LONDON — Geneviève Richard has just exited the water on a beach in France, and the wind is gusting audibly over the phone.
She’s slightly out of breath, but happy, even though her team, Olympique de Marseille Féminin, lost its match just a day before.
Even with her club toiling in last place of France’s top female soccer division, Richard has plenty to smile about these days: A professional career seemed out of reach not long ago.
“I was doing all of my prerequisites for [a] pharmacy [degree], and I didn’t think about [soccer],” she said.
But while Richard, a Quebec native, expected to depart Wisconsin with a degree, she may not have expected it would lead to and prepare her for a professional soccer career. As a five-year player with the Wisconsin women’s soccer team, Richard went from riding the bench for two years to being named Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year in 2014.
And while it may have been those plaudits that attracted the attention of professional clubs, it was the transition of a French-Canadian teenager to Midwestern life that truly set her career in motion.
On the field, Richard improved enormously during her time at Wisconsin, but off of it, she also became significantly more comfortable speaking another language and more adept at managing her time independently. In short, she had built a blueprint to be followed for a nomadic professional career.
That sort of cultural capital, coupled with her rising stock as a goalkeeper, gave Richard a tough decision to make following her graduation from Wisconsin in 2014.
“I’ve always liked the balance of school and training,” she said. “So I was like, ‘well, if you don’t play soccer now, when are you going to do it?’ Whereas if you want to pursue your studies, you’re gonna be able to do it in a few years.”
After graduating from Wisconsin, Richard tried out for Sky Blue FC (of New Jersey), impressing the coaches enough to receive an offer, but not in the Garden State.
One of the the club’s assistant coaches was Japanese, and wanted Richard to play for Nojima Stella Sports Club, a fledgling club based in Kanagawa.
Richard took the opportunity.
“Japan did well at the Olympics, did well at the World Cup and they’re still pretty good now,” she said, describing her logic at the time. “And I thought to myself, ‘well there has to be something I can learn from them, and it will be quite a cultural experience to go there.”’
The former Badger did just that a month later, jetting off to a country where her native French wasn’t spoken and she towered over most of teammates.
Richard had little time to adjust to the training regime at Nojima, where practices were focused heavily on running and agility. The goalkeeper said it took her about a year for her body to adjust to this rigorous activity.
At six feet tall, she was one of her team’s tallest players. She was called “slow” and “fat” and she recalls losing a lot of weight because of how drastically different her diet was in Japan.
But tougher practices weren’t the only thing Richard — the only foreigner on her suburban team — had to get used to, as she was living within a markedly different culture than Madison, Wis.
While Tokyo is more well-versed in Western culture, smaller, more remote areas like Nojima don’t possess this same cultural capital. Richard’s teammates didn’t know much about her background, let alone know anyone who looked like her.
She recalls her teammates asking her about her hair because it was brown, and if she wore lenses in her eyes because they too were the same color.
The outgoing Richard also needed to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, which often allows for less individualism than the Western world.
“You always have to control your emotions,” she said. “You can never disturb others, and it’s all about the group. It’s such a huge, huge, huge group mentality.”
Still, Richard recognized the positives of that approach, which helped foster a collective commitment to discipline on her team.
“There’s two sides of that group mentality, because when you’re trying to put a team together, it works really well,” she said. “Because no one is selfish, everyone puts the team first, everyone works hard, because that’s just part of the culture.”
She added, “That’s what I admire about the Japanese people: their amazing discipline and work ethic. People don’t make excuses, they’re so used to working hard and working for what they want that there’s barely any excuses.”
Despite a bit of initial culture shock, brutal training sessions and skimpy pregame meals that consisted of just rice balls and banana jelly, Richard largely enjoyed her time in Japan, returning to play for Nojima in 2016 and 2017.
Still, the goalie felt it was time for a new opportunity last summer, and she jumped at the chance to play within a more familiar environment at Marseille.
Aside from some teasing from about her old, Canadian-style French, Richard is at home in the south of France.
There are more internationals on her team than in Japan — even a Canadian — and training is more to the goalie’s liking.
“The good thing for me was that I had experienced America and Japan, so now I was strong but agile,” she said. “And then I came to France, where I’ve seen both sides, and I was able to find a middle ground that fit for Europe.”
Richard has slotted in as the team’s starting goalie in her debut season, making 15 appearances thus far.
And while her current environment is extremely comfortable, her current success can be traced to a less smooth transition period at Wisconsin.
Dropped into the heart of the Midwest in 2010, Richard had to adjust. Now, at 25, she’s seeing the dividends.
“I learned a lot based on the fact that I was by myself … I’ve been on my own since 18.”
Jake Nisse is currently studying abroad in London. This is the first of an ongoing series profiling former Wisconsin athletes playing sports overseas.