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As Mikaela Watson came back to Stanford last fall after the prolonged offseason and picked up her lacrosse stick again, she also picked up a paintbrush.

"> Been There: Mikaela Watson is Stanford's Calm, Collected Rock | US Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO BY BOB DREBIN / ISI PHOTOS

Been There: Mikaela Watson is Stanford's Calm, Collected Rock


This story appears in the April edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the mag? Join or renew today. Thanks for your support!

As Mikaela Watson came back to Stanford last fall after the prolonged offseason and picked up her lacrosse stick again, she also picked up a paintbrush.

The Cardinal’s return in September was challenging. Just 16 of their 40 players were allowed on campus. They couldn’t run practices. They didn’t even know if they’d have a spring season.

Watson found her release in art. She would sketch out designs on Photoshop, and then paint them on canvas with oil colors. On weekends they otherwise would have spent playing fall exhibition games, Watson would paint while her teammates read or played guitar.

Painting is just one of Watson’s creative outlets off the field. Look at the sustainable apparel design projects she worked on as a summer intern at Nike two years ago. And the podcast series she produced alongside two fellow Stanford athletes, with episodes about mental health, injury comebacks and being a Black athlete. And the Instagram account she ran in high school, displaying her oeuvre of hand-crafted miniature clay food.

Watson, now a fifth-year midfielder, is more than just a lacrosse player, at a program all about finding and embracing people who are more than just the sport they play. These interests drive her, and in turn, Watson drives Stanford’s team.

Her teammates and coaches call her the Cardinal’s rock, both on and off the field. She was on pace to be one of the top players in the Pac-12 last year, leading Stanford in goals (20) and caused turnovers (seven) before the pandemic shutdown.

As the program navigated a coaching change in one year and a canceled season the next, it found a steady force in its captain.

“She’s someone, during the middle of the game or just in life if you’re going through a struggle, who you can look to,” said Kyra Pelton, the Cardinal’s fifth-year senior defender. “Mikaela will be your calm, collected boat, moving you to shore.”


“She’s someone, during the middle of the game or just in life if you’re going through a struggle, who you can look to. Mikaela will be your calm, collected boat, moving you to shore.”


***

There was a time when Watson didn’t even think playing college lacrosse — much less starting for a consistently ranked program — was a possibility. But when her freshman season at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia ended in 2013, then-SCH coach Allison Thomas came to her with a message.

“Get ready for summer tournaments,” Thomas told Watson, “because you’re about to start getting recruited.”

Watson had picked up lacrosse as an intramural sport in middle school while also playing field hockey and basketball. She fell in love with the game’s combination of athleticism, skill and creativity — what some players could do with a stick and a ball was almost like an art form of its own.

Watson emerged as a reliable scorer and draw specialist for the Blue Devils. And as the schools came calling following summer tournaments with Quaker City Lacrosse, she only continued to improve.

“She’s fearless,” said Kianah Watson, Mikaela’s younger sister. They played field hockey and lacrosse together in 2016. “She’s a really hard worker, and I’ve been really inspired by her leadership since high school.”

As a senior, Watson tallied 91 goals and 126 draw controls and led the Blue Devils (15-7) to their most wins in over a decade. She was named the conference’s MVP and earned PhillyLacrosse.com Co-Player of the Year and US Lacrosse All-American honors.

Watson’s first year at Stanford was one of transition. Living on the West Coast brought a change of pace — and a lot more sun — and she moved to defense ahead of the 2017 season.

After years of splitting reps to play both sides of the ball in drills, focusing squarely on defense was something new, and she adjusted well. Watson made 13 starts for Stanford’s backline as a freshman and still contributed in stat categories all around the field.

Watson moved back to the midfield by her sophomore season, where she did a bit of everything for the Cardinal — transition the ball, play attack, remember the necessary defensive slide packages. Stanford advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2018 and 2019, and as a captain in the latter season, Watson earned All-Pac 12 second-team honors with 36 goals and 14 assists.

Danielle Spencer arrived in Stanford after longtime coach Amy Bokker departed for Ohio State in the summer of 2019. She sensed Watson’s skills as a player and a leader right away.

“She’s not only someone who [teammates] look up to because she leads by example, but she’s always there to listen, and lending a helping hand and ear,” said Spencer, who came from Dartmouth and now is in her second season at Stanford. “She’s just a really, really well-respected player on our team for her character and her kindness and her humility.” 








***

Watson was initially attracted to Stanford’s combination of athletics and academics, but it was the people that sold her on the school and kept her there. The Cardinal’s roster is an impressive and eclectic collection of majors, backgrounds and resumes. Their players come from all around the country, studying everything from biology and computer science to engineering and economics.

Included in its ranks are a taekwondo black belt, a former competitive figure skater, the grandchild of an Olympic swimmer and one of the minds behind a student-run national nonprofit aimed at combating food waste. And those are just a few of the notable backgrounds.

“We’re all so different from one another, but it feels like we’re all pieces of the same puzzle,” Watson said. “That was one of the things that stood out to me during recruiting — the celebration of individuality.”

Stanford players and coaches encourage each other to share the things they’re interested in and passionate about, whether it’s a class or a hobby or just something that caught their eye. This offseason’s weekly Zoom sessions especially offered the team a space to learn about one another away from the field.

“I’m getting to learn so many interesting and cool things from my teammates, and hearing what they’re experiencing has really broadened my perspective,” Pelton said. “Obviously we all love lacrosse, but outside of the field, it’s awesome that Danielle has let us explore the realm of possibilities that Stanford can offer because there’s so much out there.”

