Lianne Sanderson woke up Sunday morning in Rochester, N.Y., to more than 150 text messages and assorted missed calls, then frantically called her girlfriend to learn the details.
“I turned on the news and obviously saw what happened,” said Sanderson, a forward for the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League. “I instantly felt this sick feeling in my stomach.”
The rampage at Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, struck Sanderson especially deeply. Three weeks earlier, she had hosted an event at Southern Nights, another gay club in Orlando.
“It could have happened to me,” she said. “For me, it hits home even more because it was the gay community.”
On Saturday at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Sanderson and her Pride teammates will play a game for the first time since the shootings. Both the Pride and the host Washington Spirit have said they will honor the victims, but details of their tributes were still being finalized.
Sanderson said she attended a memorial Tuesday in Orlando. She also filmed a video expressing her condolences, an act prompted by fielding questions about the shooting from reporters before practice Monday.
“It’s after I started speaking where I realized how much it affected me,” Sanderson said. “I had to go to training like two minutes later, and I was not in the frame of mind.”
Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, a U.S. national team player and a Florida native, took the tragedy to heart as well.
“Just seeing how sad and how broken this community is right now is hard to swallow,” Harris, choking back tears, told reporters Wednesday. “It’s hard to talk about for me. It’s hard for me to not get emotional. This stuff has got to stop. We can’t be silent anymore. We’ve been silent for too long, and a lot of my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community have been taken. And I’m no longer going to be quiet about it.
“As a country, we can’t stand for this. We’re supposed to protect each other.”
Harris, who played for the Spirit from 2013 to 2015, said of returning to the field Saturday: “If I can’t play at home this weekend, [Washington D.C.] is definitely somewhere I want to be.”
Sanderson, a native of England, has played in the NWSL since it was founded four years ago. In 2013, she was a member of the Boston Breakers when that city’s marathon bombing occurred.
“For me, it feels like that all over again,” Sanderson said. “It makes me sad because I feel like America is such a great place. . . . When something like this happens, especially to the community I relate to, that I do a lot of advocacy work for, it obviously hits home — not only because 49 people lost their lives, it’s because of the way I choose to live my life.
“Those people went out to have a good time, as we all do, and they had their life taken away from them.”
But Sanderson says she’s going to lace up in her rainbow shoelaces anyway and try to look at the match as a positive, as difficult as concentrating on a soccer game right now may be.
“I’m gonna be grateful for the opportunity that I have,” she said. “Even when I have been training this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the victims and their families. They’ve been in the front of my mind. . . . I’m just grateful to be alive. I know that sounds cheesy and cliche, but that’s how I feel.”