Susie Petruccelli, RAISED A WARRIOR

Susie Petruccelli, RAISED A WARRIOR

“We’re all expecting things to be better for our daughters, but I honestly am worried that we’re going to lose the rights that we already have.” Zibby is joined by Susie Petruccelli, former captain of the Harvard women’s soccer team and author of Raised a Warrior, to discuss her book, her career, and her love of the sport. The two talk about what it’s like to be a twin, the relationship Susie had with her dad and sports, and how her identity changed when she could no longer play soccer. Susie shares when she realized how perilous it is to be a woman in the United States where we have often come to take the existence of human rights laws for granted.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Raised a Warrior: A Memoir of Soccer, Grit, and Leveling the Playing Field.

Susie Petruccelli: Thank you so much. I’m so excited.

Zibby: Is this you on the cover, by the way?

Susie: It is ninety-nine percent sure it’s me. It could also be my identical twin sister. We’re not a hundred percent sure, but I do think it’s me.

Zibby: Susie, I have to say, and I didn’t end up taking the time to do this, but as I was reading your book, I wanted to google your sister and try to find pictures of you guys growing up. They must be out there. There was so much about Katie in the book, your relationship to her. As a parent of twins, I was like, oh, gosh. I feel like some of it was sort of a referendum on how your parents parented twins.

Susie: It is, yeah. There are a ton of pictures. They’re all very funny. One of us had the bangs. They were always trying to figure out ways to differentiate us. I wore yellow. She wore pink. My grandmother would embroider our first names on everything we wore. It’s hard. Twins are hard.

Zibby: One of the scenes that I loved was, you had been not working as hard in school as your sister and yet excelling in athletics and all this other stuff, but you were giving that to her, she can be the student, until you got the exact same score on an IQ test, which I also thought was so fascinating. There’s so many ways identical twins are different.

Susie: That happened to us three times. We had the same IQ scores. My parents were like, um, we’re going to just slide these papers in front of you and turn them over. It’s proof. You cannot slack off in school. This is not because you don’t have the ability to do it. You’re purposely not trying as hard as your sister. It was good for me, actually. If they hadn’t had that proof, I would’ve just kept going on my own way and not really trying as hard as I possibly could. I don’t think I knew I wasn’t trying as hard as I possibly could. Then twice on the SAT, we got the same score.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. You’re a nurture/nature experiment.

Susie: It is. I know. We actually applied for a couple of those studies. They do twin studies and stuff. There’s a new one out. It’s in California. Because I live in New York and she lives in California, we couldn’t do it. It’s fascinating.

Zibby: Your book is the journey of you being an athlete but also coming into your own and rebelling against some things, accepting other things, growing up, and then fast-forwarding and having kids and your own family, and the role of athletics, particularly as it relates to women over time. How’d I do with the summary there?

Susie: That was amazing.

Zibby: Thank you. You can just take it and start using that. One thing that stuck out to me also — I tried to walk onto the Yale lacrosse team. I played lacrosse in high school. I was fine. I was captain of my team, whatever, in New York. Compared to the women on the Yale lacrosse team, I was not good at all. It’s fine. For me, I always say, as soon as I saw the communal showers, I was like, no thanks, I’m done. I’m going to walk. I’m not even going to try.

Susie: I know. Isn’t it funny?

Zibby: Then to read that scene in your book, oh, my gosh, I thought I was the only one. I’m like, I guess everybody else is cool with this.

Susie: I know. That’s how you feel. You’re like, I guess everybody’s cool with this. I’m just going to go for it. Then the cool thing about it is, at least in our era, once you do it — it is very important for women to get over that body consciousness, over-self-consciousness. Some people do. Some people don’t. As the years went on, we did have girls who just never went in a communal shower. It was funny for us at the time because we shared a shower. It wasn’t even a private communal shower for our team. We shared it with two other teams. Sometimes there would be three teams in the same communal shower, which is nuts. I don’t know now how comfortable all the girls are with that. Things have changed.

Zibby: Do they still do it? I don’t even know. I’m so out of it.

