Last year could have defined Crystal Dunn. In April, Dunn missed out on a spot on the U.S. women’s national team roster by a margin as small as her five-foot frame. But Dunn responded: her fifteen goals in the NWSL last year were nearly half of the Washington Spirit’s total on the season. Not only did Dunn score, but she dominated her competition. Beating three, five, however many defenders an opposing team put around her.
What is more notable than her dominant performance after disappointment is why the young star was able to respond. Anger is short-lived, and the New York state native bounced back with something coming from deeper within herself. Instead, Dunn re-invented herself off the field and turned a raw, sometimes nervous young player into a confident, mature Olympian. The deeper transformation could mean that 2015 is just the beginning for Dunn, rather than the highlight of her career.
"Where I am as a player is different this year than in 2015," Dunn said in an exclusive interview with Black and Red United. "Last year was me just feeling on edge and not being okay with mistakes on the field and just being a little overwhelmed and stepping on the field and being ‘if I make a mistake, the game is over.’"
The lack of confidence hurt Dunn’s ability to be the creative, unpredictable player she is today. On top of that, in the preparation for the World Cup, Dunn missed some time due to injuries; when she was healthy, she was usually confined to the bench with the national team.
"2014 was a really tough year for me, I was injured basically every other month it felt like," Dunn said. "That was my first year into the league so I basically had to take a jump from college to professional life and I just needed to focus more on recovery and it’s not really about on the field stuff, it’s what you do after trainings, what do you do after games."
After missing out on the World Cup, Dunn worked to improve her recovery and her habits off the field. It worked: Dunn started every game of the season save the first, and the ice packs from one muscle strain after another became ice to deal with defenders fouling her as it was the only way to try and stop her.
"Whether it’s getting in an ice bath or icing any injuries or eating a little bit healthier, I think those things go a long way... people don’t really automatically know it’s valuable and keeping your body ready," Dunn said.
Mentally, Dunn worked on her confidence, learning not just to rely on praise for good performances - something that can change easily - and instead having a consistent confidence in herself no matter the result.
"It starts from within you. There’s only so much you can do if you have external people saying ‘Hey, I think you’re a great player.’ I think that goes a long way, but I think it’s ultimately up to you to believe that a lot of people are in my corner and it’s up to me to believe I can perform to the highest level. Once I started thinking about everyone who is in my corner when I missed the World Cup, I started believing what they said and thinking ‘You know what? They’re right, missing out on this World Cup isn’t going to kill me or my career, I’m still a professional soccer player,’" Dunn said. "It wasn’t like I sought out to score a bunch of goals, that was just the icing on the cake. It was just about me getting back to feeling good about myself again and being a professional soccer player."
Dunn’s increased confidence led to impressive results. Free from the anxiety that used to cling to her on the field, Dunn demonstrated the spontaneous, crafty, and exciting qualities she is now known for.
"I love being me. I think everyone feels that they’re unique and that’s definitely true, I’m not like any other player and I think that’s the greatest feeling about being on the field. I can bring my game and my own unique talents to the game. I definitely love dribbling with the ball, being flashy."
When watching Dunn, her skills aren’t the only thing that stands out. Dunn exudes fun. She’s dancing, she’s joking, laughing with her teammates. After games she plays around with fans, perhaps even tossing a shinguard into the stands. Following a game last season, Dunn was practically wrapped in ice packs. While being carried off the field in a golf cart, Dunn went out - still wrapped in ice - to sign one last autograph for a young fan. Her easygoing and friendly demeanor carries itself onto the pitch.
"What’s changed in the past year is me feeling comfortable and I’m going to try new things on the field. I’m an attacking player and I’m going to take risks whether it ends in a great result or I get picked off with a pass," Dunn said.
"Everyone is motivated by different things. I think some people are very young and they know they’re striving to be the best soccer player possible. For me it was never about being the best, instead being at my best and being the best Crystal Dunn," Dunn said. "I think a lot of times we always try to compare ourselves to other players and I tell everyone, when I talk to little girls or whoever it is, you can’t compare yourself to any other player. Regardless of if they’re playing over you or whatever, your qualities are completely different than any other quality anyone else has. For me as a young player, it was about enjoying time with my friends and playing the game that I love with some of my best friends. I think that might not be motivation for everybody else but I think that’s truly what kept me coming back and playing this game."
As the Rio games open, Dunn is looking forward to her first Olympics and aiming to help the United States women repeat last summer’s success.
"I’ve come a very long way and I never really imagined being where I am and I think that’s what makes it feel even greater, I just live in the moment and whatever tomorrow brings I’m like ‘Yes, this is awesome!’ and I just take whatever life gives me and I roll with it."