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Kristen Carr

Chasing Carr: Kristen Carr Still Inspiring a New Generation

July 14, 2023
Beth Ann Mayer
Athletes Unlimited

After a disappointing end to her international career, Kristen Carr continues to inspire.

Kristen Carr has always used her speed to jumpstart transition. As Amber McKenzie, Carr’s former teammate at North Carolina and with the U.S. national team, put it, “She has one speed, and it’s 150 percent at all times. She’s a full-on freight train.”

But even locomotives reach a final destination.

Carr’s not there yet.

The 34-year-old’s love of sports has driven her through various transitions, from youth soccer to lacrosse and from semi-pro soccer to professional lacrosse. It’s carried her through a flurry of transitions the last two years, when she was cut from the U.S. team after 14 years with the program and had her college coaching career derailed with a change in command at Johns Hopkins.

“It’s been challenging for sure,” Carr said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to vocalize all of your emotions. But I am usually optimistic and positive. If you can give yourself a chance to breathe, how can you get to the next step?”

For Carr, who goes by Cookie, the next step should feel familiar. After returning to the field with Athletes Unlimited and starting all 12 games last summer, she’s back for AU's third season. The four-week campaign during which top-performing players select teams and individuals compete for leaderboard points takes place July 20-Aug. 13 at USA Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Maryland.

“It’s OK to be disappointed,” Carr said. “But the sun comes up the next day.”

CARR GREW UP IN BALTIMORE, where playing lacrosse felt like a rite of passage. “My stick was taller than I was,” she said.

Though she loved lacrosse, Carr also played soccer. And like most millennial female athletes, she idolized the 99ers — the 1999 Women’s World Cup team that beat China on Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick at the Rose Bowl in Pasedena, California.

“That team inspired me to have ambition, to work to master craft and just play because you love the sport,” Carr said.

A three-sport standout and Baltimore City soccer player of the year at Mercy High School, Carr attended camps near the University of North Carolina, where some of her heroes like Mia Hamm played college soccer. But she wound up donning the Carolina blue in lacrosse, instead. When she arrived in Chapel Hill in 2007, UNC wasn’t the perennial title contender it is today.

The Tar Heels played in NCAA semifinals in 1997, 1998 and 2002 but never made it to the last day. Carr aimed to change that. At 5-foot-10, she was much taller than the 6-year-old who was too small for her stick.

“If you are going to talk about first impressions, Cookie had this big, strong, fit athletic body, and then this sweet voice would come out,” McKenzie said.

Carr still speaks softly. She remains reflective, pausing carefully before answering questions. But she found her voice as a leader at North Carolina. “She’s a caretaker,” North Carolina coach Jenny Levy said. “She takes care of others and makes sure people are happy and feeling good.”

A caretaker off the field who took care of business on it. Carr set a new program benchmark with 58 draw controls as a junior in 2009, leading North Carolina to the NCAA championship game for the first time in history. The Tar Heels fell short against Northwestern, which won the fifth of its now eight national titles. The Wildcats also defeated UNC in the semifinals the next year. But Carr had helped lay the ground for a new dynasty. Three years later, North Carolina defeated Maryland in triple overtime to claim the first of its three NCAA championships.

“We weren’t able to reach all the goals we had in place,” Carr said of her college playing career, “but it helped create that culture of excellence.”

Junior year was  big one for Carr. She began playing with the U.S. senior team, something she’d do for more than a decade. Carr embraced the mentorship of U.S. greats like Acacia Walker and Lindsey Munday.

““You go from being a leader in college and then become a follower," McKenzie saaid. "She did that seamlessly.”

After she graduated in 2010, Carr briefly tried semi-pro soccer. “My club coach called me up. He was coaching the Chesapeake Charge and asked me to play,” she said. “I was like, ‘Soccer? I haven’t touched a ball in a couple of years.’”

It was like riding a bike.

“I was tenacious and determined,” Carr said. “Even though my skill was a little rusty, I kept the hang of it.”

Soon after, another former coach called Carr with an opportunity. Levy asked her to come on as North Carolina’s first volunteer assistant, a post since held by the likes of Marie McCool, Sam Geiersbach and Andie Aldave.

