Sara Curley does not appear to be your prototypical lacrosse player. She knows this. She embraces her Chinese heritage. She wants to be the difference.
Curley, a junior on the Lynbrook girls team, was adopted when she was less than a year old. She began playing lacrosse in third grade and joined her first travel team in sixth grade. Most of the other girls she played with or against didn’t look like her, but Curley never let that deter her.
“Growing up, I’ve always had questions about my background,” Curley said. “And I’ve always been curious and sometimes in these big moments, I take a step back and it’s pretty cool I have a different characteristic than all my friends I play with — and even the sport in general.”
Athletics has been an outlet for Curley. She grew up playing basketball, swimming and playing in the backyard with her brother Sean, who now is 19.
“She hopped on a bicycle at 3 years old with no training wheels and just took off down the block,” said her mother, Amy. “So we knew there was something there at a very early age.”
Curley, an attack, received multiple Division I offers before committing to play at Monmouth. She’s been on the varsity team since the ninth grade and had 41 goals and 27 assists this season for 13-2 Lynbrook. Throughout the recruitment process, Curley wanted to find a place that would be a good fit for her on- and off-the-field goals.
“I just saw it as an opportunity,” Curley said. “Even just with recruiting and looking for my next opportunity, many of the top players you see are blonde and white and me being able to pick a team where I may be the only minority, I’m going to put myself in a role where I can be a role model for other people on a bigger stage. That was very important to me.”
Curley hasn’t had many Asian professional lacrosse players to idolize, or even high Division I players to try to mirror.
According to the NCAA Demographics Database for 2021, 84% of Division I girls lacrosse players were white (3,431 of 4,067 student-athletes), 3% of student-athletes were Black with 13% (528 total) as “other.” The same report said only 2% of all Division I student-athletes were Asian.
“The sport is growing so much so I’ve been able to see a lot of different players and other minorities showing who they are on the field,” Curley said. “I think me being a part of it and me being able to look up to only a handful of pro players who are Asian, I really want to take that role.”
It’s more than just talk for Curley. She’s put in thousands of hours of work, including training with former Stony Brook star and Team USA member Kylie Ohlmiller since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And once high school and college athletes were permitted to sign name, image and likeness (NIL) agreements, Ohlmiller said Curley was the first person she thought of to represent her “KO17 Lacrosse” brand and became one of four athletes to sign an NIL with Ohlmiller on March 12.
More than just Curley’s ability to perform on the field, Ohlmiller admired Curley’s drive to become an inspiration to others.
“That’s just something I see as so mature about her,” Ohlmiller said. “She’s a junior in high school and she’s already thinking about the impact that she’s having on the next generation of players and young women. She’s already trailblazing for people like her and I think she’s already recognizing the impact she’s having and it’s kind of like an addictive process.”
Curley said it’s an unpaid NIL but provides her the opportunity to work KO17 summer camps, and she gets apparel and gear. But just as Ohlmiller became an inspiration to Curley, she wants to inspire others. She already trains younger local players, trying to pass her wisdom to the next generation.
“Now it’s a passion, almost an obsession,” said her father, Jason. “She lives and breathes [lacrosse] 24/7.”
Jason and Amy wanted to adopt a child after Amy completed treatment for ovarian cancer. They were unable to have another child but wanted to grow their family, Amy said. Curley was born in 2004 in China and brought to the United States in 2005.
“We wanted to adopt internationally and adopt a child that’s been abandoned or given up,” Amy said. “It was fairly easy at the time to adopt from China and that’s where our heart was.”
Jason and Amy both were athletes but neither knew much about lacrosse. They knew it was a popular sport on Long Island and encouraged Curley to try it out. Both quickly saw her talent and love for the sport.
“She drives the bus, we just pay the registration fee,” Amy said. “She’s very determined. She has her eye on the prize.”
Lynbrook coach Vincent Tetro also was Curley’s first travel lacrosse coach. He’s seen her grow from a quiet sixth-grader to one of the most hard-working players he’s had.
“The drive and the will this kid has is remarkable,” Tetro said. “She’s a kid that wants it so badly. She will not get outworked by anybody and her passion for the game is pretty much like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Much of that passion is from self-motivation. Curley wants to succeed for reasons beyond herself. She wants to be that example other minority players can look at to reach the peaks of lacrosse.
“I think it’s a huge motivating factor for her,” Tetro said. “She loves the fact that she can be that face of lacrosse that is different from what people have known and seen, and she thrives off of that.”
“We’re a minority in our sport,” Curley said. “So being able to be a role model for other Lynbrook girls or for being Asian, I take it as a big responsibility.”