Americans have been earning a paycheck playing fussball in Germany for decades now, dozens and dozens of them, some briefly in the lower divisions and reserve sides, others taking a more prominent role in Germany’s top divisions. American fans are excited to follow the exploits of youngsters such as Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Weston McKennie at Schalke and the 17 year-old Josh Sargent training with the Werder Bremen senior squad. And veterans in Germany such as Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler, among others, also attract the attention of many Americans week in and week out.
But there is only one American footballer in Germany who has earned multiple trophies, including three Bundesliga titles, two Pokal championships and winning the Champions League — and HER name is Gina Lewandowski, who has been playing professionally in Germany since 2007, first for 1.FFC Frankfurt and the last five seasons for the Bayern Munich Frauen. Gina. a native of Coopersburg, Pennsylvania (an hour north of Philadelphia), took time a few weeks ago during Winterpause training to speak with us about her career in Germany, being a member of the Bayern Munich family, and so much more as she’s taken a road less travelled by most of her American women counterparts to fashion a highly successful career.
Bundesliga Fanatic: When did you begin playing soccer, and how did you end up playing in Germany?
Gina Lewandowski: I began playing when I was about six years old. I played college ball at Lehigh University (15 minutes away from home in Bethlehem.PA), but when I graduated in 2007 there was no women’s professional league in the United States. My dream was always to be a professional footballer. I could have played in the U.S. for the Charlotte Eagles, but they weren’t a professional side, or I could contact my relatives in Hanau, near Frankfurt….. and they found people who knew more about the professional game in Germany and got me in touch with agents, which got me to a couple of tryouts. I left right after graduation, and after a month landed a contract with 1.FFC Frankfurt.
BF: Were you nervous trying out with professional clubs, coming directly from a college program and going to a country where you did not know the language?
Gina: Yes, of course, I was nervous…and excited, too. I tried not to have expectations. Lehigh had a strong program, but not on the level of the most elite women’s college programs. My first tryout was with a third division club, which helped me feel more confident and eased my transition into the German game.. The girls in Germany helped me, though I wasn’t at top fitness since I’d had several injuries during my senior season. I tried out for Frankfurt, as I wanted to stay in proximity to my relatives, and a tryout for a few days turned into a week, and then another week, and finally I signed a contract. It was beneficial staying with my relatives, as I could adapt to the culture and language — they spoke English, too, and were very helpful. I took a private course in German with one of my friends.
BF: Didn’t you win the Bundesliga Frauen title your first year in Germany?
Gina: Yes, during the 2007/2008 1.FFC Frankfurt did the treble — we won the German title, the Pokal and the UEFA Women’s Cup title (now the Women’s Champions League). We had a team full of German National Team players, and we just clicked. I played center back as I worked my way into the team, so it was a good way to start and a good fit.
BF: That’s a pretty good way to begin your professional career? Looking at your CV, you’re the American in Germany. among Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, etc who has won multiple titles?
Gina: (Laughs) I haven’t really thought about it that much. I was lucky that I played with some great teams in Frankfurt and I’ve been here awhile. It was exciting, and really neat as an American to be in a different country and win. I was fortunate to play with another American on the team, Ali Kreiger. There have been women coming over to Germany and Europe to play, but generally they haven’t stayed as long as I have.
BF: What is your training schedule like, now during the preseason, and then once the season begins in February?
Gina: Right now we have one day off a week, Monday. Tuesday and Thursday we have double sessions, and have single sessions the other days with a scrimmage on Sundays. Double sessions include work in the gym. During the season, we have only one day of double sessions, a total of seven training sessions a week, and on Sundays we play our league matches.
BF: What is it like to now be at Bayern Munich, one of the biggest clubs in the world?
Gina: It’s very exciting, and not verymany people get the opportunity to play at a club like this. The whole club is successful, the teams are close-knit, we attend the FCB basketball games, too. I’m proud to be part of the growth of the women’s team at Bayern the last six years that I’ve been here, and the support we’re given by the men. This summer we moved to the FCB campus, and to be able to now have the top training available — the gym, the medical department –which helps with recovery, the practice fields. The food is world-class, and it’s a great feeling to see that the women also, along with the men, are given the opportunity to have such great facilities at their disposal along with the support of the men at Bayern.
BF: The Bayern Munich Frauen have been battling the last years with VfL Wolfsburg for supremacy in the Bundesliga Frauen. What is that rivalry like?
Gina: Wolfsburg are our biggest rivals right now, and we lost to them in October as we were unable to show how strong a club we are. Wolfsburg won the league last year, did the treble recently and are always contenders to win the Champions League, so playing against them is always a huge highlight for us. Right now they are the most successful team in women’s football in Germany. But don’t forget SC Freiburg — they are a young club on the rise, and we lost to them earlier this season, too. (At Winterpause, Wolfsburg lead the Bundesliga Frauen by three points over Bayern and five points over third-place SC Freiburg).
BF: How has your game grown since you were the new kid on the block and now one of the veterans on the team?
Gina: When I first came to Germany, it was a big transition — the ball moves a lot quicker, the players are faster, you have less time on the ball, less space. I took the challenge head on, though, Training every day basically for nine months a year, being around world-class players, an international elite and top coaches, I’ve seen my game grow every year. I started out at center back but moved to the outside as my experience grew and I have the chance to get forward more, like in college. As you get older, you lose some of your pace, but you can use your head a bit more, watch the game more and read situations on the field better. My fitness has improved, I’m more agile than when I arrived ten years ago.
