, financially independent, well-travelled, level headed, the life of every party, and surrounded by love.
Favorite quote or words to live by
Our head coach Shayne Campbell always tells us, “be good.” While he is our head coach, when he tells us this, he doesn’t just mean “be good at soccer.” Yes, be good at your craft, work hard when nobody is looking, be good to your teammates, be good to your institution. But, don’t forget to be a good student, good to your professors, and good to your peers. Don’t forget to be good to your friends, good to your family, and good at your job. Don’t forget to be good in your community, good to your body, and good to yourself. There are many opportunities in each day to be good, and if being an athlete has taught me anything, it’s that- just, be good.
What’s next? What can we expect to see you doing? What do you want to be when “you grow up” ?
Right now my focus is on school. I’m currently entering the third year of a Human Kinetics BSc at the University of Guelph and when I’m done, I hope to apply to chiropractic college. As I said earlier, soccer is a love of mine and I think like most young kids who love a sport, there’s always the desire to be a part of it forever. To me, this career field is my tricky way of staying involved with soccer forever, working with athletes at all levels to maintain their physical health, so they can be the best they can be. Before I graduate, I hope to be awarded the humbling opportunity to tryout for the Canadian FISU Women’s Futsal Team again. Futsal is a sport similar to soccer in which 5 players per team are on a court at one time, using a smaller and denser ball in a similar fashion as soccer to try and score on the opposing goalkeeper. I competed with the team in 2018, traveling to Kazakhstan for the world competition. There is no feeling like wearing the maple leaf on your chest, and it would be a dream to do so again. Shorter term, I have my sights set on next season and what I can do during the off-season to best prepare myself. Guelph is my home, and each year that I am a student-athlete at the University, the stronger my desire to become a better athlete becomes.