Susie: They have a completely new locker room now. They actually gave the girls now a locker room in the same building that the boys are in, which was long overdue. They renovated the locker rooms for the women. I’m almost a hundred percent sure they have shower stalls. It’s a little different. It’s still not totally private.

Zibby: You also wrote in great detail, and I was wincing in pain along with you, about your injury to your quad muscle and the very in-depth — I don’t even know how to describe it. The most-deep muscle that you could snap, it just snapped like a rubber band, you said. I’m always so fascinated with athletes who can’t do their thing because there’s almost nothing worse. I use that as an example for whenever you can’t do anything. It seemed like that moment really affected your development in general. You were literally hamstrung from your career as it was building.

Susie: It was funny because it took me a long time to process why everything — when that happened, my whole life kind of imploded on and off the field. It took me a while to look back and be like, why did everything fall apart when I couldn’t play soccer anymore? I think most of it was because who my grandfather was, who my father was, the family that I grew up in, every important thing that happened in my life, every joy, once ounce of adrenaline, all that stuff that happened to me was because of soccer. When it was going and it was flipping and I felt soccer slipping away slowly and I was grasping to hold onto it, it was devastating. It was devastating. Obviously, then you look back five, ten years later, and you’re like, okay, well, there’s tons of other girls who have bigger setbacks in their lives and more traumatic things that happened to them. It gave me a perspective about even girls — first of all, I started learning about Title IX, which is this law that was passed in 1972, only two years before I was born. I realized that if I had been born just five years earlier, I wouldn’t have had any of those opportunities to play soccer or play sports. My life would’ve been totally different. I most likely wouldn’t have gotten into Harvard. Then I start to think, if girls in the United States didn’t have a law until 1972 that protects their access to education and sports, then what about girls outside the United States? It became this domino effect. This all led to — it’s taken me twenty-five years to write this book because I just kept learning. I was like, where’s the end of this story? Where’s the good news? Where’s the happy ending? We’re not there yet.

Zibby: That’s okay because we have advocates like you.

Susie: We’re getting there. We are making progress.

Zibby: Yes. Then I feel like our daughters’ daughters are going to be all good. It’s going to be all good by the time —

Susie: — I hope so. I really hope so, but I do worry. Look, Roe v. Wade is under attack. That’s part of the story. Maybe the most important thing in the book is what I saw with these laws that we had throughout history. Not only was it always a battle — they kept using that word. It’s a battle to pass these laws. I was like, why is it a battle to give us the same rights have boys have always had? It just felt wrong to me. Then not only that, but I realized that, and those laws that we have, they’re not guaranteed. They’re actually always under attack. There’s these organizations, these nonprofits and these amazing people, that literally work twenty-four/seven to protect those laws so they stay in place. In a lot of ways, they’re losing. Title IX was overturned twice. Obviously, Roe v. Wade, like I’m saying, could very well be overturned. Women in Afghanistan who now are under Taliban rule, they’ve gone back so far in history to where they stand in terms of their rights and accessibility. It really scared me. I was like, if as a college female athlete I had never heard of Title IX and I didn’t know that all these laws are at risk, I need to do something. I need to try to tell this story in an interesting way so that people will read, they will care about the history, and get engaged and try to stand up. Like you’re saying, we’re all expecting things to be better for our daughters, but I honestly am worried that if we don’t get involved, we’re not only going to not get to gender equality or equal pay, but we’re going to lose the rights that we already have.

Zibby: Well, that’s depressing.

Susie: Yeah, I know. I know. I’m sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Susie: But it’s not depressing because —

Zibby: — No, no, no, it’s inspiring. I’m kidding. It’s inspiring. There’s hope. There’s action steps. We don’t have to sit passively. There’s lots to do. You are a major advocate.

Susie: We do have the power. We have spending power. We have consumer power. We do have the power to change things. I’ve felt very unempowered — is that a word? — for a long time. Then it took a very long time for me to find my voice, even though I’m losing it right now, to find my power again and realize that all of us, all little girls — look at the amazing things that you’re doing. We all have a voice.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s nice. You’re going to loop me into this? You don’t have to answer this or talk about it, really, but there was this one moment in the book between you and your brother, Tom. I think it was Tom. The two of you were sitting in the car. Can I talk about —

Susie: — That’s Tony. That’s my oldest brother, Tony.

