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Why the Portland Thorns' goalkeeper is fighting for the environment off the pitch

Once upon a time in Milwaukie, Oregon, Annabella Bixby embarked on a love affair with nature. Amidst the symphony of rustling leaves and chirping birds, her father would take her camping and fishing, igniting a wildfire of passion for wildlife and wild places within her soul. 

"I would come across a wild animal and just not want to even bother it, just watch it," Bixby, now 27, recalls. "That wonder and excitement is still there when I go outside. It's just something that never went away."

Fast forward to the present day, and Bella Bixby has become one of the top goalkeepers in women's soccer and a fan favorite. Now in her sixth season with the Portland Thorns, Bixby played a crucial role in securing the team's NWSL Shield win in 2021 and their third championship title in 2022, racking up 18 clean sheets across both seasons.

October 29, 2022: Bixby celebrates the NWSL championship win with general manager Karina LeBlanc

But off the field and training ground, Bella often finds herself far away from the bustle of Providence Park and the cacophony of matches. She camps, hikes, and birdwatches—just as she did with her father as a child. But it's not just nature for the sake of nature she's after. Bixby sees something deeper in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, as well as in the green spaces that dot the city: a root system that connects human society with planet Earth.

"People like to think of the environment as an isolated issue—that protecting the environment is separate, by itself," she says. "But it intersects with other issues. If you think about the homeless and houseless populations that have to build encampments along creek and river beds, they don't have the systems we take for granted. They have to coexist with nature. You can't address those issues without also addressing the humanitarian crisis that is homelessness. They're intertwined."

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Bixby in nature

Bixby's path to pro soccer was more of a winding switchback trail than a highway. "I'd say it's been a really complex journey for me," she says. 

Initially on track to be a pre-med student, Bixby graduated from OSU with a Biology degree. 

"That didn't quite sit with me," she says. "It was something that I really loved learning about, but it wasn't something I felt in my heart." 

Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, Bixby was a force to be reckoned with in goal. She set an Oregon State record of 394 career saves over 72 games, catching the attention of then-Thorns head coach Mark Parsons and Thorns goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer. Her eyes, however, were set beyond the pitch, and she wasn't sure whether she wanted to enter the upcoming NWSL Draft.

Bixby credits Parsons and Angerer for rekindling her passion for the sport. In 2018, the Thorns selected Bixby with the 29th pick in the NWSL Draft. Bixby's gloves stayed on.

"I fell back in love with soccer here ," she says.

August 25, 2021: Bixby in goal

Still, Bixby knew she had unfinished business in school. As she settled in and grew with the Thorns, both as a professional soccer player and as a person, Bixby found the answer lying right in front of her: her love of nature and passion for protecting the environment. 

"I had this 'aha!' moment of like, 'Why can't I get my education in this?' I didn't know why it hadn't occurred to me earlier," she explains.

Bixby returned to her alma mater, virtually this time, in pursuit of a master's degree in Fish and Wildlife. She put her education on pause after the sudden and tragic loss of her father in 2021. Now, she's diving back into the balancing act of being a professional soccer player—and frequent Save of the Week candidate—and graduate student.

"There've been times where I'm on the road and I have a pregame meeting, and then I have to go back to my room and study or prepare for an exam," she says. "But because I'm so interested in the material, it doesn't feel like too much work. I'm pretty eager to learn."

March 26, 2023: Bixby with roses after the a victory against Orlando Pride.

Portland, as a city, is not an accidental backdrop for Bixby's academic passions. Like herself, the city has stubbornly kept one foot firmly planted in the woods. She says she plans on starting her post-soccer career here, whenever that may be. 

"Portland is a great launch point for something like urban conservation," she says. "The general population is more receptive to coexisting with nature, increasing the amount of green spaces, and tackling the issues that intersect with environmentalism and homelessness."

August 29, 2021: Bixby in the tunnel ahead of a match at OL Reign

On Saturday, April 22—Earth Day—the Thorns will suit up at Providence Park to face Racing Louisville FC. But even as all eyes focus on continuing the team's undefeated start to the 2023 season, Bixby says it's a perfect opportunity to zoom out and reflect on our own impact on the planet.

"I look at it [Earth Day] as an 'environmental New Year'—a good day to reflect on some changes you want to make, like consuming less materialistically," she says. "My advice would be to pick something small and work towards it. Once you've built that into a habit, you can always add more."

For Bixby, the opportunity is even deeper. She believes conservation starts on a personal level, as it did among the trees with her dad. She wants Oregonians to forge their own connection with nature, even if that bond doesn't mirror her own.

"Go find spaces that make you feel centered and connected to the Earth," she says. "Go to [Tom McCall] Waterfront Park and sit under the cherry blossom trees, or go to Laurelhurst Park and birdwatch. If you just sit down and slow down, you'll start paying attention to nature. Something might catch your eye and really spark an interest."

"Not everyone wants to go on a hike," she adds. "Don't let that hold you back. Just jump in."