Eden Jacobsen wears a red soccer uniform with “Utah” emblazoned across the front.
Olivia Wade’s blue jersey reads “Brigham Young.”
One’s a Ute. The other’s a Cougar.
For American college sports fans clued into the “pick-a-side-smack-talk” University of Utah-BYU dynamic, a few assumptions about the two athletes are understandable.
Yes, they are both competitors who likely circle their annual instate match the moment schedules are released. As native Utahns, they are eager to claim bragging rights between the two schools from neighboring counties.
And each player has close family links to the Ute/Cougar rivalry. Jacobsen’s father, Eric, was an all-conference football player at Utah. Her Uncle Chad played tight end for the Utes. Meanwhile, Wade’s older brother, Jesse, competes on the Cougar basketball team.
But the two Latter-day Saint midfielders share similarities beyond their athletic bloodlines and a shared desire to beat one another on the soccer pitch.
For one, they are returned missionaries who, between them, have missed several seasons of competitive play. They echo an eagerness to return to collegiate soccer once again. But like the rest of the world, Jacobsen and Wade’s best laid plans are being, well, waylaid by a pandemic.
COVID-19 has pushed pause on the traditional autumn college soccer season for both Utah and BYU.
Now several lessons that “Sister Jacobsen” and “Hermana Wade” learned on their missions are serving the two athletes in unexpected ways. They are both — in familiar missionary form — exercising patience, anticipating better days ahead and lifting others around them.
“On my mission,” said Jacobsen, “I was challenged in ways that I had never experienced. … Now with the coronavirus, I’m again being challenged in ways that I again would have never expected.”
Unplanned ‘time-outs’ for missionary service
Putting soccer on hold isn’t new to Wade or Jacobsen. Both athletes voluntarily stepped away from the college game for a time to answer full-time missions calls to Texas and Florida, respectively.
A high school All-American and U.S. youth national team member, Wade enjoyed a successful freshman campaign at BYU before stashing away her cleats and heading to the Mexico City MTC to learn a little Spanish before reporting to the Houston South Mission.
Growing up, she had not planned to serve a mission. But during her senior year of high school, she endured several difficult trials by relying upon the Lord.
“Even though those experiences were really hard, I felt an immense sense of gratitude for my Savior,” she told the Church News. “The Spirit began putting in my heart the impression that I should serve a mission. I knew that there were other people who could use my experiences in their own lives.”
Wade’s unspoken plans to serve a mission got a bit hazy once she started at BYU. She was having fun at school, she loved her teammates — and the Cougars were winning a lot of games.
“But the promptings kept coming and the Spirit kept telling me that I needed to serve a mission. … I knew in my heart that I needed to go.”
Wade didn’t tell anyone for several months during the 2018 season about her upcoming mission. When she finally shared her intentions with BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood and her Cougar teammates, she received their surprised yet full immediate support.
“They have all been there for me,” she said.
Jacobsen’s path from college soccer player to full-time missionary was a bit different. She enjoyed three productive seasons for the Utes (scoring a goal versus BYU as a junior in 2017) before answering the call to serve in Fort Lauderdale.
“I had never really wanted to serve a mission — and I felt like I’d have plenty of opportunities at the University of Utah to be a missionary and share the gospel,” she said. “But after my junior year, I had promptings that just wouldn’t go away.”
Once she decided to become a full-time missionary, she was all in. “A giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Jacobsen remembers her coaches and teammates being a bit confused by her decision to begin a mission after her junior year. She only had another year of playing eligibility. Why not play her senior year and then go?
“But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give soccer my everything if I felt like I needed to be somewhere else,” she said. “When I explained that, everyone was very understanding.”
She credits Utah soccer coach Rich Manning, “who was so supportive and really took an interest in what I was doing as a missionary.”
Pandemic prompts ‘mid-game’ adjustments
Jacobsen used soccer as a missionary opportunity to connect with ‘futbol’-loving Floridians. She often spent her P-days and other special occasions playing pickup games with her companions, investigators and fellow members who appreciated a sister missionary with legit soccer skills.
Wade also participated in occasional pick-up games, but she didn’t actively seek playing opportunities. She knew that full-time missionary service was an unideal way to maintain elite soccer skills. And she was fine with that.
Now, since returning home from their respective missions, Jacobsen and Wade have both had to modify their college soccer expectations.
Surgery to repair a damaged elbow forced Jacobsen to take a redshirt year and miss the 2019 season. She played a single spring league game last March before the pandemic set everything in disarray.
The Utes’ season is now tentatively rescheduled for early 2021. “It’s been tough and pretty disheartening,” she said.
But Jacobsen’s quick to add she is grateful for principles of Christlike leadership and service she discovered as a missionary. She no longer wears a name tag — but those principles still apply as she prepares and trains alongside her Ute teammates.
“In the mission, you learn to navigate difficult situations and you learn to adapt to changing circumstances,” she said. “You can’t control a lot of things, but you can always control your attitude and how hard you work.”
Most importantly, Jacobsen still leans hard upon her relationship with the Lord.
“Just knowing that He has a plan for me, regardless of how crazy the world is right now, helps me remember that things will work out for my benefit as long as I continue to do those things I learned on my mission: studying the scriptures, praying and looking for opportunities to serve.”
The final four months of Wade’s mission earlier this year perhaps prepared her for the delay of the 2020 season.
“I had just started training a new missionary when we were put into quarantine,” she said. “From that point on, all of our work was done via technology from our apartment.”
From that unwanted experience, Wade learned to be flexible and to accept realities beyond her control.
Ideally, both athletes would be in the middle of their fall season preparing to, say, play conference foes Stanford or Santa Clara. Still, there are silver linings brightening a hazy moment.
“I want to be playing, but I also feel like this extra time has helped me get my body in better shape,” said Wade.
She also taps into courage she realized during the uncertain months of her mission to face today’s unknowns.
“My biggest takeaway from this whole pandemic is just learning to put all my trust in God and to move forward with faith that things will turn out the way they are supposed to.”
The events of the past year are also offering Jacobsen unexpected opportunities to utilize mission-learned faith and patience and make the most of the down time.
“It’s been good to train with teammates and coaches in ways that I would not normally have the time to do.”
Coaches and priesthood leaders who have watched Jacobsen and Wade agree that the two young women are both equipped to endure and finish strong.
Coach Manning appreciates the maturity that a returned missionary brings to his Ute squad. On the outside, Jacobsen is much the same as she was prior to her mission. She has fun with her teammates. She’s always laughing and making “fishing buddies.”
“But when I have quiet conversations with Eden, there is definitely a new sense of purpose,” he said. “She has a good sense of who she is and what she wants to do; and she wants to help others and be a mentor.”
Wade, meanwhile, said it was a blessing to connect to her mission president, Jeremy Guthrie, as both a trusted, fellow missionary and a high-level athlete. Prior to becoming a big league baseball pitcher, President Guthrie put his own college career on hold to serve a mission.
“President Guthrie was my ‘go-to’ person for every decision I was going to make,” she said. “He and Sister Guthrie were wonderful.”
Both returned missionaries agree that eventually returning to competitive soccer — be it in February or at some later date — will mark a joyful moment. And both plan to stay connected to the sport they learned as little girls for years to come.
Jacobsen would like to pursue coaching, while Wade hopes to play in the professional ranks when her time’s up in a Cougar uniform.