“I wanted to be a gymnast more than anything in the world,” says Engen. “But when you’re a five-foot-seven, 100 pound third grader, it’s not really going to work out for you. I was a huge, huge kid. I’ve basically been this size my whole life.” So she focused on soccer.
She loved driving to games in her father’s old diesel Mercedes, the whole car shaking, her dad blaring opera music as they wound up the hill toward her game. But on the field, things weren’t going much better than gymnastics, “I rode the bench; rode it hard. I only went in if we were winning by so many goals that there was no way I could screw it up.” She went to individual training sessions; she did everything she could to figure out how to break into the team. “This experience taught me two things: that it’s good to persist even when you’re not having success, and that I did not want to sit on the bench.” The next year, Engen switched teams – to one that included her future National Teammate Christen Press – ended up playing every minute, and loved it. “It changed my whole outlook on soccer.”
“In my family, everything was a competition,” says Engen. When they were little, it was a race to see who could get on their pajamas first, “My parents would be like, ‘Ready, set, go!” and we’d be stomping up the stairs, banging open drawers, ripping off clothes.”
There were also living room obstacles courses. Whitney’s mother would set up circuits – vault the chair, summersault over the couch, jump over the table. “My parents would be standing there laughing, calling out, ‘Four, five, six!’ and I’m trying to book it through the house,” says Engen.
In the car, there was the “Seat Belt Olympics:” gold if you were the first to get yours on, silver if you were second, bronze if you were third, lead if you were fourth. “Obviously, lead was the worst. You never wanted to get lead,” laughs Engen. “It was a full blown race to get in the car, but then you’d pull too hard, too eagerly and the seat belt would get caught … it was a delicate balance. To this day, it’s unsaid; we get in the car, and you’re still trying to see who got their seatbelt on first. It’s the personal satisfaction of having won.”
Engen’s parents instilled the idea that there should always be a ‘Plan B’ in case soccer didn’t work out. Law school was her back up plan. “Laws are things that are black and white, yet there’s a lot of gray in the field too. If it was just ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ there wouldn’t be a need for lawyers. The lawyers come in because there are interpretations. It’s kind of like a puzzle, and I liked the idea of finding the most right answer.”
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