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Sports

Breakers have only gay couple in pro sports

With her blond Mohawk like a beacon, fans flock toward Boston Breakers midfielder Lianne Sanderson for postgame autographs. She signs and smiles for photos and chats with young girls who dream of professional soccer careers. “Congratulations on your engagement,” the fans say. “When is the wedding?”

Sanderson nods toward another player surrounded by autograph seekers. “You should ask Jo,” she replies.

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That would be her Breakers teammate and fiancée Joanna Lohman.

After signing game programs and soccer balls, Sanderson tells Lohman, “This is so cool to have kids asking us and we’re able to be who we are.”

Recalling that moment and others like it, Lohman adds: “When someone comes up to you and says, ‘Thank you for being who you are,’ it has much more of a profound impact than, ‘Good game.’ ”

As engaged, openly gay professional athletes who play on the same soccer squad, Sanderson, 26, and Lohman, 31, are expanding the conversation about LGBT athletes in today’s sports world. Over the last 14 months, NBA player Jason Collins, MLS player Robbie Rogers, NFL draftee Michael Sam, and UMass basketball guard Derrick Gordon have come out. At the moment, Sanderson and Lohman are the only openly gay couple competing for the same professional team.

“I know sometimes it can be hard having a couple on a team,” says Sanderson. “It depends on how you go about it. When we’re training, we’re focused. It’s professionalism. People know we’re together, but it’s not as if we’re all over each other at training. It doesn’t need to be that way.”

Wade Davis, executive director of the You Can Play Project, an organization that advocates for equality for LGBT athletes, says that a couple on the same team adds a “different layer” to coming out and recent headlines about gay athletes in sports.

“This is the first openly lesbian couple in sports who are dating in such a visible way,” says Davis, a former professional football player who came out in 2012, nearly a decade after his playing career ended. “Hopefully, when people hear about Lianne and Joanna’s story, they’ll say, ‘Wow, this is possible. It can be done. I don’t have to live in the shadows.’ ”

Asked if there are currently other same-sex couples on the same team, but not open about it, Davis answers, “100 percent.” Sanderson and Lohman know of other lesbian couples who have played together on other teams, but preferred to keep their dating life private. In October 2013, United States national team star Abby Wambach surprised many fans when she married her longtime partner and then-Western New York Flash teammate, Sarah Huffman. Before their Hawaiian wedding, Wambach had not publicly come out and the players’ relationship was not publicly known.

Sanderson and Lohman met while playing for the Philadelphia Independence in 2010. A friendship grew into a relationship that they never hid. Sanderson was attracted to Lohman’s “intelligence, passion for learning, and drive.” Lohman was attracted to Sanderson’s “magnetic personality.” For the past four years, they’ve traveled the world, happily sharing the nomadic lifestyle of professional women’s soccer players and competing together for teams in the US, Spain, and Cyprus.

And what about their wedding? “It’s a work in progress,” says Lohman. Nearly two years after Lohman proposed to Sanderson at her family’s Maryland lake house with a scavenger hunt that led to a diamond ring, their soccer careers remain their top priority. With Sanderson and Lohman seeking out opportunities to play yearround, it has been difficult to set a date.

For Sanderson, the soccer-first lifestyle follows advice from her father, who played the sport professionally in England. As she competed on boys’ teams, sped through the ranks of the English women’s developmental program, and turned professional at 14, her father told her, “Just make sure you take care of soccer and everything else will fall into place.”

That said, Sanderson and Lohman have never felt that their relationship distracts from their careers. If anything, they believe it has helped them become better, more confident players. Each finds a ready support system and training partner in the other. The couple also appreciates that their open engagement gives them a platform to help other LGBT athletes who regularly contact Sanderson and Lohman and, more generally, they advocate for women’s soccer.

They give advice on everything from coming out to competing overseas to bringing a partner to the US during the soccer season. Lohman helped launch and sits on the advisory board of GO! Athletes, a group that works for wider acceptance of LGBT players. And the pair started JoLi Academy to promote soccer and educational opportunities for women worldwide, especially in areas where women don’t have many female role models. They have worked on a project in rural India with an all-girls soccer team.

“I’ve done more articles about being gay than I have about being a soccer player,” says Lohman, who starred at Penn State and earned 2003 Big Ten Player of the Year honors. “But I’d never be talking about being gay and our relationship if I wasn’t a professional soccer player. I think they build on one another.”

