SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the scenarios she meticulously planned for, this was not one of them.
During her debut as a radio color commentator for Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate, Real Monarchs, Carla Swensen-Haslam was thrust into a spot not many broadcasters have experienced. In the 34th minute of the Monarchs’ season opener in March, RSL rookie Omar Holness collapsed to the pitch inside Rio Tinto Stadium. He was suffering a seizure. The gasps from the crowd could be heard over the broadcast as players tried to help Holness before medical personnel arrived.
Swensen-Haslam and Bill Riley, RSL’s longtime play-by-play voice, had to fill 20 minutes. RSL’s top draft pick was being attended to and no one knew what was going on. So the pair just pressed on, reported The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/2dho0K5).
“How does a team respond to a teammate they love being carried off into an ambulance?” Swensen-Haslam said, reflecting on that night. “And we went deeper into the psychological effects it would have on a team.”
Looking back six months later, it stands as a first test passed by a young broadcaster. And she handled it coolly — the way she handles so many things in her life.
By day, Swensen-Haslam is a student at BYU. She’s also the radio voice of the BYU men’s soccer team in the spring. Finally, and most notably, she’s a junior on the BYU women’s soccer team, currently ranked No. 7 in the nation.
“She’s a player,” Riley said. “I think just having that knowledge of the game, the players and then the confidence, too. You can’t be meek. You can fake a little bit, but you have to bring that energy, feel and confidence. And she had it.”
Jennifer Rockwood has never had an unofficial visit like the one she had with Carla Swensen-Haslam. There was BYU’s head coach, seated across from a teenager who couldn’t stop asking questions. The Cougars were interested in Swensen-Haslam, who during her time with the Bingham Miners was an all-state forward.
“I really felt like I was talking to a college graduate or a PhD student,” Rockwood said, “not a 16-year-old that just got her driver’s license.”
After enrolling at BYU in 2014, Swensen-Haslam was contacted that spring by assistant coach Chris Watkins, who at the time was the head coach of the BYU men’s club team. The Cougars had a game, but had no broadcaster for the match. Watkins knew of her past successes in public speaking, so he asked the freshman: “Can you fill in?”
Swensen-Haslam had worked with Greg Wrubell, the longtime radio voice of BYU athletics, as his stats person that basketball season. When she nervously gave Watkins a yes, she bolted to Wrubell to tell him the news.
Her first thought was: “Am I going to make a fool of myself?” The second? “Will I remember names?”
Wrubell calmed her. Prepare, he said, and she’d be fine. The broadcast, she says, went smoothly. The BYU men lost, but the rest of 2014, she was the team’s color commentator. The next year, she switched to play-by-play, where she has remained.
Her broadcasting rise did not come without some criticism. She fielded complaints from BYU fans who were displeased because she didn’t sugarcoat flat performances and bad losses. But Swensen-Haslam wasn’t about to back down; it’s the environment she grew up in.
“I’ve had coaches my entire life that don’t sugarcoat anything,” she said.
Busy schedule — and no car
Between her school, team and broadcasting, Swensen-Haslam operates on a breakneck schedule. When she isn’t in class, she’s studying. When she isn’t studying, she’s training. When she isn’t training, she’s watching film. When she isn’t doing that, she’s prepping for her turn in the Monarchs’ color commentator rotation by reading articles, press releases and breaking down film on the Monarchs and their next opponent. At age 21, she says she’s got plenty of energy and sharpened organizational skills. She’ll sleep later.
Each week, Swense-Haslem makes a priority list. School and soccer are always up top, but broadcasting has become a passion. She’s studying to take the LSAT in December. If that goes well, she wants to go to law school. But Swensen-Haslam also doesn’t want to give up on her dream of continuing up the ranks in broadcasting.
“I figure there’s a season for everything,” she said.
One issue: She doesn’t have a car. Sometimes she’ll bolt from training to the FrontRunner train to get to Sandy. Or she has to rely on rides from teammates or her husband for the trip to Rio Tinto Stadium. It’s a lot to take on. And Rockwood notices it. Even if Swensen-Haslam is redshirting this season after her calf muscle tore off the bone a year ago.
“Carla has a different role on our team as far as playing and supporting,” Rockwood said. “I know she’s wanting and willing to work toward changing that.”
The busyness of each day coupled with the lack of ideal transportation keeps her from attending Monarchs training sessions on a regular basis. But she stays up to date with the club by talking to coach Freddy Juarez as well as players.
“It’s like homework,” she said. “If you keep up on it every day, you don’t have to cram too much before the final.”
Breaking some glass
While attending a leadership summit this summer with other West Coast Conference student-athletes in Portland, Oregon, Swensen-Haslam was introduced to Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson. They got to chatting. Paulson also owns the Thorns, one of the benchmark clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League. So once she told him of her aspirations to do game broadcasts, he suggested she might break into calling matches in the NWSL.
“I’d never thought about the role of a female broadcaster until that day, how women are ushered into calling women’s sports and men are ushered into calling men’s sports,” she said. “It did open my eyes a little bit. Why not be looking to be calling men’s sports?”
That path will be tough, and she knows it. ESPN’s Holly Rowe, a University of Utah graduate, was the color analyst for the Utah Starzz in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the franchise relocated to San Antonio. Rowe is the most prominent female play-by-play broadcasting voice in this state in the last two decades.
During her time announcing BYU and Monarchs matches, Swensen-Haslam has run into instances in which she’s been slammed by anonymous viewers or listeners who question her sports knowledge. The sexism that laces some of those complaints is hard to ignore.
“It would be paranoid of me to say it’s because I’m a woman,” she said. “But sometimes I have wondered where people get this stuff.”
Swensen-Haslam is still taunted by those who ask, “How do you know this sport?” The answer is easy: She’s played it, and is still doing so, for a program ranked nationally in the Top 10. And she’s determined to learn more by calling matches.
“She has the chops,” said Riley, and “also the drive to do it.”
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com