Samantha Kelley, Founder of FIERCE Athlete, Champions Authentic Femininity and Identity
On 50th anniversary of Title IX, Catholic competitor discusses positive competition.
Today marks 50 years of Title IX.
While Title IX helped normalize female athletics, many women currently face tension and toxicity in their sport as transgender women attempt to compete against them.
Samantha Kelley, president and founder of FIERCE Athlete, founded FIERCE five years ago in order to promote the truth and beauty of women’s athletics. Kelley has a master’s degree in psychology and a certification in strength and conditioning.
FIERCE Athlete presents the positive change Title IX has brought, “while also addressing the many issues women in sport face today. Using the teachings of the Catholic Church and theology of the body, FIERCE hopes to be a bridge between sport and faith, be a reliable and supportive community, and properly equip an army of fierce, integrated female athletes to positively impact the culture of women’s athletics.”
Tell us your story. How did you end up where you are today? When did you first encounter the Lord?
I grew up in a great Catholic family. I’m one of four siblings. We went to church every Sunday and all those things. But I viewed Catholicism as something that made me a good person, not central to my life.
I was very athletic. I won nine state championships in high school between track, soccer and ice hockey, but my senior year of high school I endured a pretty traumatic knee injury and tore my ACL, LCL and meniscus. I was told I would never play at the Division I level again. I went to the University of Connecticut, which was a Top 25 program at the time, and I went in injured. I was stubborn, in the fact that I believed I could come back and play, despite what some doctors had said. I had the classic identity crisis. If you’d asked me who I was, I was an athlete. I was sitting the bench and having to redshirt my freshman year, and it was about 13 months and three surgeries before I was back on the field, and really about three years before I was back playing at Division I level.
It was a long road to recovery; and in that time, I tried to figure out who I was without sport. Athletics are amazing, and they teach you so many virtues, I think John Paul II says that “athletics is the gymnasium of human virtue”; however, there is a pretty toxic, play-hard-party-hard culture going on. Some of it is, unfortunately, understandable, given all the pressures that athletes face. I didn’t drink my freshman year because I had been instructed not to do so, but by my sophomore year I was the only player on a 30-person roster that wasn’t drinking. I started to compromise some of my values, and I hid it well, but I was probably pretty depressed. I still maintained great grades and a good face, but in my core, I didn’t know who I was, and so it was a pretty dark time.
Fast-forward to my junior year, I encountered some Christian athlete groups, which were great. They kind of introduced me to this idea of how you personally should be Christ, but I still felt like I couldn’t find him. I went to Mass during preseason, basically to escape preseason. I was the only student there because it was early August, and it was FOCUS’ first day on campus ever. I ended up meeting a missionary who, at first, I was jealous [of]: She so clearly had the joy I was seeking. But I was curious about her, and so I went back to Mass the next week and found out she was a missionary. She invited me to join her Bible study. That sent me on a little bit of a different track, but I was still leading a double life. I was beginning to learn about my faith and make some friends outside of sports, and she basically … forced me to go to a FOCUS national conference. I said “No” four times, but she saved money for me. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I went to a much-needed confession, probably my first honest confession in a lot of years, and then I had a radical encounter with Jesus in adoration — this Jesus I had been searching for, I just knew with my whole being that he was in the Eucharist and that he didn’t love me because I was injured, or an athlete, or a 3.9 GPA student, or all these things; he just loved me for who I was. And that changed everything.
As an athlete, we’re kind of hardcore all-in. I came back, and I just started making time to pray, you know, hours and hours a day. But, eventually, my heart was moved to really start evangelizing my teammates. By my fifth year, I came back starting as a captain, but I’m most proud of the 12 girls that were praying with me before games and coming back to Mass. When I had my reversion, I was the only practicing Catholic or Christian on my team. That desire to share what I had received drove me to become a FOCUS Varsity Catholic missionary for five years.
During that time, I was regularly encountering top athletes in the country at UConn, Michigan and the University of Texas, and I was repeatedly seeing deep wounds. Wounds of body image — 64% of women struggle with disordered eating — there was a lot of promiscuity, a lot of “play hard, party hard,” and there’s a significant percentage of women who struggle with same-sex attraction. I was seeing all of these issues and trying my best to deal with them, or to help these women. But in my fifth year as a missionary, I encountered theology of the body. I went to a course at the TOB Institute, and I finally found what I felt was the anecdote to our times.
