Hard work and perseverance helped Courtney Thomsen excel as an athlete and coach, but it was a small twist of fate that led her into the world of athletic administration. Thomsen was named Midland University’s Director of Athletics in July of 2021, becoming the first female AD in the university’s 139-year history.
Thomsen played soccer at the University of Arizona from 2001-04. Injuries cut her playing career short, but it did allow her to begin her coaching career at the high school, college, and club soccer levels. “My plan was to go into teaching, and I was prepared to accept a job on a Friday,” Thomsen recalled. “But when I called to accept the job, I was told they’d call me back on Monday. Over the weekend, I got a call from my former coach at Arizona, who was now coaching at USC. He told me they had been approved to add a Director of Operations position to the staff and wanted to know if I was interested. As much as I liked teaching, I realized I might never get this opportunity again, so I was all in.”
She eventually landed a job as head women’s soccer coach at Marymount California University in Rancho Palos Verdes before becoming the school’s athletic director in 2017. Under her watch, the athletic program nearly doubled in size, increasing from 10 varsity sports to 16.
Athletics has played a major role in Thomsen’s life, dating back to when she was four years old playing T-ball and soccer. “I grew up around a family of athletes,” she said. “My mom was a three-sport athlete in the 60s, which was pretty rare for a woman at that time. Growing up, my mom and dad both coached me, and they were two of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Drawing inspiration from the 1999 World Cup champion U.S. Women’s Soccer team, Thomsen began to gravitate towards soccer as her favorite sport. She would eventually earn herself a spot in a Division I program at Arizona, but not without a few challenges along the way. “I tore my ACL my sophomore year in high school,” she said. “It was tough because I felt like my whole identity changed. It took me some time to get back to peak form, and then I tore my other ACL my senior year. But I made the decision I was going to stick this out.”
She managed to play three seasons on the Wildcats team, but after being told she needed the fifth of eventually seven knee surgeries, Thomsen had to step away from playing the game she loved. “By the fifth surgery, I decided I had pushed myself to the limit, and it was time to walk away,” she said. “I played three seasons, but I was only at 100 percent for probably half that time. But not being able to play anymore is what led me into coaching.”
Thomsen has viewed athletics from nearly every angle, starting as an athlete before transitioning into coaching and administrative roles. Such a diverse background has afforded her the opportunity to be able to relate to every athlete, coach, or administrator that whom she comes in contact with. “I think having that perspective has been the biggest advantage in my career,” she said. “When I first got into coaching, I worked with a lot of young players, and I was able to help them develop and have a role in making decisions that would impact their potential outcomes.”
Much like she fought through adversity as an athlete, Thomsen found a different kind of adversity as she was working her way through the coaching ranks. “As a young female coach, I felt a little outnumbered, feeling like I wasn’t trusted to coach the older, higher-level teams,” she said. “It took me a while to gain that credibility that I was capable of coaching those teams, but they must have seen something in me because I eventually earned a leadership role in the club.”
Earning credibility has been a common thread throughout the history of women’s athletics. Professional female athletes have worked for many years to receive more equitable pay to what male athletes receive, while collegiate athletes continue to strive to earn many of the same opportunities and resources presented to male athletes. When Title IX passed in 1972, it was the first necessary step in creating more equality among college athletes. It also paved the way for Thomsen to pursue her dream of playing collegiate soccer. “Women’s soccer was one of the sports that was added at Arizona (1994) because of Title IX,” she said. “Without Title IX, I couldn’t have dreamed of playing in college, having a coaching career, or becoming an athletic director.”
Title IX was a great catalyst to help level the playing field for athletes of all genders, but Thomsen also knows the work is far from finished. “As I have moved into administration, I strive to make sure that everyone is given equal opportunities to be successful,” Thomsen said. “That doesn’t just go for women’s sports; we want every athlete to perform at their best.”
Midland offers more varsity athletic programs (33) than any other institution in the state, and more than 80 percent of Midland’s student base competes in athletics. “Nearly every sport offered on the men’s side is offered on the women’s side as well, including sports like women’s hockey, women’s wrestling, and women’s flag football that aren’t prevalent at other places,” Thomsen said. “Offering those opportunities to so many athletes is something unique that Midland is able to do.”
Thomsen is the only female athletic director among 12 universities in the Great Plains Athletic Conference. She doesn’t believe any drawbacks exist being the only female in the room and often leans on advice she received from Don Ott, the one-time commissioner of the Cal Pac Conference. “Don always told me not to be intimidated and speak my mind,” she said. “He wanted me to have a voice and encouraged me to have an opinion.”
She hasn’t been shy about having an opinion, but Thomsen also possesses the ability to listen and learn from others. “I’ve always been open-minded and willing to have a conversation in order to grow,” she said. “If you’re not growing with the sport, the sport will outgrow you. Student-athletes are changing and the dynamics of sports are changing, so you have to be forward thinking.”
Her role as athletic director is very demanding of her time, which has provided challenges for Thomsen to create balance in her life with a husband and three children under the age of 8.
She understands a life of athletics isn’t a path many women want to choose. “Female coaches sacrifice a lot when it comes to family, and I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice,” she said. “My mom was a good role model for me in that she had a career, but she was also there for me, so it can be done. My hope is that we are going to see more women who are willing to be successful in their athletic career but still achieve balance in their personal lives and not have to sacrifice.”