“Good coaches are servant leaders first and care about others,” Levy said. “For Cookie, that was very natural.”

Carr also thrived in the USA system, qualifying for the 2013 and 2017 world championship teams that took home gold medals in Canada and England, respectively. As an international athlete, much of the work occurs out of view.

“A lot of the time you are working on your own.” Carr said. “You are getting up at a certain hour, going to the gym and doing whatever you need to do to get your mind and body in the right place so when you get together for these training weekends, you pick up where you left off.”

The game kept growing. Carr played for the Baltimore Ride during the 2016 United Women’s Lacrosse League season and the Upstate Pride in the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League for two years as women’s lacrosse tried to make a dent in the pro scene. Carr continued to be a pioneer, channeling the ’99ers before her.

“It’s so funny you keep using ‘pioneer,’” Carr said. “It’s hard to feel like that is something you encapsulate when you’re just trying to do your thing and give back, play the game, have fun and grow the game.”

Carr's coaching career also took off. She served an assistant at Stanford for three seasons from 2016-19 and was headed to Ohio State in 2020, around the time she was gearing up for another run at the national team.

Then came the pandemic, setting off a ripple effect in all aspects of her lacrosse life. College lacrosse shut down for the season. The world championship was pushed back from 2021 to 2022. The WPLL shut down permanently.

Carr could hear the clock ticking. “The more veteran you are, the more special each moment feels,” she said.

That summer, Carr moved closer to home when an assistant role came open at Johns Hopkins. Carr at Hopkins made sense. The plot twist? The internationally lauded defender was hired as an offensive coordinator. Blue Jays head coach Janine Tucker admired her gumption.

“She explained that as a defender, ‘I know how to shut down offensive players,’” Tucker said. “‘I want to bring the other side as the offensive coordinator for you and use everything I know how to shut down an offense to be able to teach your women.’ It was so outside of the box.”

Carr wound up being the perfect coach at the perfect time. Because of the pandemic, she did not meet the team in person until January 2021, more than six months after Hopkins hired her. Just as she did for the U.S. team, Carr kept the team connected from a distance.

“It was a weird time,” Tucker said. “She brought her leadership style and her ability to captain the U.S. team to us, and we were able to grow trust and camaraderie [over Zoom].”

Carr’s time with Hopkins would end in 2022 when Tucker retired. So would her run with red, white and blue. She was one of the final players cut from the 18-woman roster. The call came from an old friend, coach and boss in Levy, who took the reins of the team in 2017.

“Having to cut a veteran who had given the national team so much leadership over the years was really hard,” Levy said. “Personally, cutting one of my own players was really, really hard. It hurt for everybody.”

Carr responded by asking Levy for the names of every player who made it. Not so she could argue, but so she could congratulate each of them. “They’re your teammates and your friends,” she said. “Being joyful and happy for them was important. It’s everyone’s goal.”

Still, it hurt.

“For athletes in general, especially someone like Cookie who has been playing for her entire life, your identity isn’t lacrosse but sometimes it feels that way,” McKenzie said. “You put so much effort into something you love. She really did give it her all.”

CARR WASN’T DONE. In September, she was hired as the director of girls’ lacrosse at The St. James, a high-performance training center. She’s brought in AU players, hosted clinics and Sixes tournaments and worked to mold future college and pro lacrosse stars.

“There have been a lot of changes, but lacrosse has given me so much,” said Carr, who hasn’t given up on the sport. She finished 25th out of 57 players on the AU leaderboard last year and averaged a caused turnover per game.  “My body feels good. My mind feels good.”

What’s the next step?

Carr won’t rule out coming back as a college coach or another year playing pro lacrosse. Levy sees the player she recruited out of high school taking the mantle and pushing the game forward.

“As my age group gets up there, we need people to continue to carry the torch and think about the game, not just at a micro level and macro level,” Levy said. “I see her as a leader in the future for the sport of women’s lacrosse because of her thoughtfulness, care and joy for the game.”

Carr may transition again. But she wants that stick — the one she’s long grown into — to stay in her hand.