I always believed I wasn’t feminine because I’m 6-feet tall, I love sports, and I was tough. I looked around at the rest of the women out there; I didn’t wear dresses all the time, and I didn’t wear a ton of makeup, and that made me feel less feminine. But through this teaching, I realized that that’s a lie. The fact that I was created a woman means to be feminine. I am feminine in my whole being because we are body and soul, and those are united, which is very countercultural these days. As body and soul, we are a united being. Because I was created a woman, I’m feminine, and I can exercise that in my sport, through my receptivity to others, through the ways I give a gift of myself. Through a matter of events, I went to the Given Women’s Forum in D.C. That week, the Lord asked me to take all this stuff — femininity, athletics, theology of the body — and to create a nonprofit specifically for women. There are a lot of great Christian and Catholic athlete organizations out there, but they’ll admit they’re either male-dominant, or they weren’t open to discussing some of the harder issues that women are dealing with openly.
Six years ago, I got the inspiration, and I launched FIERCE about five years ago. Its core mission is to promote true identity and femininity and female athletics based on the teachings of the Church. What I found is that any issue comes back to a lack of understanding of who we are as daughters of God. Everything stems from not knowing who you are. We have to start there. Because once you come to realize your daughterhood doesn’t come from your performance, or how you look, or people’s opinions on you, you can rest in that; and then you can receive the gifts that you’ve been given, your athletic talent being one of them. You can use that to your full potential, but in a free way, where you’re not having to compensate or manipulate your body or prove to other people that you can really play in freedom.
How did you create the acronym FIERCE? Can you explain how each pillar (Femininity, Identity, Embodiment, Receptivity, Catholicism and Encounter) is necessary?
These really are our pillars. I was sitting in the back of Mass, and I was just praying, and the acronym literally popped in my head. I busted out my journal and wrote it down; it was a total act of receptivity. If my mission is about femininity, the whole forming of it has been a lesson in receptivity and patience for me as a woman, an active receptivity.
Femininity: What does it mean to be a woman? You’re really trying to answer that question, and before anything else, you’re a daughter of God. I say to my girls, you could go on and become the next Olympic gold medalist, world-record holder, greatest swimmer of all time, or you could sit in that chair for the rest of your life and do nothing and God would still love you the same. His love just is. However, if you really receive that love and the depth of that love, you only want to respond with the best of your ability. You’re not sitting in that chair, even though we can’t earn God’s love, which breaks the performance mentality.
Then we’re body and soul, embodiment. We speak into the beauty of the female body, the goodness of it, and the sacredness of it. Receptivity: The body reveals the height of our femininity as receptivity. Then, Catholicism: I didn’t name FIERCE something explicitly very Catholic because I wanted it to be approachable for Christians and non-Christians, which it has been. However, everything we preach and teach is rooted in the truth of the Catholic Church. Finally, encounter: The beauty of athletics is that it’s your mission field. If we can teach a girl to really understand these truths, she can then turn around and share it with those around her.
What does it mean to be feminine?
As human beings, what our nature is is that we are body and soul. Angels are just spirits, but we are body and soul. The body reveals a soul, and the soul reveals the body. What happens to one affects the other. It begs the question, why are there two different types of bodies? Why did God create two genders? When we look at the Trinity, we see one God with three Persons. God loves the Son, the Son returns a love of the Father, and that love is so palpable, so creative, and so real, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. We mirror that. We have the ability for a man to love a woman, and the woman receives the love of a man and returns it, and then nine months later that can result in a third, a baby.
The gender difference is significant because it reflects God. Then how do you determine what is the difference between a man and what is it between a woman, in terms of masculinity and femininity? We have to look at the body. The body reveals a soul, the body reveals God in that gender difference, reveals a trinity in a very simple way. The male body and the sexual act is external; they offer themselves to the woman. So, the height of masculinity, revealed through the body, is sacrifice. The man gives a sacrifice of himself. Now, on the feminine side, the height of femininity is our receptivity. We receive the man and then our ability to bear forth life. Now, if a height of femininity is receptivity, every time you’re playing a sport, you’re being receptive to pain, but you’re also being receptive to others. This is why when you watch women play basketball, it’s more team oriented versus men, which is a little bit more individual-sacrificial. It reveals a natural difference that exists between men and women.
As a woman, I can also be open to my teammates off the field; we’re more relational. The belief that I wasn’t feminine and that sports are not feminine was a lie because I can exhibit my femininity through my sport. As women, our perfect model is Mary. Her receptivity to the Lord at the Annunciation; but really, at the foot of the cross, because she’s in the height of her suffering. And she stands there and she says, “Yes,” again, to be fruitful to be the mother of humanity. And on the other end, Jesus is a perfect model of living his masculinity — this is why Jesus had to be a man, because he sacrificed himself body and soul on the cross.
I encourage women and tell them that you can be intense, you can be competitive, but you can also take that too far. You never want to divorce that from your natural, tender side. Mary crushes the head of Satan because she’s one of the fiercest women that ever lived. But she’s also the most tender. That’s a hard balance, but we can be intense, we can compete hard, and we’re called to do that. At the same time, we’re also called to look out for our teammates and to be nurturing.
Title IX is celebrating 50 years this month. What was the original intent, and how do you think that has changed in recent years?
