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Sports

Notre Dame alum Mónica Flores makes an impact on and off the field

| Thursday, January 13, 2022

As Mónica Flores explains, “En la vida y en la cancha” (“In life and on the field”) is not just a motto for C.F. Monterrey, one of Mexico’s most iconic soccer clubs — but rather a way of life. 

Flores, a former Notre Dame women’s soccer captain who graduated with a science pre-professional degree in 2017, embraced that philosophy long before she joined the club’s women’s side, commonly known as “Rayadas,” just over a year and a half ago. 

“I bring the same principles and the same passion and hard work on the field and off the field,” she said in an interview with The Observer. “And I think that’s what everyone should work by as well.” 

The 25-year-old left back from Livingston, New Jersey, has found a home in Monterrey, a city of over 1.1 million inhabitants nestled in the picturesque mountains of northeastern Mexico. Since her move from Spain after a two-year stint with Valencia, Spain, Flores has flourished as both a professional athlete and entrepreneur in one of Latin America’s most important industrial and commercial hubs.

Flores and the Rayadas earned the attention of the soccer world Dec. 20 by dramatically clinching the “Apertura,” the first of the two tournaments in the Mexican soccer season that begins in July, in front of a sold-out crowd against crosstown rivals Tigres.

The Tigres and Rayadas finished first and second in the regular season table, respectively. Then, both sides won their quarterfinal and semifinal ties in the playoffs, or “Liguilla,” to set up a “Clásico Regiomontano” in the final — the fifth time the two traditional powerhouses have faced off for the title on the women’s side.

“They were the hardest games I’ve ever been in, and the stakes were high,” Flores said. “And everyone was just on overdrive and robotic because we all had one goal in mind.” 

After Flores’ team managed a 2-2 draw at home in the first leg, they had to get a result at the Tigres’ raucous Estadio Universitario, famously known as “El Volcán” (“the Volcano”), in the second leg three days later to secure the club’s second-ever title.

After 120 scoreless minutes, Rayadas prevailed 3-1 on penalty kicks. Flores played in every minute of open play over the two legs. 

“To play with so many fans and then to win that trophy at the end was insane,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy and just lightened. I felt like God was there with me.” 

Flores has also recently been highlighted for her work with her business, Mi Healthy Vida, which aims to help people live better lives by focusing on nutrition and other aspects of integrative health. Shortly after Rayadas’ title win, she was featured in “Vidas Paralelas,” a series sponsored by BBVA that promotes professional-athlete entrepreneurs and the importance of good financial habits. 

Flores said many female professional soccer players are constantly searching for other opportunities to make ends meet, so she jumped at the chance to potentially inspire her colleagues. She said the series even allowed her teammates to view her from a different perspective.

“And that gives other people, like, ‘OK, look, she’s doing all this, I can do it too,’” Flores said. “I think there’s so much that we can do as female athletes, and being an entrepreneur is pretty cool because you get to be in charge of your own business.” 

Flores originally planned on entering medical school after her college career and even took the MCAT after graduation.

“But first, I wanted to play soccer for as long as I could,” she said.  

And during her two years at Valencia in the Spanish top flight, Flores realized her passions lay outside the realm of conventional medicine. 

“Whatever interests me, I just go for it,” she said. “So, I started getting really interested in functional medicine and integrative health — treating disease and illness by the root cause, looking into environmental factors, nutrition, toxins, stress, sleep, supplements and everything in between.” 

In Spain, Flores became a certified integrative health practitioner and began meeting virtually with clients. Three years later, she continues to help her clients — many of whom are athletes — make improvements regarding their nutrition and other aspects of their lifestyle. 

“It’s been such a rewarding experience, and because it’s my own business, I can work on my own time with my professional soccer career,” Flores said. 

Flores’ ambition does not end there. She is also currently working virtually on a master’s degree in human nutrition with a clinical specialty through the University of Alabama and plans on becoming a registered dietician. While others would be daunted by balancing the demands of simultaneously being a professional athlete, a business owner and a graduate student, managing various commitments is nothing new for Flores.

“I’ve been working my butt off since I can remember,” she said. 

Flores credits her time management skills to her experience as a student athlete at Notre Dame. Not only did she manage to complete her degree a semester early; she did so while missing “half a semester” to compete for Mexico in the U-20 World Cup during her junior season. 

“I really learned to efficiently work and balance out my soccer and my school,” Flores said. 

In the quarterfinal of that tournament, Flores faced off against her twin sister Sabrina who played for the United States. The two were much more accustomed to playing together, especially given that both chose to play for the Irish.

