By Nathan Heintschel

Senior Maren Johansen leads the VCU Women's Soccer team with eight goals this season.

Senior Maren Johansen leads the VCU Women’s Soccer team with eight goals this season.

“My mama always said, ‘life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” – Forrest Gump

Among other things, the movie “Forrest Gump” is the story of a protagonist who builds a prosperous life through years of serendipitous travel. Whether or not VCU senior Maren Johansen draws any parallels between “Gump”, one of her favorite films, and her own journey is unclear. But today, if Johansen looks back, the VCU Women’s Soccer team’s leading scorer would have to view the thousands of miles she traveled to play college soccer as at least a little fortuitous.

A native of Mosjoen, Norway, Johansen had never set foot on United States soil until her official recruiting visit to VCU, but in the last four years she managed to adjust to a vastly different culture. As her affinities for “Forrest Gump” and pulled pork would suggest, she’s quickly learned to fit in with Americans.

The youngest child of Vidar Johansen and Kristi Hauge says she enjoyed an active and safe childhood with her siblings Kaja and Petter. Mosjoen could inspire parallels to a small American town, that is, until you learn she grew up an hour south of the Arctic Circle, near a fjord, in a mountainous region, with drastically different light and dark cycles.

Johansen’s involvement in soccer during her childhood followed a similar path to most European children.

“When you grow up in Europe, you’re going to at least try soccer.” Johansen said. “All my siblings played soccer too. As a kid, if you’re good at [soccer] you’re going to continue to play it.”

Johansen also participated in the European favorite handball, and she took advantage of her surroundings in Norway and participated in skiing.

In Norway, children play soccer for clubs in conjunction to going to school. Johansen looked to follow the footsteps of her older club teammates who went to America to play collegiate sports despite offers from club teams in Norway.

Johansen sought the balance that collegiate sports offered, as well as the all-around American college experience and the opportunity to learn English. She didn’t think living as a de facto professional, 24-hour athlete would provide the same opportunities.

“At home, when you go to the university, you don’t have the combination like here.” Johansen said. “Here, school and soccer are together. If I were to play at home after high school, I would play for [a] team and study on the side, and it would be really hard to combine…here everything is so professionally laid out for you to succeed in both areas. Your coach really cares about your academics, and your teachers are lenient by giving you time off because you’re traveling with your team.”

Before playing for VCU, Johansen play with club team Grand Bodo in Norway. Her club won the Gothia Cup in Sweden and she says she gained invaluable experience, both in regards to professionalism and the expectations for 24/7 athletes.

It’s difficult for a many international players to garner the attention of and scholarship offers from U.S. college programs. Johansen earned an offer from former VCU Women’s Soccer Co-Head Coaches Tim and Tiffany Sahaydak by exchanging emails and highlight tapes.

Johansen said the transition to American life wasn’t difficult. She finds it easier to adjust to Virginia’s night and day cycles, rather than transition back to those at home. She also enjoys the convenience provided by American grocery stores, but sometimes it is difficult for her to get all the ingredients necessary for her traditional Norwegian dishes. She hopes her care packages from home include brown cheese and caviar to fill the void left by American stores.

Johansen’s transition on the soccer field was swift. She started 19 games in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, but her game was far from a finished product.

“When you come in as a freshman, the coach tells you to feel ownership of the team,” Johansen said. “When you come in completely new, it’s hard to feel that way. When I came in I didn’t know the [conference] system. They tried to tell me these games matter, but these games matter more.”

johansen-maren-dribble

Judging by Johansen’s performance in 2014, she’s finally comfortable on the college pitch. She leads the team in goals (8) and is tied for the lead in assists (3). Her point total has increased in each of her four seasons to a career-best 19 this year.

Johansen focuses on her finishing techniques during practice to make sure she stays accurate and can make shots in game situations. She enjoys scoring goals, but she enjoys it even more when her success at the directly translates to wins for the team.

Johansen is one of five seniors on the team, and she values the opportunity to mentor VCU’s younger players. She uses her experiences as a freshman to help the other girls avoid the mistakes she made. She reminds the younger players to stay focused on the little things and help their transition from high school to college.

She also stresses that VCU’s underclassmen remain focused on the team’s ultimate goal this season, to win an Atlantic 10 Conference championship. The Rams (9-4-5) appear to be heeding Johansen’s advice. They will be the No. 2 seed in the A-10 Tournament this weekend in Dayton, Ohio.

After this season, Johansen aims to continue her soccer career in Norway. A double major in Spanish and international studies, Johansen will graduate in May, and also has designs on working with non-profit agencies to help bring organized sports to areas that do not have them.

But first, she’ll chase a conference championship and an NCAA bid one last time. It’s the same as when Forrest Gump said, “…and that’s all I have to say about that”. She’s just looking for a chance to have the last word in her life-changing journey.

 

 

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