Going out on top

Lauren Holiday opens up about calling an end to her U.S. Women's Soccer career at the age of 27

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Only minutes after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup title earlier this month, United States national team players were being questioned about their futures.

That the 2015 Women’s World Cup would mark the end for some United States national team players’ careers seemed inevitable. The U.S. was the oldest of the 24 teams at the tournament, with an average age of more than 29.

Abby Wambach, 35, had finally won the World Cup in her last attempt. Shannon Boxx did the same at 38. Longtime captain Christie Rampone, playing in her fifth World Cup, won the tournament for the second time after turning 40 during the competition.

Retirement questions loomed for these legends, but none of them have committed to that finality. Rampone said she will play at the 2016 Rio Olympics “if my body holds up,” and Wambach has dodged all questions regarding her future, saying that she is living in the moment and not yet ready to decide what she will do about the Olympics.

That leaves 27-year-old Lauren Holiday as the first and, to date, lone player from the team to announce that the 2015 Women’s World Cup would be the end of the competitive road for her. But unlike some of her older teammates, Holiday is in the prime of her career, making the news surprising. Lost amid Carli Lloyd’s otherworldly hat trick in the World Cup final is that Holiday actually scored the eventual game-winning goal in the 5-2 victory, a beautiful volley that she hit in stride after a defensive mistake by Japan.

Holiday’s decision to exit the game doesn’t stem from a rash decision based on the idea of going out on top. This is something that has long been on her mind.

“I’ve been praying about it for a couple years now and really just this last year, it was so clear to me,” she said. “I had so much clarity about it. I knew that I wanted to give my all to the World Cup. I wanted to be able to say that I gave it my all to fulfill the final dream of winning the World Cup and I feel like I did that. Even if we wouldn’t have won, I felt very comfortable in my decision. I feel like God had led me to that decision, so I was ready either way.”

MORE: Title in hand, Holiday set to retire in style

Holiday will finish the National Women’s Soccer League season with FC Kansas City – the defending champions after her two-assist, MVP performance in last year’s title game – and she will play in the 10-game victory tour with the United States before officially hanging up her boots.

Her career and her life have thus far been defined by selflessness, and she plans to continue that in a different capacity. She is Christian and she wants to volunteer and help those who are less fortunate. That part of her life isn’t something she could pursue in the hectic day-to-day life of professional sports.

“I didn’t play for self-glory,” she said. “I played to glorify God and I just feel like I just have other desires on my heart. I want to help in any way that I can in the world. My heart breaks for so many things, so I feel like as awesome of a lifestyle it is, it’s also a very selfish lifestyle. Your schedule is predetermined. I can’t go a day without training or thinking about training and I feel like professional athletics is very you-central and I feel like I was ready to serve other people.”

Her family is a big part of her decision. She sees her husband – Jrue Holiday, point guard for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans – only a few days each month. Holiday lives in Kansas City during the NWSL season, the beginning of which overlaps with the end of the NBA season. From the start six years ago, their relationship has involved distance and long stretches apart. The two met while at UCLA, but Jrue, who just turned 25, was drafted to the Philadelphia 76ers after one season in college.

Holiday says she is ready for something different – to see her husband and her family and to focus on what’s ahead. She and her teammates miss “the most precious things in life,” she says – the weddings, funerals, births – due to life on the national team. It’s a lifestyle that players choose and one that bonds them together, but it can be taxing.

Holiday is at the pinnacle of her career, fresh off a World Cup championship. She is a two-time Olympic gold-medalist, having burst onto the international scene in 2008 as the player who replaced injured Abby Wambach on the Olympic roster after Wambach broke her leg. Holiday played under her maiden name, Lauren Cheney, back then.

She also won the NWSL MVP award in 2013 as the league’s top scorer in a dominant season before last year’s title run. Holiday is capable of accomplishing much more on the field, but her interests are elsewhere now. “There is so much power in a choice,” she says, and after choosing her United States team for the better part of a decade, it’s time for something else.

“I feel like I could play through another cycle,” Holiday said, referring to the next World Cup in 2019 and then the 2020 Olympics. “I’m confident in my ability. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, but I also am super-intrigued by the challenge of defining greatness. Obviously, we’ve done a good job of that in the sports world, but I think there’s something so much more than just playing a sport. I want to be able to show women – show the world – that serving other people is also incredible.”

Jrue Holiday (Getty Images)

Holiday, speaking from the couple’s home in New Orleans, says that Jrue was supportive and neutral throughout the process of making the decision to retire, encouraging her to make the decision for herself.

Knowing the 2015 World Cup would be his wife’s last major tournament, Jrue Holiday followed the United States around Canada, watching all seven games en route to the team’s triumph. He has played in big games before, but he told NBC SportsWorld that there isn’t “any sporting event that comes close to [the World Cup].”

Jrue knows Lauren best, and his admiration for her benevolence is palpable.

“God-fearing, caring, loving,” is how Jrue describes his wife. “I think any and everybody who meets her or comes into contact with her feels it and sees it.

“She always wants to share and love and help somebody,” he continued. “Obviously, that’s why I love her; she’s done the same thing for me. But to see her do that for any and everybody that she comes in contact with is amazing.”

Amy Rodriguez has seen that first hand as Holiday’s teammate on the U.S. national team and, for the past two seasons, FC Kansas City. Rodriguez and Holiday live together in Kansas City – along with Rodriguez’s soon-to-be 2-year-old son – and they have frequently been roommates while on the road with the U.S. or in training camps.

MORE: US women’s team retakes spot atop FIFA rankings

“It’s a whole history of friendship,” Rodriguez says. “What I can tell you about her is she has the biggest heart and she’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. I’m going to miss that a lot, but she definitely is more than just a teammate to me. She helped me raise my son last year in Kansas City and she’s been in my life for some big decisions and some up-and-down moments, so I’m very grateful to have her in my life.”

Holiday said she will most cherish the friendships and the journey she’s had, which began with the United States national team at the senior level in 2007, while she was still at UCLA. Her journey on the field for the United States team is emblematic of her willingness to put others – including her team – first. Holiday started her senior career as a forward before moving back into an attacking midfield role. She ends her time with the U.S. even farther back on the field, as a deep-lying midfielder in front of the defense. That shift has helped her mature on and off the field, she says, and it taught her a valuable lesson:

“Just to accept the role that you’re given and put the team before yourself,” Holiday said. “If I think about any legacy that I would want to leave, it would be that I put others before myself and I put the team before myself. The journey has been quite the ride.”

Putting others before herself. That is still Holiday’s plan, just in a new way.