Mónica played four seasons at Notre Dame, captaining the team her senior season. Not only a consistent starter for a stingy Irish defense, she was also an important creative force from the outside-back positions. Flores was second and tied for third in assists for the Irish her junior and senior years, respectively. 

“Notre Dame is all about family sticking together,” she said. “So, the identity, I think, has stuck with me.” 

Flores signed for Valencia in 2018. She enjoyed the professionalism and competition in Spain, but admitted her first professional contract was a “pretty hard experience.” 

“The Spanish culture is a little colder,” she said. “But my escape was whenever I got called up to the Mexican national team, and I would go see my team or go back to Mexico to join them in camp. It was a breath of fresh air.” 

Flores, who qualifies to play for Mexico through her father, transitioned from representing the United States to Mexico at the youth level.

“I absolutely loved the feeling inside of me when I was playing with the U-20s,” she said. “And being at camps with the girls and being in Mexico was something special.” 

So, when the end of her contract with Valencia approached, Flores considered a move at the club level to Mexico. 

“I’ve always felt like my blood is Mexican,” she said. “And I’m attached to the culture. Even though I never lived there, I was on vacation there every year with my family.”

Adding to the move’s appeal was the Mexican women’s league’s growth and success since its founding in 2016. The good reviews of the league she received from fellow Mexican Americans added another layer of clarity.

“Mexico has always been calling me,” Flores said. 

Flores said she received several “amazing” offers before signing for Monterrey. And in Mexico, she has not been disappointed.

“I have never been in a country with this much passion for football and this much support and fan base,” Flores said. “In all the Clásicos, which are Tigres vs. Rayadas here, the stadium is completely full.” 

The two city rivals previously set an attendance record for a women’s club football match when Rayadas’ Estadio BBVA hosted over 51,000 people in 2018. A match in Spain narrowly broke that record a year later, but Flores said that the support is much more consistent in Mexico. 

“I think the fan base is definitely stronger here in Mexico, a hundred percent,” she said. “What’s really cool about Mexico is that almost all games we get to play in the men’s stadium, whereas in Spain, maybe once every two years you got to use the men’s stadium to play a game.” 

The atmosphere created by Tigres fans during the second leg of the final gained plenty of traction on social media, and Flores said fans of both clubs not only “live and breathe football” on the men’s side, but also show just as much passion, if not more, for the women’s teams.

“This town just bubbles with people wanting to support you,” she said. “That’s one of the greatest things about being here. In Monterrey, people on the streets [who are] walking around ask for pictures.” 

For Flores, this recognition is not a burden, but an inspiration. 

“It’s so cool to be given the respect that we deserve as female athletes,” she said. “We put in as much, if not even more, as the men, and we get paid an eighth of what they get paid, maybe.” 

Though compensation continues to lag behind the men’s, Flores said the league’s success should mean good things for the Mexican national team, who are looking to qualify for the 2023 World Cup after missing the 2019 edition.

Flores continues to be periodically called up to the national side and said she is optimistic about the direction of the team under manager Mónica Vergara, who was appointed January 2021. 

“We have a new coach for the national team who is the most passionate, genius person ever,” she said. “So, she’s bringing the leadership end. And I think the league is only helping the talent and people being prepared to be called up and then to perform as a national team.” 

Flores, who has a year and a half left on her current contract with Rayadas, said she plans to stay in Mexico long-term and is excited to have recently bought a house in Monterrey. However, she remains connected to the Irish program as a grateful and proud alum. She periodically calls Irish head coach Nate Norman, who joined the Irish staff as an assistant during her junior year, as well as longtime assistant Dawn Siergiej.

“That was my home too,” Flores said of Notre Dame. “Although I do not miss the cold weather.” 

Flores followed Norman’s side from abroad this season as the Irish returned to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s hiatus, winning more than 60% of their games en route to a Sweet 16 appearance before being eliminated in a heartbreaking 3-2 loss at Arkansas.  

In each of Flores’ four seasons with the Irish, Notre Dame made the NCAA Tournament but never advanced past the Sweet 16. Having just clinched her first major title, however, Flores said she would advise the Irish to avoid being overly fixated on just winning championships. 

“I know the girls at Notre Dame are very competitive in nature,” she said. “But in the end, it’s in God’s hands. All you can do is just control every single bit of the path you can control and the effort, the impact you make on other people’s lives and being a family.”

For Mónica Flores, impact is everything. In life, and on the field.

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