“AK, are you ready to be a Royal?”
When Alex Kimball received that phone call that was years in the making, it was the easiest question for her to answer. The UNC veteran midfielder was recently drafted to the Utah Royals, a National Women’s Soccer League team. She is no stranger to royalty, however, after earning the nickname “Inca Warrior Princess” from her coach, Anson Dorrance. Though Kimball struggled with a hip injury that sat her out for her junior year season, she never lost her warrior mentality that has set her apart from other players since the beginning. Like she has always been, Kimball is ready for another challenge.
Kimball has called Chapel Hill home since 2001, playing for her school soccer team at Chapel Hill High School and at the club level with Raleigh CASL. But she got her start earlier than that as a two-year-old in the 4 and up league in Salt Lake City, where she was born. She played until middle school, when she decided she needed a break.
“I got really burnt out when I was about 12 or 13,” Kimball said. “Because competitive soccer is a lot…and as a little kid I was like, ‘I’m so sick of this.’”
Her hiatus didn’t last long. After playing softball for a year, she was itching to get back to soccer. Once she entered high school, she got serious about playing on the collegiate level. Her coach, Cindy Parlor, a former Tar Heel and Olympic gold medalist, made her feel like her dream could be a reality.
“She told me the year after [my break] that if you’re serious about this, you can play for Carolina,” she said. “So then I kicked it into gear a little bit. That’s when I was like, ‘I want to play college soccer.’”
When she moved to Chapel Hill, Tar Heel footballer Jessica Maxwell was her neighbor and babysitter, which inspired her dream of one day following in Maxwell’s footsteps and playing at Carolina. Fast forward to the varsity soccer team at CHHS, and Dorrance was coming to watch her play. He immediately noticed her go-getter attitude and her promise as a player.
“When you run into Alex Kimball, basically you get hurt,” he said. “You do not screw around with the ball if Kimball is bearing down on you.”
She agrees, emphasizing her work ethic as one of the strongest aspects of her playing style.
“Coming into Carolina, there’s always going to be girls who are better than you, who are faster than you, who are stronger than you,” she said. “But for me, my mentality was like, ‘You’re never going to outwork me. Whatever drill you get put up against me in, I’m going to make your life hell.”
Kimball was aggressively recruited by Wake Forest, but in the end Carolina was impossible to say no to.
“It’s almost like an unsaid – it’s something you can’t explain until you experience it, but for me it was always a dream to come here,” she said. “Not only are we number one, but I knew the kind of family environment that I was going to get from Carolina. The connections and your development as a human is so much better here.”
While she knows she could have played more minutes at another school, she wanted to choose a school that made her the most successful player, and Carolina was it. Kimball heard a quote with the concept of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable” and realized that Carolina was going to put her under pressure, make her uncomfortable and develop her into the most dynamic player she could be.
Arriving at Carolina, she quickly became known as “AK 47,” a play on her youth soccer club nickname and new jersey number. That wasn’t her only nickname, however, with Dorrance calling her a “brick and an aggressive savage.” He also calls her his “Inca Warrior Princess” because he believes that nothing can ever hurt her. Her teammates began to recognize her as an unstoppable defensive presence and an intimidating force to opponents.
As she began her collegiate career, she played intermittently her first two years, but her injury prevented her from continuing to develop as a player. Her left hip was weakened from a torn labrum her junior year of high school, and its condition worsened as the intensity of collegiate soccer continued.
By the end of her sophomore year, her hip was worsening, and she went into surgery to repair her torn labrum. Doctors weren’t optimistic about the future of her soccer career. Wake Forest orthopedic surgeon Dr. Allston Stubbs basically told her to hang up her cleats. But that wasn’t the final word for Kimball – she ended up getting her surgery with Raleigh Orthopedics and vowed to return to the field.
“He was like, ‘you should just stop playing – your hip is gonna be like this forever,’” she said. “And I’m just like, ‘whatever man, new doctor.’”
She got back on the field in 2016, but complications from her surgery soon followed and led her to redshirt her junior year – a devastating reality she had to live with while her teammates continued playing.
“After [the 2016 Final Four run] my hip was just torn to shreds…so I redshirted the next season. Gave my hip time to heal, and I was rehabbing really hard.” Kimball said. “It made me so upset and sad, just watching training and knowing I am not able to play to my full capacity was hard.”
Despite her setbacks, Kimball’s spark never died out. She never once doubted that she would return to the field, though her family was concerned. They wanted her to be healthy down the road, not just for her college career. Her high pain tolerance and stubbornness pushed her through the pain with her family supporting her no matter what.
“They just wanted me to be happy at the end of the day,” Kimball said. “But they were definitely looking way more long term that I was. I was just focused on my college career and finishing that out strong.”
Her time to shine came later as tragedy struck, when star player Alessia Russo broke her leg during a game vs. Wake Forest. Kimball subbed into the game for Russo “pissed off” and ready to play.
“I’m already very protective of my teammates,” she said. “You can bang me up, you can mess me up all you want. But when you touch one of my teammates, it’s like a whole different level.”
With Kimball stepping into big shoes, she was determined to give her team everything she had in Russo’s honor.
“I’m like, ‘listen, I’m not Alessia Russo, but I’m Alex Kimball and I’ll give you everything Alex Kimball has,’” she said.
Though Kimball was happy to be getting playing time, she couldn’t help but feel heartbroken for Russo. One night, she received a text from Russo, who offered her some words of encouragement.
“I think I figured out why I got hurt. I think it’s because you deserve the biggest opportunity of your time here,” Russo said. “I know you have the potential to kill it in the NWSL – you really deserve to be seen and prep for the draft in January.”
Fully backed by her team and Russo, she contributed heavily to the success of the team for the rest of the season. Whenever she stepped on the field, she kept Russo in her heart and mind.
So when Kimball received the call in January from Utah Royals coach Laura Harvey, she partially had Russo to thank for the opportunity to be drafted. She cited her senior year playing time as her best opportunity to prove herself as a player.
She wasn’t sure she would be drafted to Utah, though, despite that being her top choice after training there last summer. Coach Dorrance failed to mention her when he responded to an inquiry from Utah’s assistant coach about potential players from Carolina. That was upsetting, she said, but only made her want to work harder.
Her hard work paid off. Now, it’s back to Utah for Kimball, who will work with the team during preseason and hopes to be officially signed as a player. Dorrance said that if they sign her, and he thinks they will, they’ll never let her go.
She gets to go home, surrounded by her family, who lives there.
“I’m excited, but my family is probably 100 times more excited than I am,” she said. “It’s definitely hit me a little later that wow, I get to go home.”
But more than anything else right now, she finally feels like she has come into herself.
“As a soccer player, as a person, there’s so many elements that you get here at Carolina,” Kimball said. “I just realized that I’m in an emotionally, physically, spiritually stable place. My body’s actually working for me right now and it feels good – everything has been clicking into place. I’m just really happy.”
Learn more about Alex Kimball here.