Gophers soccer alumna Emily Heslin signing a professional contract with Israeli club Maccabi Kishronot Hadera over the summer was a great achievement for the midfielder and former captain, but no surprise to those who know her well.
A self-described “Type-A person," Heslin’s list of achievements runs long with awards for soccer and academics from before she even graduated Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood. That Type-A personality gave her an edge when she began her career with Minnesota in 2015, playing in 22 games her freshman year.
From the beginning, Heslin prioritized what was most important: her academics and her performance on the soccer field. She ate right, kept her grades up, did her workouts and went to bed on time.
“The way that you would hope all of your student-athletes choose to live their lives, that’s what she did," Head Coach Stefanie Golan said.
Heslin’s commitment paid off. She was a starter in every game her sophomore year. She made Academic All-Big Ten and was named to the Big Ten All-Tournament Team after scoring the winning goal in the 2016 Big Ten Championship game against Rutgers.
"She just continually got better. Every year she got better, and better ... and she lives her life like a professional," Golan said. "She’s intentional with every decision that she makes in terms of, ‘how does this prepare me for what I really want to accomplish?’”
That dedication made her a role model to her teammates, said senior defender Nikki Albrecht.
“Coming in as a freshman, Emily was only a year older than me, and Coach always pointed her out as like, 'This is the standard you need to set, this is the example that we have,'" Albrecht said. "It’s just a testament to the work ethic she has, because everything is all or nothing for her. You either do nothing at all or you give it 100 percent.”
Her sophomore year was when her commitment to going pro became more concrete, and Golan and Heslin had long one-on-one talks. They went through the book "Training Camp: What The Best Do Better Than Everyone Else" by Jon Gordon, which led to conversations about what scared Heslin most: that she would do all of the right things to get to where she wanted to be but would come up short of realizing that goal.
“If you commit yourself to that level, and you do all of those things, whatever’s supposed to happen is going to happen.” Golan said. “There’s always that fear of, 'Well what if it doesn’t work out? Am I going to be okay with that?'"
While it wasn’t always easy to do the things that were best for her health and athletic performance, keeping her career goals central to everything she did made those decisions less difficult, Heslin said. Keeping the ultimate goal of playing professionally in mind also helped her when her agent at Upper V Athlete Management approached her with something unexpected: signing to a team in Israel.
“Originally, I had told him my dream was Europe, so go to Sweden, to Norway, to England," Heslin said. "But I also said that I was very open; I just wanted to go somewhere because I knew I couldn’t do this forever … there were some opportunities that came up, but fell through. It’s a very difficult process.”
Unlike high-revenue professional sports like football and basketball, almost all soccer recruiting is done by viewing a player’s highlight reel, and only the top players from each class are actively watched by agents while playing in college, Heslin said. Heslin’s agent, Leonard Lun, has also only ever seen her play through video footage, so maintaining their relationship takes a lot of trust, she said.
When Lun reached out saying a team in Israel was very interested in her, Heslin dove head-first into researching and learning what she could about a country she hadn’t imagined she would end up playing in “in a million years," she said. Through her research, she found that a surprising amount people she knew had personal connections to Israel, and talking to them helped her gain a better feel of the country beyond any preconceived notions she might have had, she said.
Heslin’s management group announced via Twitter on Aug. 12 that she had signed a contract with Maccabi Kishronot Hadera. She'll start playing in October, but for now she's doing all she can to be ready when the time comes to leave.
She admits to not being much of a risk-taker, but saw the offer as a now-or-never moment.
“Who else can say that they went and played professional soccer in Israel? Like, what a life experience," Heslin said. "I think I just kind of realized that ... if there’s one time to take a risk, this is it.”