The sun is caressing down on a balmy, spring morning in Northwest Arkansas in 2011 and two former college track stars are on the way to where they have gone almost every weekend for five years: to watch their eldest daughter out on the pitch.
The Bentonville Boomers girls’ club team attracted small crowds, mostly parents. Little did those crowds know that one of the elementary-age kids they cheered on every week would go on to lead the UA soccer team to its first Southeastern Conference championship and break records along the way almost a decade later.
But it wasn’t always a guarantee that Anna Podojil would ever represent the state where she developed her love for "The Beautiful Game".
Podojil is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved back to “The Queen City” in 2012 where she remained until she graduated high school seven years on. As a highly touted high school athlete, Podojil had a plethora of collegiate options to choose from.
“As a kid, I always dreamed about being on the (Razorback) soccer team,” she said. “When I was being recruited, Arkansas was still developing as a program, and I was getting looks from top-20 colleges, but I just had a gut feeling to come back here.”
Her commitment to play at Arkansas proved the Razorbacks could draw elite national prospects for soccer. After all, her two Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year awards, two Ohio state championships (the first in Indian Hill High School history) and her high school’s career scoring record of 117 goals speak for themselves.
In college, she became the first player in program history to be named a United Soccer Coaches’ (USC) National Player of the Week, which she won twice. She was also the first to win SEC Freshman of the Year, and she took home an USC All-American honor. She led the Hogs with 14 goals, ranking third nationally among freshmen while also contributing seven assists.
In Anna Podojil’s first year as a team member, the Razorbacks achieved an all-time program high national ranking of No. 6, defeated the No. 1 team in the country, North Carolina, returned to a fourth-straight SEC tournament title match and won the SEC regular-season title for the first time ever. She was the focal point of Arkansas’s high-achieving offense—impressive considering her freshman status.
“Everyone knew about her, so she wasn’t really under the radar,” Razorback soccer coach Colby Hale said. “She’s what you see: fast, athletic and dynamic.
“It’s been really nice because none of the success has gone to her head. She’s just a real humble, funny, normal person.”
Indeed, Podojil doesn’t consider herself the star, but rather gives all the credit to her teammates on the pitch, she said. It is something her teammates are used to.
“She’s had so much success as a freshman and never once have I heard her talk about it,” Reagan Swindall, Podojil’s teammate and roommate, said. “Anna never brags about herself.”
Podojil’s down-to-earth demeanor and humility has been a staple of her personality since childhood, back when she was still gliding up and down Bentonville pitches and attending Razorback sporting events with her family in their spare time.
It was her parents, after all, who helped her become an elite athlete and provided her with the opportunity to live in Arkansas. Rebecca and Dan Podojil were both track stars at Miami University in Ohio, where they met, and it was Dan’s job that took the family to Arkansas.
“Dan and I were excited to get back to the Midwest,” Rebecca Podojil said. “Neither of us are from the south, but when Anna started her college recruitment process we were like ‘I bet she’s going to pick Arkansas.’ It kind of became like a joke in the house. We knew it was always her dream.”
Rebecca Podojil said they never put pressure on any of their children to play any sport, but rather let them figure out their own interests. It’s a stretch, however, to think that Anna didn’t inherit any running abilities from her parents.
That wasn’t the case. Anna ran the 400 meters in 53.67 seconds her senior year and took home an Ohio state championship. For comparison, 51.17 seconds was the fastest time by a female high school track athlete last year.
All of this success during her senior year came after Anna suffered an ACL tear at a soccer showcase her junior year. She had to miss the entire track season that year as a result.
“I knew right when it happened,” Anna Podojil said. “I cut really hard during a game and everything in my right knee just gave out. It was a difficult few months, but I knew I had to trust the process.”
With an injury as serious as an ACL tear—one that can hamper or even end athletes’ careers—it was Anna’s positive thinking and great attitude in recovery, as well as a great surgeon, that fueled her senior year comeback domination.
Anna made the trip to visit Indianapolis Colts’ orthopedic surgeon, Tom Klootwyk, the same doctor her mother went to when she suffered the same injury in college. She was back on the field in no time, only rehabilitating for about five months. According to Mayo Clinic, the average recovery time for an ACL injury is about nine months, though it may take up to 12 months for an athlete to return to their sport.
“She really didn’t let that injury get to her,” Rebecca Podojil said. “She just did what she had to do to get back and moved on.”
With Arkansas’ second-round elimination in the NCAA Tournament in December 2019 to North Carolina State, Anna’s first soccer season as a Razorback has come to an end. She’s now setting her sights toward following in her parents’ footsteps and running college track for the Razorbacks in the spring.
Arkansas’ soccer team has recently become a national threat, but Lance Harter’s women’s track team is a force to be reckoned with. The Hogs are the defending national champions in cross country, outdoor and indoor track, boasting five national titles overall.
“A big goal that I have is winning an SEC championship in both soccer and track,” Anna Podojil said. “Not many people are dual-sport college athletes.”
Anna said she still doesn’t know whether or not she will continue soccer after college, although her past call-ups to U.S. U-18 National Team training camps suggest she has the talent and national attention to play beyond her collegiate years, and her teammates know it.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling for Anna,” Swindall said. “She’s an amazing athlete and I think she’s proven that. Everything she’s accomplished this year as a freshman, people can only dream of doing. I think Anna can do anything she puts her mind to.”
Arkansas has a valuable dual-sport talent at its disposal in Anna Podojil. The state is lucky to have her considering she went on a myriad of college recruiting visits in high school. But on the contrary, it’s Anna who considers herself lucky just to be back in the Natural State.
“She visited probably 20 colleges, and you could just tell once she stepped on the UofA campus, she just felt like she was going back home,” Rebecca Podojil said.