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Playing the Field: Margaret Domka

How a Union Grove Spanish teacher became the only American referee at this year’s Women’s World Cup

Jun. 1, 2015
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Courtesy of Margaret Domka

In Playing the Field, we profile women who are making an impact in the world of sports, either in competition or behind the scenes. For this installment, we spoke with Margaret Domka, a soccer referee about to make her debut at the Women’s World Cup.

Being an official at any major sporting event is a daunting task. In an ideal situation, the viewer would never even take note of the referee. There would be no questionable calls, no complaining athletes and the whole match would proceed smoothly. The officials have to be solid, confident, unyielding and correct. They are in charge, in control and not intimidated. It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle the stress and the pressure; to know the rules and their intricacies; to be firm and fair; to maintain the athleticism and knowledge.

Margaret Domka, a Spanish teacher at Union Grove High School, never thought she’d be that person. A shy, people-pleasing teenager who got into soccer refereeing for the good pay and flexible hours, will be the only U.S. representative in the referee pool for the Women’s World Cup that starts in Canada in less than two weeks.

Of 22 referees, seven support referees and 44 assistant referees selected from 49 countries, Domka is the only American. It will be her first World Cup, though she has officiated at the past two U-20 Women’s World Cups in addition to being the center referee for the 2014 NWSL Championship game. In 2009, Domka became the 10th woman certified as a FIFA referee, and was only the third American woman to achieve the status.

In order to be eligible to referee international matches, a referee must be nominated and accepted by a panel. Domka said she would never have considered not taking this next step in her career—as the promotion is based entirely on nomination and review, it’s both an honor and entirely out of her control. While she aspired to get the opportunity to officiate a World Cup, it was very much a secret desire she felt she couldn’t dare voice aloud. The honor of being placed among the world’s elite is something Domka cherishes, but she’s always tempered her expectations.

“I never would have imagined that it could lead to this and even as I was coming up the ranks and getting closer to this, I still couldn’t have pictured reaching the pinnacle,” she said. “The World Cup is the biggest stage for soccer, there’s no bigger tournament. It’s amazing to go from where I was as a high school teenager with a summer job to now reaching this and the journey it’s been along the way.

“I certainly thought about it, it was just something that I wouldn’t admit out loud because it seemed too lofty to imagine,” she continued. “Every event I went to, every day during training, it was something that I thought about, but I also thought ‘no matter how far I get, I’m proud of the accomplishments I’ve done.’ I worked very hard to try to have a balance in my life so I could be very proud of wherever I was at in my career and be prepared for what the next day might bring.”

To hear Domka describe her younger self is to wonder how that teenager was able to hold herself on a field in charge of 8-year-olds in a recreational league, much less how she’d continue on to become the ref she is today.

“Developing, there were times when it was challenging for me to be one of the few females in the (referee) tent. I tended to be a very shy, timid person, particularly as a teenager, so (it) could be intimidating,” said Domka.

Most teenagers in that position would not have continued with this particular career path, but Domka said she was simply too polite and too scared to say “no” when organizers continued to ask her to participate. Though she was often not the most self-assured person on the field, Domka kept it internalized and called on the innate athletic competitiveness she possessed. Having tried both gymnastics and dance as a child, she also had experience performing. She called on both those aspects of her personality when she was at the center circle for kickoff and refused to back down or back off.

Some might say she was just too stubborn to quit when she was told she couldn’t or shouldn’t do something, but Domka prefers to say it’s a competitive spirit. She wanted to prove people wrong. That small kernel of obstinacy fueled her tenaciousness and Domka says sometime in college, she changed from feeling like she had to ref to wanting to do it.

“Every tournament I went to and every game I went to I kept thinking ‘one of these days I have to tell them that I don't want to do this forever.’ I just kept being polite and saying ‘yes, I'll go’ and they kept saying ‘You have potential, you can do really well, you have everything that it takes.’ One day after many, many tournaments, I just finally—all of the sudden, something changed and I really had a passion for it and I realized that what they were telling me was right and I did have a lot of potential and if I was willing to work for it. I didn’t know how far I could go, but I had opportunities,” she said.

“This whole experience has had me grow as a person. Even in college, and shortly after college, I was very much the person who wanted to hide in social situations and I really felt like I didn’t have any value to provide to people when talking to them. I was just forced, because of soccer, again and again and again to be in these situations of not knowing people. I travel all over the country and I have to work with people that I don't know and I have to travel all over the world and work with people I don’t know. I have to work with people who speak different languages. It has made me realize so much about presence and about people believing in you because you believe in yourself. So it’s really been a journey. I’m a totally different person today than I would be without having continually been forced.”

The confidence and leadership skills she’s learned on the field obviously translate directly into Domka’s career as a high school Spanish teacher. Knowing the fear and intimidation she felt at their age, Domka is especially keen on making sure her students know that there are a vast amount of opportunities for them outside of high school. The passion for helping future generations achieve greatness translates onto the pitch, as well, as Domka works to create an environment where future female refs can achieve even more.

“To me, it’s a very exciting role in that I do have the opportunity to continue to help push the door open for more women to follow me,” she said. “Moving forward, I think it’s easy, when you get done with something, to look back and see people coming behind you who can go above and beyond what you’ve done and maybe feel a little bit of jealousy. But I always hope that’s not the way I feel and that I’m really supporting the next people to come through and knowing that there weren’t as many women when I did it. Some of the challenges that I faced are different than their challenges, but that’s the whole goal is to get them to go ever further than I did and then they can do the same for the next generation.

“My hope is that I’m setting an example for (my students) and they can watch and see that I work hard,” she said. They’re curious about what I do and I just hope that when they leave my classroom they have a better understanding—they have all these opportunities and I just want them to follow their dream. I don’t think you always reach the destination that you plan, but it’s quite a journey along the way. If you don’t go out and try, you could miss out on all these opportunities and experiences that you could have.”

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