Zibby: That was Tony. Okay, sorry.

Susie: Yeah, I think so. I think I know where you’re going.

Zibby: You sort of took a deep breath and decided to confide in him that you were bisexual. He laughed, which you didn’t appreciate.

Susie: I was like, oh, god, that’s not the reaction I was hoping for.

Zibby: Then he ended up telling you that he was also bisexual and then ended up going on and marrying a man. They are in a relationship, or they were in the book, and all of that. That moment in the car — some of the scenes you wrote were so vivid. You just completely took us there. I feel like now I was in the car with the two of you, but maybe you have some more details to shine on that moment.

Susie: Like I said, I lost soccer. I sort of self-destructed. I think there had been a lot of moments in my life leading up to that point not just about soccer, but about who I was and about not being authentic to myself and pretending to be who I thought I was supposed to be, that kind of stuff. All of those moments had sort of left, let’s say, loose bricks or hollow bricks in my emotional foundation. I don’t know if that makes sense. Being brave enough to say those things out loud that I felt very ashamed of, actually, and not confident about talking about and didn’t know what his reaction was going to be, those moments are the moments that I try very hard to be honest about in the book. I feel like, first of all, people don’t talk about those moments a lot still. If I can be honest about them, people will hopefully relate to me. That will earn their trust. I will earn their trust by being honest in that way. Then hopefully, they’ll also believe me as I start to explain to them what’s going on in women’s sports and how the women’s sports movement is so deeply tied into the women’s movement in general. That’s sort of what I was trying to do, was be like, I’m going to be raw. I’m going to be honest with you. My brother didn’t come out to our family until years later. Even in my family — obviously, I married someone I played soccer with, a guy I played soccer with at Harvard. We talk about my sexuality, but it’s funny because it’s kind of a moot point. I married a man, so it hasn’t really come up that much. It was a really important moment. It was a cool moment for me and my brother.

Zibby: I loved when you realized that you actually liked your husband in that way in the book. You were like, wait, actually, I think maybe I like him.

Susie: I turned to my best friend at the time. I was like, “You’re not going to believe this,” at a loud bar. I’m whispering. I’m like, “You’re not going to believe this, but I think I have feelings for Armando.” She was just — the biggest laugh. It was such a surprise. It was such a surprise to everybody. Plus, he was a freshman when I was senior, which made it even more of a surprise. That was really funny.

Zibby: Now how long have you been married?

Susie: We’ve been married almost eighteen years. Three kids. Today’s his birthday, actually.

Zibby: I loved when you were talking about your daughter and how she didn’t want to wear a dress or skirts or something like that. Armando reminded you that was exactly like you.

Susie: Right. He’s like, “You know, she’s just like you.” I was like, “You’re right. You got me.” It’s true. Why am I doing this to her? I’m repeating the cycle. I’m enforcing social norms on her when I hated that. Luckily, he was like, “Snap out of it.”

Zibby: I had the same thing with my daughter yesterday. We went to see — this will air later. We went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular or whatever. She had asked me how long it would be. I was like, “I think it’s about an hour,” which she interpreted to be exactly an hour. The whole time we were there, she kept looking at her little Garmin watch or whatever being like, “Okay, it’s been twenty-two minutes. It’s been thirty minutes. It’s been thirty-three minutes.” I was like, “Just relax and enjoy it.” Meanwhile, I was like, that’s exactly what I do.

Susie: Exactly what you would’ve done.

Zibby: That’s what I was doing in my head all along anyway. It’s hard to create these creatures who don’t share some of our pitfalls or our strengths or whatever. The things that I’m usually the most like, don’t do that, are the things I do myself.

