Portland Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby embraces growth through grief
The following story discusses suicide and can be emotional to some readers. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to 988lifeline.org for more resources.
By the time she became the starting goalkeeper for the Portland Thorns in the summer of 2021, Bella Bixby had pushed aside self-doubt, the demands of relearning her position from one of the best to ever play it, and injuries, both fluky and predictable.
Last season, when Adrianna Franch spent time with the U.S. Women's National Team, Bixby backstopped the Thorns to the best record in the National Women's Soccer League and a home playoff match. For the Milwaukie resident and Rex Putnam High graduate, playing for a team she cheered for as a teenager was extra special.
Five days before that playoff match, Bixby's world changed forever when her father, Dean Geist, died by suicide.
Nine months have passed, and, like anyone processing grief, Bixby has ups and downs. But on the soccer field and for her Thorns teammates, the 26-year-old is a steady force.
Bixby posted shutouts in six of her first 13 starts this season. That is tied for the lead league and — despite being scored on three times in a home draw with North Carolina on Aug. 5 — Bixby's 77.2% save percentage was third best and 1.00 goals allowed per 90 minutes rank second in the league. While she saw three goals get past her, the Thorns would have lost to the Courage without seven big saves from Bixby.
She points to more assertiveness in one-on-one situations and improved distribution with her feet as the areas she's raised her play this season. She credits decorated Thorns goalkeepers coach Nadine Angerer for developing the muscle memory needed to make saves in high-stress moments. She credits the tactics of first-year Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson for the chance to pass the ball to teammates.
Ultimately, though, it's emotional determination that has allowed Bixby to thrive.
Despite her love for soccer — which she now shares with a new generation of Putnam High girls as their varsity coach — pro soccer wasn't the path Bixby anticipated taking after graduating from Oregon State.
Despite making a program-record 394 saves over four seasons as the Beavers' keeper, and despite conversations with then Thorns coach Mark Parsons indicating the club wanted her to enter the 2018 NWSL draft, Bixby wasn't all that keen on the low pay and unpredictable career path offered by the NWSL.
"I think that came from a lack of confidence in my ability to grind," she said. "And, I didn't think I was going to be drafted or, if I was drafted, I didn't think I'd be able to compete."
The happy surprise came late in the third round when the Thorns made a trade for an extra pick and called her name.
"Nadine didn't know my full name was Annabella. So she was panicking that they drafted the wrong person, which is hilarious," Bixby said.
Beginning as the third-string keeper in 2018, a rash of injuries interrupted her development — including the ACL tear she suffered in training during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup after Bixby shined in three starts in that tournament.
That injury was just bad luck. But, Bixby said some of her setbacks "were me being an immature professional athlete who was not doing a good job of understanding her body and understanding that I was at my limit."
Working back from injuries taught Bixby patience. Returning to play after the knee injury, fear of re-injuring her knee triggered an anxiety she describes as close to a panic attack.
"I had a couple of those moments where I was really scared," Bixby said. "You can dwell on that anxiety and let it consume you and that will inherently affect you and how you train. Or you can kind of step through it, feel it. Validate your own feelings that it's normal to feel scared, but that you can work to make your body ready."
Bixby said she's never been overly optimistic, but that signing a three-year contract extension prior to this season that should keep her with the Thorns through 2024 was an important lift during a turbulent time in her life.
One area of focus this season is preparing for one-v-one moments when it's just Bixby and an opposing forward. In the past, she would usually rely on her shot stopping ability instead of challenging an attacker in space.
light work for Bixby ?? pic.twitter.com/lAq3Lj8Xr0— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) July 30, 2022
"You can be a little bit more of an offensive goalkeeper and take space to turn something into a one-v-one instead of a high-percentage shot," she said. "I've been challenging myself this year to close angles while forwards' heads are down, close angles while the ball is moving, getting set in the right moment."
She's also more confident with the ball at her feet, something new coach Rhian Wilkinson emphasizes.
"I'm able to look for our (midfielders) from the back and have people behind me that want me to find those passes. I feel like I've developed both my short and medium range decisions," Bixby said.
Teammates have teased Bixby that she looks bored after big saves. That unfazed look comes from preparing for high-stress situations, Bixby said.
"I'm trying not to let my emotions impact me in a negative or positive way. That starts in practice. Nadine is a big proponent of, and a great teacher of, training the way you play," Bixby said.
Some moments, though, cannot be prepared for. Still, when her father took his life, Bixby found a bit of normalcy through soccer. Before she told Angerer of her dad's death, Bixby prefaced the news with: "No matter what I'm about to tell you — I'm training tomorrow."
"Everyone responds differently to loss," Bixby said. "It was not me trying to prove a point. It was not me trying to be brave or be strong. It was me just grasping for normalcy in a moment where I was just spinning."
Nine months later, she talks with emotion about memories of her dad driving her to soccer practices, making her peanut butter and honey toast and nagging her to hydrate.
"He would give me advice even though he knew nothing about soccer," she said. "He was always trying to learn about soccer, and that was fun because no one in my family played soccer."
Bixby isn't alone among Thorns players who have experienced an unexpected death, or recently lost a parent. Those shared traumas deepen the bond among teammates.
"This team has been through a lot, and Bella is one of those players," coach Wilkinson said. "It's awful. But it also means a lot of them can help support one another. It's really nice to see them doing that.
"It's a hard, hard year for many, many people and the gift of the game is that coming to work you're with people who you love and who you rely on," Wilkinson said. "Bella is just such a strength for the group. She's a quiet voice. Everyone listens when Bella speaks."
"There are a lot of people on this team who have lost family and lost parents, so I have a good support system of people who have lost family kind of before their time," Bixby said. "The fact that my dad completed suicide is an added layer that makes it really hard. There's a grief aspect and then there's (suicide). It's something that people shy away from and I'm actually more than willing to talk about it because I don't think it's talked about enough."
At Rex Putnam High, Bixby —assisted by husband Elliot and with Thorns defender Emily Menges coaching the junior varsity — enjoys the tactical side of soccer and coaching the field players.
"It's a nice break because it's teaching kids how to have fun with soccer. I think this age, they either love it or they've had a couple of bad coaches who make them hate it," she said. "I'm in that battle of trying to make them see the game for what it is. It's beautiful. There's a lot more to it than I think they realize."
At 26, Bixby relates well to her teenage players and helps them navigate social and other challenges beyond soccer.
Bixby is pursuing a master's degree in fish and wildlife administration through Oregon State with an eye toward conservation work. She also wants to play for the U.S. Women's National Team. She got her first call-up last November, traveling with the national team to Australia. She didn't play, but knowing about that call-up excited her father, she said.
"If I manage to keep my hard work going and I manage to get a (national team) cap one day, I'll be really sad that he'll miss that, but happy that my mom and my husband will be a part of that."
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