Skip to content

"As a mother, it's an honor": why Lily Nabet and her mom are each other's biggest inspirations


Lily Nabet’s favorite memories from childhood are of family.

She grew up in Encino in a tight-knit Persian Bahá’i community alongside two older brothers, Amin and Matin, surrounded by dozens of cousins, aunts, and uncles. “My life was based around being outside and being with family,” says Nabet. “Most of them lived within 10 or 20 minutes, so I always had that sense of family, wherever I went.”

She’s closest with her mom, Shadi, who she calls her best friend. “I can tell her everything,” says Nabet. “She’s also the strongest person I know.”

Nabet feels indebted to her mom not just because of what she and her family went through in leaving their whole lives behind in Iran, but because of the gentle way Shadi nurtured her kids’ talents, always encouraging them to follow their dreams, but never pressuring them to be something they didn’t want to be.

“I feel so proud to be a first-generation Persian woman in the United States,” Lily says, “and I feel extremely proud and happy to be my mom’s daughter.” 

Fruits of one tree

The Bahá’i Faith, a religion that originated in 19th-century Iran, is disproportionately represented among the diaspora, because its members face persecution under the country’s current theocratic government. That persecution is what forced Nabet’s family to seek asylum in the US after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Shadi was 11 years old.

Shadi has fond, if bittersweet, memories of her childhood in Iran: spending summers at the family’s oceanside house; eating smoked fish and rice at her uncle’s house for Nowruz, the Persian new year. She says she misses Iran—the old one, where people could worship however they wanted, where women didn’t risk arrest for wearing the wrong thing.

But California became home. Shadi’s family was part of a nascent Persian community that grew, as more people fled the new regime, into the largest outside Iran. The corner of Los Angeles Lily grew up in had Persian shops and restaurants everywhere, and such a concentration of Iranian expats that it became known as “Tehrangeles.”

That community was still small when Shadi arrived, but her great-aunt and great-uncle were already here, and more relatives followed. By the time Lily and her brothers came along, their annual Nowruz gathering—at her cousin’s house—had over 30 attendees.

Shadi guesses that Lily was two or three years old when she was playing outside at one of these gatherings. “They were bouncing the ball in the backyard,” remembers Shadi. “And my uncle, he pointed to her and said, ‘she is going to be big, you know, when she grows up.’”

Lily started AYSO at age three, but Shadi—and Lily’s dad, Navid, who came to California for college and stayed—were never the stereotypical soccer parents, yelling at refs and running their kids through drills in the backyard. However, her dad has played soccer for many years and still does every weekend in the valley. When another parent suggested finding Lily a club team, they didn’t even know what club soccer was.

Nor did they put pressure on their kids when it came to sports, or push them to keep doing anything they didn’t love. Lily tried baseball, basketball, and karate, as well as various non-sport activities (“Did piano,” she says. “Hated it.”).

“It was their choice to pick,” says Shadi. “I wanted them to be the decision makers.”IMG_2285

Lily gravitated to soccer. “She just shined,” says Shadi. “She loved it. I always told her, ‘be competitive, but enjoy what you do.’ Because once that enjoyment is gone, it doesn't matter anymore. And she's enjoyed it till this day.”

Far more important for Shadi than her kids’ achievements was the values she worked to pass on. “I grew up believing that we are all fruits of one tree,” she says, referencing a teaching of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’i Faith. “That we are one people and one planet. I have always told my kids to be one with people, no matter their differences.”

“And always be truthful,” she adds. “I told them, ‘the number one rule in this house is truthfulness.’”

Lily took all those lessons to heart, but from a very young age, Shadi says, her daughter also had the intense drive and single-mindedness of an athlete—that part, seemingly, came from somewhere inside. “She’s competitive,” says Shadi. “All her life, she’s worked super hard for what she wanted. She had the determination. She was like that since she was little.”

“You’re not going to put me in a box”

In the 2022 NWSL Draft, Angel City selected Nabet 36th overall out of Duke University. Her route to Duke, and eventually to draft day, took a winding path.

Back in high school, as the time to choose a college drew near, Nabet nearly fell through the cracks of the recruitment system. Because she was a grade ahead of her club teammates at Real SoCal, the timing of the usual recruiting cycle was thrown off. “When everyone else was a sophomore, I was already a junior in high school,” she explains. “So I didn't have much opportunity for universities to reach out to me.”

Her dream school was Duke. She pictured herself not just playing soccer there, but strolling the college’s leafy campus and going to classes in its Gothic Revival buildings. “Lily was always fascinated by history,” says Shadi. “She said, ‘the campus is beautiful, there's so much history, and it's a good school.’”

Plus the school had a strong soccer program, with three ACC championships and four College Cup appearances to their name. Under Head Coach Robbie Church, the team has produced a number of professionals, including current NWSL players Imani Dorsey and Quinn, both of whom were drafted into the league the spring of Nabet’s senior year in high school.

Nabet says there was another reason she wanted to go to Duke: to prove she could.

“I had a counselor at my high school who I did not like, and he was like, ‘I don't think you should go to Duke,’” she remembers. “‘There's not many people like you there.’”

It wasn’t clear exactly what he meant, but the implication—that she might somehow not belong there because of her race—stung. “I was like, I don't know if he meant that the way it sounded, but it really pissed me off,” she says. “So that was actually a big reason why I went. I was just like, ‘no, you're not going to put me in a box.’”

There was one problem. She hadn’t been recruited to play soccer there.

So she followed the advice of her club coaches and reached out. Again and again. “I talked to Duke so many times,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘just give me a chance, just come see me play.’”