Susie: I know. Totally. Luckily for me at that time — actually, it is hard, though. I do see it from a mom’s perspective too. I saw kids picking on her because of the way she dressed. I felt bad for her. In a lot of ways, it was about me protecting her. I don’t know if that’s the way it was for my mom. I think my mom actually just sort of had this image of what a little girl should look like. Also, I had an identical twin sister who was that little girl. Why can’t you wear a dress and stockings and little shoes and put a bow in your hair and leave your hair brushed and not come back with skinned knees all the time? It’s funny.

Zibby: I really did get a sense, though, in your family history with both your dad and your grandfather being big-deal football guys that there was this DNA coursing through you, this genetic, amazing athleticism. When I was reading it, I was like, I can’t wait to see what happens with her kids. Where are your kids getting it? They must all be amazing athletes too. It just seems like you have such a strong gene.

Susie: Aw, that’s nice. Thank you. It did feel that way. I did feel like I was part of that family legacy. My kids are doing well. None of them are playing very much soccer, which is funny because, obviously, my husband and I are both soccer players. They’re all playing a lot of lacrosse, which as you know, in the New York area, is very, very, very popular, very hard to avoid. They play a lot of lacrosse. They love it. It’s good. They’re getting everything out of it that I loved about soccer. I’m learning a lot from being a parent of an athlete. They’re all different levels too. I’m learning a lot about being the flip side and being the parent. I was very critical of the way my dad was — my dad was harsh. He was a tough person. The book’s called Raised a Warrior because that’s how he raised us on the field, was to sacrifice our bodies for the team. I’m seeing it now from the parent perspective, which is also really interesting.

Zibby: I feel like when I read about people like your dad, I’m just such a wimp. I’m just so not strict enough at all. I understand there’s a spectrum, continuum, but I’m like, wow, he pushed, and look what you achieved, though. You and your sister are both at Harvard playing soccer and captaining the team. Now you’ve dedicated your life to this. I don’t know. I’m like, maybe there’s something to all that pushing.

Susie: You know, it’s funny, though. Now I married, obviously, which we do, I married someone like my father. He’s the one who’s pushing. He’s really similar to my dad, which is so funny. I’m sort of the balance on that. I’m probably more like you where I’m like, no, let them play other sports. Everyone should be quiet on the sidelines. The parent yelling on the sidelines, I think it’s hard because I still feel like I’m still that kid on the field. I’m like, ouch, ouch, ooh. It pains me for these kids that are getting yelled at. You’re right, they were hard on us. They did expect a lot from us. I also now am so grateful that my dad actually encouraged my sister and I to be athletes because there are so many girls in the world who, their fathers won’t let them play sports. They’re still not allowed to play sports. That part of it, I was like, okay, I need to go easier on my dad because he expected us to be students and athletes, which now I know doesn’t happen for a lot of girls.

Zibby: Wow. You talked in the book a little about — well, not a little, but about your relationship with your body and how at times you had gained weight and lost weight and your diagnosis of PCOS and dealing with that and how you felt. I’m wondering now, how do you feel about your body today? What’s it like today? What’s your relationship to athletics like now? What do you do? How do you see working out? That whole thing.

Susie: Such a good question. I am happier with my body than I’ve ever been in my life, which is so nice because it was a struggle for so long. It’s funny because I hadn’t seen my parents for a very long time with COVID. They’re in LA. I went to visit a couple times this year. They were like, “Are you okay?” I was thin. They were like, “Are you okay? What’s going on?” I was like, I can’t win with these people. They were on my case for so long about being overweight. Now I’m thin and feel good about myself, and now they’re on my case for being too skinny. I’m like, I can’t even win. I’m happy where I am. I’m not exercising enough. I was so exhausted after all those years of playing soccer. My body hurts. My shoulder hurts. My wrist hurts. I have two bulging disks, herniated disks in my neck. My quad never healed. I tore an MCL. I’m just a mess. I’m a physical mess. I was trying to do yoga. I miss soccer. It’s crazy. I’m forty-seven years old, and I still miss it so much. I need to find something that keeps me building muscle and all that healthy stuff that I was getting from soccer. I still need to find something like that now for the rest of my life.