I’m no legal expert, but Title IX was crafted June 23, 1972. It was a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because the Civil Rights Act did not include publicly funded education. Title IX prevented sex-based discrimination in any school or education law program that received funding from the federal government. There was no mention of athletic departments or any of that. But the reason most people associated it with athletic departments was because there was this congressman, John Tower, who tried to introduce a Tower Amendment. He tried to exclude athletic departments from the original act. Thankfully, that was overturned, but as a result, athletic departments got a lot of visibility.
Title IX did good in the regard of just normalizing women beginning to play sports and giving them equal opportunities to do so. It has been used to really push the feminist agenda, unfortunately, and you see a lot of, “We need to be men or we need to be better than men.” I explained earlier, men and women as they play sports are very different in most regards, but that’s not bad. Men’s basketball isn’t better than women’s basketball. People prefer each for their own reasons, they’re just different, and that points to the actual gender difference. As of recently, the struggle has been that, with the Biden administration, there’s rumors that he was going to sign an executive order in Title IX, which has to do with all education, not just athletics, and change the word “sex” to “gender” or “gender identity.” This is what people have been using to allow boys in girls bathrooms and to allow biological men to compete against women in sport. Organizations are fighting back against that, such as “Protect Women’s Sports,” which was an act introduced in December of 2020. It’s an interesting and also scary time when people are trying to redefine those terms, which is then manipulating the original intention of Title IX.
How does FIERCE combat this practically? What resources do you provide to female athletes? What are your goals for FIERCE?
One of our widest resources is our podcast, which is great because women athletes are on the road and can listen to it. We partner with different high schools and colleges to run retreats, and I travel the country and speak. We have strength and conditioning clinics, which are part workout clinics, part theology of the body. I physically and spiritually coach women, and I mentor women one-on-one at all different levels of sport everywhere, high school all the way up to pro. We’re working on a course for athletes, a book that’s almost done, and someday I want resources for coaches.
We’re hoping to be at the next Winter Olympics. There’s a lot to do and a lot of different avenues, it’s just a matter of expanding and continuing to reach as many women as we can. Ultimately, we want to change the culture of women’s athletics for the better. I would love to launch FIERCE Coach, coach resources, parents’ resources. We also want to create a community for former athletes, because there are a lot of retired athletes wondering, “What can I do now?” We want to connect with them and continue the journey with them. We’re looking to run some independent events around the country and expand the colleges and high schools we’re working with.
What fruits of your labor have you seen since starting FIERCE?
What I’m most proud of is individual hearts that have been healed and changed. Everyone’s story is different. But when you get to journey with women who are confused or who just need to be filled up because they are the only ones trying to live a balanced life, that’s just the greatest privilege.
I was just at the University of Mary in North Dakota, and some girl approached me and said, “You’re Samantha. The whole soccer team here loves FIERCE.” I had never heard from any of them. It was just beautiful to know that FIERCE is so far beyond what I can comprehend and reach.
How do you incorporate prayer and Catholicism into athletics?
I love to talk about the physical, the mental and the spiritual. They’re all related. Teaching women, first of all, the sacred creation of their bodies, and God’s intention for them on the physical level. And then helping them see their bodies the way God sees them. We do a lot of body reflection and allow God to be the one to heal that self-image. On the mental side, I’m basically teaching them spiritual warfare. Mental toughness is such a buzzword in athletics. When your mind goes to a negative place, say you strike out, your mind says, “Wow, I stink,” or “I don’t deserve to be on the team”; “I should quit.” It goes very dark very quickly, and that’s not of God. We teach women tactics to control their mind with truth, truth with the identity of who you are in order to stop the negative thoughts. Then spiritual: What you do to the body affects the soul, and what you do to the soul affects the body. If you want to compete well, you need to be eating and sleeping well, but you actually need to be praying because your soul needs to be revived. We teach women the importance of a daily prayer life and the importance and beauty of the sacraments. I like to call confession an ice bath. It gets rid of all the gunk so you can play again, so you can pray again, and be open to the Lord. We also put a huge emphasis on offering up. We hear that in the Catholic faith a lot, that we can offer our suffering through prayer. I teach women that every practice, every lifting rep, every sprint has the capacity to be a prayer, for someone else or to honor and worship the Lord.
What would you say to a female athlete reading this and struggling in her sport?
First of all, you’re not alone. I would encourage them to reach out to us. That’s what we’re here for. If somebody’s reading and they have a daughter or grandchild, I would encourage them to check out FierceAthlete.org. Check out our podcast. We journey and connect with women and just build them up. We want to get them the help they need if it’s beyond our reach by partnering with other places.
Finally, your athletic ability and giftedness is incredible. It doesn’t define you, though it’s a part of who God made you to be. Embrace that, but it doesn’t have to be done alone or separate from faith. There’s a way to do it in a really holy way.