The Soccer Sisters
Written by Mike Miller, with Caleb Hatch contributing.
Video story by Shyler Johnson and Colton Potter. Podcast by Shyler Johnson.
The BYU women’s soccer program has made the NCAA Tournament in 11 of the past 12 years, earned in three Sweet 16 berths since 2019 and even played for a national championship two seasons ago. In the midst of the program’s success, however, head coach Jen Rockwood has a handful of players approach her every offseason to share that they are taking break, with a plan to return in 18 months after serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Last season’s squad featured three players who had returned from church missions, with seven more away on their respective assignments. So what compels a high-level athlete to forego national championship aspirations for a voluntary church assignment?
BYU’s athletic programs, male and female, are no strangers to having players serve missions; there are currently 140 returned missionaries across BYU’s 19 sponsored teams. Unlike their male counterparts, who are eligible for missionary service beginning at age 18, women are not able to serve until they are 19. This means female athletes often leave for their missionaries in the middle of their collegiate careers rather than going in between high school and college.
Lytiana Akinaka, Lynette Hernaez, Savanna Mason and Olivia Wade are four of the returned missionaries on BYU’s upcoming 2023 roster, having served anywhere from Salt Lake City to Hamilton, New Zealand. Each athlete in the quartet had different, personal reasons for leaving, but each one felt moved by a desire to work for a higher purpose.
“My whole life I never wanted to serve a mission,” Wade explained. “But I ended up choosing to serve because I felt like that was something that my Heavenly Father wanted me to do. I knew that I didn’t have to, but I felt in my heart that (a mission) was the path that Heavenly Father wanted me to take.”
For Wade, her decision was made even more challenging because of the success of her freshman year. She started all 19 of the team’s games en route to earning All-WCC Freshman Team and All-WCC Honorable Mention honors. Despite that, Rockwood made no guarantees that Wade — or any other prospective missionary — would still have guaranteed playing time if she chose to leave on a mission.
“There isn’t a lot of benefit to taking 18 months off of playing soccer,” Wade added. “I knew that going into my decision to serve a mission, but I think my desire to do what my Heavenly Father wanted me to do outweighed the potential negative effects of coming home and maybe not being prepared or as technically sound as I used to be.”
While missionaries live active lifestyles, they do not have much time for intense exercise. Mason said she went for runs in the morning whenever possible or just did small workouts in her apartment before starting each day.
The lack of soccer playing on the mission made the transition back to the team difficult, but Mason explained that BYU has a culture that makes the adjustment easier.
“Being back in my squad really helped me,” Mason said. “They were patient with me, but they were (also) hard workers and put in the hours with me. My experience would be super different without them.”
While Rockwood is frank about the challenges missionaries bring — whether being players needing to be brought back up to the speed of the collegiate game or constantly having roster sizes and depth charts in flux — she also knows her returned missionaries bring something unique back to her team, with the benefits ultimately outweighing the burdens.
“I think that serving a mission is far harder and more challenging than playing Division-I soccer,” Rockwood said. “I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s frustrating. But they learn a lot more about themselves. They grow in a lot of ways and that maturity comes back and helps them as a player in their development. It also adds so much to our team and culture to have that maturity and ability to serve their teammates and those around them.”
Akinaka agreed and shared that she felt her missionary service allowed her to grow into a better person, which in turn helped her become a better soccer player. “Serving a mission has given me a greater perspective on life and my purpose. Before, soccer was everything. Now, it is still a big part of my life, but it’s not everything. Soccer is not who I am, it’s what I do. The most important thing is knowing who I am, and I didn’t have a clear idea of that before.”
Hernaez agrees with Rockwood that a mission is harder than collegiate soccer. She may not have known that when she left, but she is still grateful for her time spent serving.
“The mission was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It was a time where I learned how to put Christ fully into my life,” Hernaez said. “It taught me to have even more faith and trust in Him. Trust can be hard sometimes, but I’m so grateful for all the experiences I’ve had because I’m exactly who I am today because of the gospel of Jesus Christ and everything He’s done for me.”
Lynette Hernaez is a recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This Daily Universe Sports podcast shares her story.