Zibby: My husband played professional tennis. He has similar stuff going on with his body. There was one doctor who was like, “You know, you really just shouldn’t play tennis anymore.” He took a couple weeks and was like, “Then who I am, really?”

Susie: Oh, that’s what happened to me. That’s exactly what happened to me. I lost my whole identity, and especially also, too, my identity in our twinship. My identity differentiating myself from my sister, I was the soccer player and she was the student. When I lost that, I was empty. I was empty for a really long time. Then also at that time, there was zero avenue for a girl to build a career for herself in sports at all. There was no women’s soccer league. I don’t even think there was women’s basketball yet, a league yet. There was really nowhere to go. If I had pivoted and been like, okay, I want to stay in sports, maybe I’ll try to work in the NFL, women weren’t really working in sports at all at that time. They really weren’t in sports journalism yet. I totally lost my purpose. I lost myself, like you’re saying. It was really hard. I get it. Now I’m like, everything still hurts. What am I going to do?

Zibby: He still plays tennis all the time.

Susie: I know. I keep trying too. That’s why I keep hurting myself.

Zibby: You guys should hang out.

Susie: I know. We would relate to each other.

Zibby: Wait, what’s happened with your sister? Where is she now? What’s her life like?

Susie: My sister, she ended up going to medical — not medical school. She got a doctorate in epidemiology, which is the statistical study of epidemics. Then she was studying breast cancer for a long time. I think she just got burnout on the process of writing grants. I think, honestly, she felt discriminated in a lot of ways because, this might sound strange, but she sort of doesn’t fit the mold of even a female science researcher. She was the pretty one of the two of us. She was a very pretty girl. She’s a very pretty woman. I think people just didn’t take her seriously in that world that she was in. She got disenchanted with the whole thing. She started working for my dad, finally, which I think is funny because when we were teenagers my dad told us, without any kind of emotion, just matter-of-factly, that he would never give his company to a girl. My sister, she’s badass. She went to business school after she got her PhD. She started working for my dad. Now she has a very cool life. They live, actually, in Yosemite National Park. She and her husband run the general store, the only general store in Yosemite National Park. It’s called the Pine Tree Market. Shout-out to Pine Tree Market. If anybody’s around or ever goes to Yosemite, check it out. You’ll see my doppelganger there. She’ll be sitting behind the counter helping everybody out.

Zibby: Wow, crazy, oh, my gosh.

Susie: It’s funny because the way we started was, she was the put-together type A, always matched, and I was the grungy one. Now I live in this town that’s surrounded by all these women that are very done-up and always put together, very New York-y. I’ve gravitated towards that. She’s gravitated towards the grungy, jeans and a flannel lifestyle that I was. We kind of went like that. It’s really strange. She races tractors. It’s amazing.

Zibby: You have such an interesting story. I’m so glad you wrote it. I’m so glad I read it. You did such a nice job of taking us along for the ride. I just love it. You put us right there in the moment. I was so proud when you had your kids. I sound ridiculous. I feel like we got to go through some of the hardest times of your life. I feel really excited for you that now you have this book out and all of that. That must feel great. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Susie: Just keep going. This took me twenty-five years to get published and twenty-five years, really, to find the real story that I was waiting for and looking for. Then I also took a completely untraditional route to getting published. Actually, I won an award originally in England.

Zibby: I saw that, yes.

Susie: I won this prize in England, and so the book was published first there. Then through that, I got a publisher here in New York. I would just say meet as many people as you can. Keep writing. Follow your heart. Follow your gut. Just keep building your platform. What your purpose is, whatever you’re a warrior for, just keep going. Just keep fighting.

Zibby: Love it. Susie, thank you. This was so much fun. I really loved chatting with you. Thank you.

Susie: Thank you. You made my year. This was incredible. Thank you so much.

Zibby: I hope to see you soon, but I won’t be all made up even though I live in New York. I’m in sweatpants myself. Not that anyone has to know that.

Susie: I love it. Thank you.

Zibby: See you soon. Bye.

Susie: All right, bye.

RAISED A WARRIOR by Susie Petruccelli

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