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Column: Harvard-Westlake’s Alyssa Thompson speeds back to class and track team

Soccer star Alyssa Thompson of Harvard-Westlake poses for a photo on campus.
Soccer star Alyssa Thompson of Harvard-Westlake is ready to make impact running the 100, 200 and 400 in track.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)
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A sweatshirt that says “United States of America” is the only clue that the 17-year-old girl walking around Harvard-Westlake’s campus in Studio City is someone sports fans from Los Angeles to London might one day recognize as easily as LeBron James.

Alyssa Thompson is no ordinary high school athlete. This month she earned a gold medal playing for the USA U20 women’s national soccer team in the CONCACAF championships. She was the second-youngest player on the team and the fastest. A year ago, as a sophomore, she was honored as the Gatorade national girls’ soccer player of the year. This season, she didn’t play for her high school team while preparing to represent her country.

She’s back in class after spending three weeks in the Dominican Republic training and competing. It was the longest she had been away from family and friends. At the airport, her mother was in tears greeting her. There were signs and flowers. Her sophomore sister, Giselle, another soccer star, was there, along with 10-year-old sister Zoe, another phenom in the making.

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“It was a really cool experience playing with high-quality players, and playing against international teams is always fun,” she said. “Seeing a different culture was amazing.”

Thompson is the latest in a growing number of teenage athletes facing the challenge of balancing high school life with the lure of a seemingly endless sports life. The trick is figuring how to do both without losing a part of their life that cannot be re-created and happens only once.

Some coaches at higher levels are not big fans of the high school sports experience. They want prodigies immediately competing at the highest levels, leading to conflicts and tough decisions.

Thompson understands the decisions she and her parents must make to take into account her goals and aspirations. Everyone wants to protect her desire to have a normal high school life while recognizing she’s headed to Stanford in the fall of 2023 and one day could be the best female soccer player from the United States.

“I do want to experience both,” she said. “I want to experience what others do, hanging out with friends. I want to experience my childhood. Education is really important to me and my family. If I was pro, it would be hard to focus on school itself and be a regular kid, too. What I am doing now is amazing, and I’m still excelling in soccer.”

Thompson rejoined the track team, making her debut on Wednesday by running the 100 meters in 11.78 seconds, the second-best time in California this season. Last spring, when COVID-19 scheduling changes forced soccer and track to overlap seasons, she had to give up running before the Southern Section 100 and 200 championships because the preliminaries took place on the same day as the soccer championships. Her track coach said he was convinced she would have won both races at the Division 3 championships.

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Thompson also said she hopes to spend her senior year playing soccer for her high school team. That will have to be worked out with USA Soccer, which worries that young athletes might get injured and therefore puts a priority on training for its program over high school competition. Thompson has the skills to play at the highest level of soccer one day, so it would be wise if everyone can find a way to cooperate and compromise.

Meanwhile, the smile on Thompson’s face after she returned told the story of how happy she was to be back in classes after a month of online studying while training.

“I got to see my friends,” she said. “I missed them a lot. I missed my sisters, my mom and dad. Seeing them was amazing. It made me happy.”

Thompson is genuine and refreshing for having the work ethic to become the best while not being in a hurry. She wants to take everything in and learn lessons along the way.

“Soccer you can’t play your whole life,” she said. “After soccer, I don’t know what I want to do yet, but having those options and opportunities, and experiencing this stuff in high school and college will help give me experience not just in a soccer setting but in a real-life setting.”

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