BF: The Bayern Frauen occasionally play some practice matches against mens’ team, don’t they?
Gina: Yes, we play against some of the boys’ teams in Bavaria. Usually the cut-off age of boys we compete against is about 17, as by then the boys are bigger and faster and tackles can be dangerous for us. We can compete, but it’s a challenge for us to use our technical skills to compete against the boys who are quicker and stronger, even at ages of 15 and 16.
BF: Well you have the advantage of thinking skills, as we all know women can out-think men….
Gina: (Laughs)…Yes, that is very true…..
BF: Do you interface much with the Bayern’s men team’s players?
Gina: I don’t have any direct contact with the men’s players, but I am a member of a Christian study group, and some of the guys from the senior squad attend, like Rafinha and David Alaba, along some of the players from the youth sides. When we won the championship, both the Frauen and the men’s team got to attend a ceremony together at City Hall and then afterwards were at a big party together. I’ve down an interview with Robert Lewandowski that’s on YouTube — that was my first interaction with him, and of course he’s Polish and I have ancestors from Poland, so that was neat.
BF: Switching gears a little, you are also interested in training techniques. One of the roles you’ve recently took on is as an Ambassador for the OHLEsport PRO what is that like?
Gina: I’ve known Justin Rose of JJR Consulting for several years and he asked if I would try the OHLEsport PRO, I incorporate this great training tool before practice and work on my touches indoors before we go out on the field. You can put it anywhere, it’s light and I can warm up my feet. The other girls on the Frauen use it too. They were curious when I brought it to the locker room, and said “what is this?” I showed them how to use it correctly. It’s a great tool to use, and it also warms me up mentally before practice with different moves and using both feet. Sometimes I get spontaneous and just use it to kick against the wall, and am looking forward to getting the app that goes with the OHLEsport PRO. And you can shift the height of the ball to get used to kicking and trapping the ball from different angles. Sometimes we practice with a couple of girls as I keep it in the Frauen locker room. A boy on a youth side has his own machine and uses it too.
BF: Can you also tell us something about your training EBook, which I saw on your Facebook page?
Gina: When I joined Bayern, we had a coach who really improved my game. I trained with him twice a week, doing a lot of exercises with the ball at my feet, with emphasis on mentality — he’d call out different colors, even riddles, to help you be able to think and control the ball at the same time. For me, that was a type of training I’d never had before, and I really enjoyed it. This type of training would be outstanding for younger players to help them improve their decision-making under pressure. Over the years, we talked about doing a book together. He has 22 exercises that I translated from German to English, and then I added my own exercises to help strengthen quicker thinking with the ball at one’s feet. They say that the talent is not so much in your legs, but in your brain, and these exercises help move you up to the next level. I use these exercises still today.
BF: What do you like to do in you free time?
Gina: Munich is a beautiful city, and I like to go biking. The English Garden is a favorite as well as checking out different parts of the city, different restaurants, different parks. I read a lot during my downtime, no particular favorite topic or author, but I read everything from newspapers to novels, and also enjoy reading spiritual books. I am also currently working on my D coaching license and thus read coaching books, especially from world-class coaches, to get new ideas.
BF: What are some of your favorite German dishes and what do you miss eating from home?
Gina: I’d say my favorite is sauerbraten, and I like cabbage and bratwurst, although I only eat brats occasionally. Munich has some excellent Italian restaurants that I enjoy and you can’t go wrong looking for Italian food here. I do miss my parents’ home cooking, pancakes and French toast.
BF: As a player with a great deal of experience, who had the courage to cross the ocean to play professionally, what would you tell youngsters about becoming the best players they can be?
Gina: It’s all about hard work and learning. I didn’t take the normal path to becoming a professional that many successful American players have,, but it’s so important to be open to new ideas and be willing to get out of your comfort zone. Hard work daily, and keeping your eyes on what you want are keys. Take every chance you can, and don’t give up. If you believe it, you can achieve it.
BF: What do you see doing after your playing career ends?
Gina: I have a couple of interests. Coaching is one, and I’ll soon have my D license and go on from there. Coaching is a definite interest of mine, not sure at what level, but I’ve done camps at the youth level back in the U.S. Nutrition is also something that draws my interest — cooking and eating to be healthy and your physical best by optimizing the body’s potential, and I may look at getting my Masters in nutrition.
BF: It would be nice if there were some Bundesliga Frauen matches available to watch…..
Gina: Yes, I know many Americans now follow the Bundesliga, and we’d love more Americans to be aware and follow the Allianz-Frauen Bundesliga (the women’s top division) and know that Bayern have a top-notch women’s team that vies for titles and plays in the Champions League (the Bayern Frauen were eliminated from the CL earlier this season by Chelsea on goal differential). There is a match streamed live each week on the DFB site. Also, a local network in Germany that televises a Frauen match each week, and women’s matches are available on FCB.TV and Telekom.
BF: Thank you so much for your time. The staff at the Bundesliga Fanatic appreciate your willingness to share some of your time with our readers. And good luck with the double !!!
You can see Gina score one goal and almost score a second here against her old team, 1. FFC Frankfurt, in these highlights earlier this year
You can watch Gina and her Bayern Frauen teammates play SC Freiburg on 2/24 and Hoffenheim 3/24 on the DFB site.