When Two Competitive Athletes Fall in Love

“Hi my name’s Keelin and we have a lot of classes together. We should study together.”

Keelin Winters prepared for this exchange the second she spotted the blue-eyed brunette who shared 4 out of her 5 classes.

Few things rattle Keelin. She comes from a competitive, confident family; a father who played and coached professional basketball in the NBA and 5 siblings, all of whom participated in athletics. She learned at a young age how to hold her own. At family dinners, Keelin and her siblings sat down for their meal of chicken, salad, and mashed potatoes. The potatoes were Keelin’s favorite. They were also everyone else’s. Most kids would follow the old adage “save the best for last.” But Keelin knew if she abided by this principle, she would miss out on seconds. Instead, she served herself the potatoes first, shoveling them into her mouth as fast as humanly swallowable. Then, before her family had even dented their potatoes, she lunged for the bowl and scooped herself the remaining mash.  Only then, would she take a deep breath, settle in, and enjoy her family’s company.

Keelin, The Mashed Potato Mastermind.

Keelin carried this savvy, assertive demeanor with her when she moved away from home.

As a sophomore at the University of Portland, Keelin played for one of the highest ranked colleges in the country, and the summer prior, captained the U-20 United States national team to a World Cup gold medal.

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High pressure situations are Keelin’s bread and butter.

But this cross-country runner in her biology class, Paige, had the winged insects inside of her buzzing.

And on their first interaction, the best she could muster up was, “we should study together.”

Paige recalls that day, “I don’t study with people, so that angle didn’t work.”

For the next year, they openly dated on and off.

In 2011, two years later, Keelin graduated a semester early to play in the Women’s Professional Soccer league, and was drafted in the first round to the Boston Breakers. Although Keelin and Paige’s feelings were stronger than ever before, they resolved to take a break.

“We knew each of us had more growth to do. I think having that independence and individuality in your younger years is important. At least it is for us.”

Paige continued with her studies while Keelin moved to Boston to commence preseason training.

Within a few weeks, Keelin’s feelings for Paige struck hard.

“If I learned anything from that experience it was that I couldn’t live without her.”

Once the season ended, Keelin moved back to her hometown Denver, Colorado. After only two weeks, Keelin decided to move to Seattle to live near Paige.

Paige flew to Denver to accompany Keelin on her drive to the Pacific Northwest. On their first day on the road, they stopped in Bozeman, Montana for some exercise.

Couple workouts are a pivotal turning point in every relationship, but they carry an even heavier significance when they involve two elite athletes. In relationship’s infancy, couples often flirt with a casual hike, toss a medicine ball back and forth, or frolic in the water to work up a mild sweat. But more often than not, they don’t give it their all, in fear that they’ll look like they are trying too hard or care too much when it’s JUST a workout.

But for these two it’s either, “it’s my day off” mode or it’s “fourth quarter Kobe-time I’m about to destroy you” mode.

Today was meant to be a “let’s enjoy the outdoors and one another’s company” workout.  Keelin and Paige laced up their runners and headed out to conquer the trails. At the end of their run, Keelin picked up the pace, imitated crossing the finish line, and victoriously shouted “I won!” She then further pointed out, in a joking manner, that she had set the pace the entire run.

The rest of the day Keelin noticed that Paige was quieter than usual, but didn’t quite know why. Until the next day, when they tackled another trail run together.

Today again, was meant to be a relaxed workout. They commenced their run at a leisurely pace, but when they turned the corner to the first hill, Paige all of a sudden skyrocketed into race pace. Keelin, attempted to match Paige’s stride, but to no avail.  Keelin grew irate, falling further and further behind. As she rounded a switchback, she saw Paige calmly stretching against a bench.

 Finally, a chance to catch up, Keelin sighed. But as soon as she approached the bench, Paige bolted off again.

“I was so mad I was in tears. I was thinking, I’m moving to Seattle for this girl and she’s being a b****.”

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After 30 minutes straight uphill, Keelin reached the top, gasping for air. She begrudgingly rose from her hands and knees, and made eye contact with Paige.

They stared each other down for a few seconds, sizing up their independent counterpart.

Then, they bursted out laughing.

The Mashed Potato Mastermind had met its match. Keelin called truce. They both acknowledged that they possess an inescapable competitive gene, but could use it to their relationship’s advantage.

After surpassing the “workout milestone” , Keelin and Paige’s relationship continued to  progress.  They climbed mountains, laughed at each other’s “dad jokes”, sipped on mint tea, and read books before their 9:00pm bedtime. All the while permitting each other to fulfill their personal desires.

For Keelin, that meant pursuing her soccer career. Keelin performed well for the Breakers and was nominated the WPS Rookie of The Year Award, catching the eyes of the National team coach, Pia Sundhage. She was called into national team camps throughout the next year. During this time, the WPS announced suspension due to lack of resources. Keelin knew she needed to keep improving to compete at the highest level. For the next 6 months, she played with the Seattle Sounders in the semi-professional W-League, which enabled her to be close to Paige.

In July 2012, Keelin received the opportunity to play for FFC Turbine Postdam in Germany.

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When Keelin arrived, she was in for a surprise. The team partook in a 6 week long pre-season consisting of 3 rigorous training sessions a day.

“I was overtrained. Every time I went out to play, I’d further my over-use injuries. I grew to hate the sport I loved because I was in chronic pain.”

Injured, falling out of love with soccer, and missing Paige, Keelin hit rock bottom. She questioned whether she wanted to continue playing soccer all together.

In 2013,  Keelin’s contract with Postdam ended and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)  was founded. As an allocated national team player, Keelin was drafted to the Chicago Red Stars. However, the Love Gods were on Keelin’s side, as she was traded to the Seattle Reign. Laura Harvey was announced the head coach and the organization quickly created a culture that valued it’s players beyond the soccer field.

“The respect that everyone has for one another is unmatched. The coaches allow us to be ourselves and encourage our individuality. It’s like a family. We give the club everything we’ve got because the club treats us like professionals and human beings. ”

Keelin was now surrounded by world class players and people. After work, she’d come home to Paige, making a profound impact on her game and overall spirit.

For the past three seasons, Keelin has fulfilled the role of “the unsung hero”, captained the team to two NWSL finals, and is considered one of the best defensive midfielders in the league.

In that time, 6 years have passed since Keelin first asked Paige to study with her. Naturally, Keelin proposed after a brisk hike to the top of a mountain.

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They married outdoors in the beautiful country land of Winthrop, Washington.

Keelin and Paige relayed to me the story of their first interaction, heated workout quarrel, and affection towards each other at my living quarter in New South Wales. I let them inside to use the laundry machine because they hadn’t washed their clothes in a week, because they are living a camper van for their four month “honeymoon” in Australia,  because they want to be as outdoorsy as possible, and run and bike and surf and play tennis, because they are competitive, adventure-seekers at heart.

“It’s bizarre how soon we started communicating, within first year of knowing each other I thought, I could be with this person forever. It was crazy how immediate the depth of our affection was. For both of us it’s still hard for us to explain.”

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Like Paige, Keelin’s a competitor.  They push each other both physically and mentally, determined to win regardless of the team or situation. But above that, they have a deep understanding and love for one another that trumps any competition they’ll ever by a part of.  They were born for adventuring, limit-pushing, and traversing around the world. And just when you think you’ve caught up with them, they’ll jet off around the bend, but this time together.

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