In 2013, when Bella Bixby was still Bella Geist and a junior at Milwaukie’s Rex Putnam High School, the Portland Thorns began play in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League. Five years later, after a standout college career at Oregon State, they drafted her. Last summer, the goalkeeper made her debut with the team at a fanless bubble tournament in Utah, and this July she finally appeared in front of a crowd of nearly 15,000 rabid fans at Providence Park, the Riveters—the Thorns’ flag-waving, red-smoke-fanning, drum-pounding supporters group—chanting “PTFC” behind her. We asked Bixby, now 25, what it was like to go from hometown fan to home-grown pro, something that wasn’t even possible just a few years ago.
“Like a lot of professional athletes, as a kid I was a multisport athlete. I really loved softball, basketball, track. I kicked football in high school. I was doing it all. We weren’t really a soccer family. We didn’t get up and watch the Premier League. I would go to Portland Pilot games with my club teammates—that’s kind of how I was introduced to the soccer world. I remember my first inspiration to really go after it was at Providence Park. I was maybe in seventh grade, so 12 or 13, and the women’s national team had come to play.... I remember my teammates cheering, “Hope! Hope!” [for legendary US keeper Hope Solo]. I was like, “Who’s Hope?” And I saw this goalkeeper making these awesome saves, who was just very confident in goal, and it was kind of like, “Oh, wow, this is really cool—there’s a whole world out there for me to aspire to.” That’s what kicked it off.
“I remember when I learned that Portland would be having a team—I was sitting in math class, getting so excited. It felt like the pro leagues were so distanced from Portland because there had never been a team around here [in previous, short-lived women’s leagues]. As a kid that had already verbally committed [to Oregon State University] and was ready to go to play college soccer, I had never really considered playing pro. It felt like kind of another world. With a team coming to Portland, I felt like I had this first glimmer of a moment that would be really cool to aspire to—to play in my hometown.
“At that age I had a lot of people I looked up to that were on the Thorns, like Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. Karina LeBlanc was in goal that first year, and I really liked her. To have seen the support that the Timbers had received from the city, and getting that equal support for this team, and being a part of that support, was really cool to see. My senior year of high school, while Nadine [Angerer, the former German national team star who’s now the Thorns goalkeeping coach] was still playing with the Thorns, I was going in there when some international players had left, and they needed me to fill in and just be a third goalkeeper, I slotted in a few times my senior year of high school and got my first taste of it.
“My husband, Elliot, and I were friends growing up, and I remember he would wake up really early to watch the English Premier League with his dad. They were really into soccer and collected all these autographs and signed posters, and I felt like it would have been really cool to have that from a women’s team. I feel like I almost missed out a little bit. The hope is that I can be that for a young girl.
“For me, seeing high-level soccer was what made me sway toward soccer compared to these other sports that I was playing as a kid. Representation matters: I was seeing these women being absolute monsters on the field and doing what I did at a level I never even knew existed. It just became tangible all of a sudden.”