Watson had always branched beyond sports. In high school, she started an Instagram account
(@clayfigures729) showcasing her miniature polymer clay food sculptures. She and her sister grew up watching and learning as their grandmother sculpted miniature dollhouse-size figures and food. One summer, with free time before a long afternoon of lacrosse, she started creating her own — tiny ice cream cones, cakes, pies, even a hometown Philly cheesesteak, all hand-sculpted, textured and painted, no bigger than a dime.

Watson’s account was featured in an Elle Magazine UK story on the trendy world of miniatures in 2016. Her art remained an important outlet as she made the jump from high school to college.

“It’s really nice to have another thing that gives you that kind of joy,” Watson said. “It’s a great way to stay present, and to generate positive and creative energy.”

***

For the senior capstone project in Stanford’s product design major, Watson and her classmates were tasked with identifying a group of users with a problem and finding a solution. She partnered with Pelton and Cardinal softball player Kiana Pancino, and they chose a focus group close to home: female college athletes.

They conducted background research with female athletes from schools around the country, across a range of divisions and sports, and found a common thread. Many of the women they met struggled with feelings of emotional, social and sometimes physical isolation.

The trio came up with the idea for a multi-part story-sharing podcast, where female college athletes could share their experiences — and more importantly, others could hear them.

“We kept hearing a similar sentiment when they were reflecting on times of struggle. ‘If I had known that others were going through the same thing when I was struggling, it would’ve changed everything,’” Watson said. “And so that was kind of our driver.”

“Been There” debuted last May, with each episode centering on different female athletes and their personal stories. One episode focused on a rower’s journey back to sports after battling cancer. Another discussed what college is like for LGBTQ+ athletes.

In the series’ second episode, Watson and Yale junior defender Kenya Boston opened up about their experiences as Black female athletes in a predominantly white sport. They’d met years earlier at a Stanford lacrosse camp.

“Growing up in middle school, the first team I played on there were other people of color, but it wasn’t until I was older that I started to realize and see how few players there really were. A lot of them just kind of dropped off,” Watson said. “When you meet other players who are also Black athletes in lacrosse, you remember them. When [Boston] told her story, I was like, ‘Wow, we have very similar experiences.’ She inspired me to open up more about my own.” 

Watson and Boston shared their stories of attending private schools where civil rights history was swept under the rug, and navigating feelings of alienation within the lacrosse community. The episode came out in June, amid the summer’s social justice protests and movements, and was part of an active dialogue that Watson said has continued now, both on Stanford team and through national outlets like the Blaxers Blog and #PartnerPassTheMic.

“The Blaxers Blog and [Virginia Tech goalie] Angie [Benson] have been at the forefront of a lot of it, just to start the conversation, and most importantly continue the conversation,” Watson said. “It’s really good to see, but you never know how long people are going to stay engaged. It’s been awesome to see everyone stay on board.”

As episodes of the podcast continued through the rest of the summer, its creators heard from younger players around the country — even from sports outside softball and lacrosse — that hearing these personal stories of women in college sports validated what they themselves were going through.

Kianah Watson was one of those young listeners. Her freshman lacrosse season as a defender at George Washington was cut short by the pandemic, and she found both consolation and inspiration in the podcast.

“The transition from high school to college lacrosse was difficult, but being able to have and hear those perspectives of other college lacrosse players, and some of them who I had just played against, I think that’s really cool,” she said. “That speaks a lot about who [Mikaela] is as a person.”




PHOTO BY MACIEK GUDRYMOWICZ / ISI PHOTOS


***

Mikaela Watson had her 2020 senior season all plotted out. She was finishing her two-quarter, six-month capstone project, and had marked down her senior game and the season’s final week. When the time came, she’d be ready to graduate and turn the page on lacrosse. 

It didn’t go as planned.

Watson instead spent the pandemic spring and summer of 2020 back home in Philadelphia. Once she knew she would be eligible to return to Stanford for a fifth year, she took the opportunity not only to fall back in love with lacrosse, but also to fine-tune her skills. She played hours of wall ball, mastering the art of the “Canadian left.” When they could get back on a field, she and her sister ran through Shake School and transition knockdown ball drills.

When Watson returned to Palo Alto in September, she started her master’s degree in sustainability science and practice. In addition to the Nike internship in 2019, she had researched product and design for two sustainability-focused firms in 2020. She also has developed a greater interest in human-centered design.

Watson has unfinished business on the lacrosse field, too. 

“We know it here, but I think she’s still underrated frankly. I don’t think people realize how good she is,” Spencer said. “All of her hard work that she’s put in, a lot of it that no one has seen. Her commitment, her dedication — I want that to be nationally recognized.”

Watson and her teammates helped Stanford take home a conference tournament crown in 2018, and with this year’s Pac-12 postseason on their home campus, they want to do it again.

And as she wraps up a college career she never envisioned for herself, she wants to help foster a sense of community and support younger players, whether they’re hearing her in person in a Stanford huddle or through their headphones on the podcast.

Each episode of “Been There” ended with the same question: What’s the advice you’d give your younger self? Watson’s own answer reflects as much what she has accomplished off the field as what she did on it.

“It’s such an awesome opportunity in college to explore yourself, and explore different aspects of your personality. You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself into one field too early,” she said. “If you wait and take the time to figure out what you’re really interested in, you’ll find what motivates you and what drives you.”