Strong partnership

Watching Sanderson and Lohman play for the Breakers, there is an obvious, almost telepathic, connection between the two. They anticipate each other’s moves. They know exactly how each other will handle different situations. When Lohman wins the ball as a defensive midfielder with strong heading ability, she often looks to pass to Sanderson first. It’s usually the right move since Sanderson’s creativity and vision as an attacking midfielder frequently put the team in scoring position.

Some of the couple’s chemistry results from their relationship. Some of it comes from four years spent as teammates with different clubs. Some of it results from the way their skill sets match up.

“If we could combine our abilities and mind share, it would be the perfect combination,” says Sanderson, who now regularly travels back to England to train and play with her national team. “Jo’s got what it takes to win at all costs. I know what it takes to win, but I won’t do the dirty work mostly . . . What attracted me to her as a person, as well as a player, is her attitude to want to be better. I really admire her mental strength.”

Meanwhile, Lohman praises her partner’s ability to see “two or three steps ahead of everybody else on our team” and to do “things on a daily basis where I’m in awe.”

From his sideline perspective, Breakers coach Tom Durkin sees Sanderson and Lohman as “yin and yang all the way through,” two starters with different personalities and different strengths who complement and balance out each other. Durkin describes Sanderson as “a bit more temperamental,” whereas Lohman is “a bit more pragmatic” as a role player.

“This season has been challenging so far for everybody,” says Durkin of the Breakers’ 2-6 record that places them near the bottom of the National Women’s Soccer League standings. “So, I couldn’t imagine having to go home with a teammate, after training and after losses. I don’t know if it’s helpful or not helpful being in a relationship. It’s certainly an interesting dynamic.”

Sanderson and Lohman admit that sometimes it can be a difficult dynamic, too.

The minute Sanderson and Lohman leave their East Cambridge apartment and drive to practice at Harvard, they focus on soccer. When training with the Breakers, they think of each other as simply teammates, not fiancées. Breakers defender Cat Whitehill, who has known Lohman since they played together on the U-18 US women’s national team, says it’s hard to tell Sanderson and Lohman are engaged when they’re in uniform.

“It’s nice that they don’t bring any drama on the field, if there is any drama,” says Whitehill. “That’s the pro in them. I love hanging out with them [off the field]. My husband and I have gone on a double date with them . . . It’s nice to have that. It’s natural.”

Away from practices and games, Sanderson and Lohman try to keep soccer from dominating the rest of their time together. That can be particularly difficult for Sanderson, who grew up in a soccer-loving family where the sport was like her religion. And Sanderson recognizes she has made Lohman more obsessed about soccer since they started dating.

“There’s times when we’re like, ‘We can’t speak about soccer for the rest of the day,’ ” says Lohman. “We’re completely overwhelming ourselves and need to take a step back and have a bit more perspective because we don’t live in a bubble and there’s more going on in the world besides what happens on the soccer field. At the same time, you know you have someone out there who has your back completely and understands what you’re going through.”

Acceptance growing

As Sanderson and Lohman consider future playing opportunities, they recognize how lucky they are to be together in Boston, where they see rainbow flags at Breakers home games. Not all the stops in the pair’s professional soccer journey have been as openly welcoming, particularly overseas. There were no rainbow flags in Spain when they played for RCD Espanyol or in Cyprus when they played for Apollon Limassol. In fact, their sexuality was never discussed, never came up in any conversation with teammates or team officials.

But the couple sees a changing landscape in Europe. Back home recently for a game with the English national team, Sanderson received two pairs of rainbow shoelaces, one for her and one for Lohman. And Sanderson says, “In countries like Spain and Cyprus, the sheer fact that they had us on their teams is a progression.”

Davis believes Sanderson and Lohman’s open relationship also marks progress on the US sports landscape. In conversations with high school and college coaches, Davis regularly hears concerns about how two female athletes dating will impact team dynamics.

“The narrative that people often think of when you have two females dating on a team or two males dating is it will cause a breakdown in team chemistry,” says Davis. “One of the wonderful things about Lianne and Joanna’s story is how you can have a couple dating on a team and it’s not causing a splintering effect. There is a new narrative that is created.”

At the same time, Sanderson and Lohman know that their days playing on the same team may end soon. They will both be free agents when the Breakers’ season finishes. And they are at different points in their career — Sanderson enjoying her prime and hoping to represent England in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Lohman recognizing retirement is fast approaching. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to pursue their career goals on one continent next year, let alone with one team.

“We both realize how important soccer is in our lives,” says Lohman. “I would never want her to be on a team where she was miserable because she wanted to be there for me or vice versa. We have a strong enough relationship where if you want to go somewhere else, follow your dreams, do what you need to do, [you can]. I’ll always be there for her and she’ll always be there for me.”

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ShiraSpringer.

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