Gina Lewandowski, a former Lehigh women’s soccer player and current defender in the National Women’s Soccer League for Sky Blue FC, didn’t seriously consider playing professional soccer until she was a senior in college.
Thirteen years later, the Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, native is still playing the game she loves.
Lewandowski is arguably one of the best to ever play for Lehigh. She was a four-time Patriot League first-team honoree and a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year.
Former teammate Erin Iwaskiewicz, ‘05, said what separated Lewandowski in college was that she was always striving to get better — even when she was the best on the field.
“When you practice, you’re playing against your teammates, and if you’re the best player it’s hard to match up and continue to say, ‘I want to be better’ when you’re already at that level that’s the best,” Iwaskiewicz said. “She did a really good job of not being satisfied and setting a higher bar for herself every single year so she could continue to excel. ”
When Lewandowski graduated from college in 2007, the United States didn’t have a professional women’s league. Her only option was to play overseas.
In April 2007, Lewandowski made a highlight tape that she sent out to professional teams.
One month later, she was playing for FFC Frankfurt.
While it worked out in the end for Lewandowski, she said going out there was a leap of faith, but it helped knowing she had family in Germany that was there to help her.
Last summer, Lewandowski returned home and signed a contract with the New Jersey-based Sky Blue club after playing 12 years in Germany.
“I started to realize I want to be closer to home,” she said. “I was really grateful for Sky Blue to provide that opportunity for me.”
Lewandowski is a distinguished soccer player, but she’s also a role model to others for how she carries herself off the field, said Lauren Calabrese, ‘07, a former teammate and current Lehigh women’s soccer associate head coach.
“She’s been a really great resource for a lot of the younger women in the [National Women’s Soccer League] in terms of what it means to advocate for yourself and to have high expectations for what the league should be providing you as an athlete and a professional,” Calabrese said.
At the professional level, everyone is a high-caliber player. But former Lehigh women’s soccer assistant coach Mary McVeigh said what makes Lewandowski so successful is her calm presence on the ball.
“When she has the ball, she protects it,” McVeigh said. “There are some players that look panicked on the ball, like they don’t know what they’re going to do, and Gina [Lewandowski] never had that panic. It was always like she would prefer to have three people trying to get the ball from her then to have open space.”
Lewandowski was training for her second year in the National Women’s Soccer League when the COVID-19 pandemic put the world on pause.
In May, the league announced it would be starting up its season again, and one month later it held the Challenge Cup Tournament and were the first sports league in the U.S. to pull off a successful bubble.
“The resources that we had with the league and the protocols that were taken were a great opportunity for us to play and be in a safe environment,” Lewandowski said. “I think the commissioner and all the managers of the teams put together a great event for us.”
Lewandowski does not let behind the scenes work go unnoticed. She said their club staff headed by Sky Blues general manager Alyse LaHue prepared her team well to compete in such an environment.
While their team did not win the tournament, Lewandowski and her team will have another opportunity to get back on the field.
The National Women’s Soccer League announced it will have a fall series, which started on Sept. 5.
“It’s nice to be on the field and to do what you love to do,” Lewandowski said. “It’s not going to be as high intensity as it was in the (Challenge Cup) tournament. But, every time we step on the field, we’re going to have that mentality to win and to grow as a team individually and collectively.”
Through all the twists and turns — from going to Lehigh to playing in Germany to getting her first appearance with the U.S. Women’s National Team at age 30 to then returning to play in America — Lewandowski knows that everyone has a different path.
“Don’t be disheartened or discouraged when your journey might go in a different direction than someone else, because at the end of the day, if you’re enjoying it and having fun with it, you will grow no matter what, and that’s the most important thing,” Lewandowski said.