Shadi remembers that it took a year and a half for Church to come watch her. Lily was about to give up and commit to the University of Pennsylvania, where she had an offer, but fate had other plans. “That day I got a call from Duke and they said, ‘you have the opportunity to earn a scholarship, but as of right now we don't have any money for you,’” she says.

In other words, she was being invited to come to Duke—as a walk-on.

The issue was less the money itself than about what an athletic scholarship represents. Scholarship athletes are sought out and recruited by coaches who see them fitting into their specific system; Nabet, on the other hand, would get the chance to train with the team and potentially earn a spot, but there were no guarantees she’d see the field.

To a lot of high school athletes, the UPenn offer—a scholarship for an Ivy League university and a spot on a Division 1 team—would have been impossible to pass up. But Nabet had already made up her mind.

“Duke was such a big opportunity,” she says. “A lot of people said, ‘you're not going to play, you're not strong enough.’ I was like, ‘no.’”


17 Minutes

As advertised, Nabet’s freshman year was a challenge. “It was definitely a shock to my system,” she says. “Academics were hard. Soccer was hard. And being a walk-on, you basically have to do everything right to even get a chance.”

Her life that first year was soccer and school. “There were people on the team who would study for an hour and do well, but that was not me,” she says.

After training, she would go home and study until midnight, then get up for class the next morning and do it over again. “I didn’t even have time to shower after training,” she remembers. “There were definitely days where I was like, ‘I don’t think I’ve slept.’”

“It was awful,” Nabet admits. She also says she never thought about quitting.

In addition to the academic challenges, there was an element of culture shock. In stark contrast to the sprawling Persian community she grew up in, in college, Nabet met one other person with an Iranian parent, in the three-person Farsi class she took for her language requirement.

“I didn’t feel any type of alienation or isolation, but I will say that nobody knew what [ethnicity] I was,” she says. “There were times where people would ask me and I would tell them, and it didn’t, like, process.”

When she told classmates where her family was from, they sometimes made assumptions about what that meant, not knowing that many different ethnic and religious groups call Iran home. “I’d tell them I’m not Muslim and they’d be like, ‘oh my god, I’m so sorry!’ and I’d say, ‘don't apologize! Being Muslim isn’t a bad thing! It's just that being from Iran doesn't automatically mean I am Muslim’” says Nabet. Ultimately, she says, “I learned a lot about myself. It only made me love myself more, honestly.”

She found her feet in the classroom, too. After earning a 2.7 GPA in a difficult first semester, her constant studying paid off, and she graduated with a 3.5.

In soccer, she worked similarly hard. “I didn’t want to let off in any capacity, whether it was academics or soccer,” she says, “Because I didn’t want to have any room to blame myself [if I didn’t succeed].”

She played just 17 minutes her freshman year, all as a substitute. She wasn’t fazed. “There were times where I went in for two minutes, or a few seconds,” she remembers. “But every time I was on the field, I got so excited.”

A day at a time, her focus never wavering, she proved herself. Sophomore year, she got 788 minutes across 22 games, including six starts. The year after that, she started all 20 games, recording four assists—and earned a scholarship. In her senior year, she was a co-captain and was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll. She also co-captained her fifth year as a graduate student. 

Back home, Shadi never stopped missing her youngest. “Every time I came back from North Carolina, I missed her,” she says. “I would think that after a year or two years, it would be easy, but it was never easy. I would come home, I would close her bedroom door…” she trails off before finishing the sentence.


"My baby's home"

The then-23-year-old didn’t have high expectations for draft day. “I really didn’t think I would get drafted. I watched the draft on my phone by myself in my living room because everyone told me I wouldn’t get drafted. I really only watched because I knew my friends from Duke were getting drafted.” 

Angel City First Assistant Coach Eleri Earnshaw is straightforward about where Nabet was expected to fall: “We knew she likely wouldn't get drafted [by another team], but could be a diamond in the rough,” she says.

The coaches liked Nabet’s technical ability and versatility. “She can play any position in the midfield, and her college coaches said great things about her as a person,” Earnshaw continues.

Nabet had told her mom she didn’t have to stay home through the whole draft, which runs for several hours.

“I remember that day, I had gone to one of my friends’ houses,” Shadi says, “and Lily called me. She was screaming and yelling, and she said, ‘Mom, I got drafted!’ I said, ‘where?’ She said, ‘Angel City.’ I said, ‘where's Angel City?’

“She said, ‘Mom, it’s in LA!’

“It was like the best day of my life. I thought, ‘God, you love us so much that you made this happen. My baby’s home.’”

Coming home to play professionally just a few miles from where she grew up was a dream come true for both of them, but for Lily, it meant being back in a similar situation to her freshman year at Duke: she’d have to prove herself.

She didn’t mind.

“My life now, every day is a grind,” says Nabet. “And I’m in a perfect spot.”

“Since the day she's got here, she's been such a mature pro, even though she was one of the youngest players here” in 2022, says Earnshaw. “There are players in the league that have been pros for ten, 15 years that don't have her level of self-awareness and willingness to persevere.”

Nabet’s work ethic was apparent from the beginning.

Fitness-wise, she wasn’t ready to play a consistent role in the NWSL her rookie season. “We knew that it wasn't going to be a year-long project,” Earnshaw says. “It was going to take time. And she really bought into that. She just got down to work and she's made improvements every single week.” Now, after two years of training, Nabet is consistently one of the top performers in the club’s fitness metrics.

Earnshaw also says that in her third year as a pro, Nabet is coming into her own on the field.

“When the internationals were gone, she was driving every session,” says the coach. “Every session we would leave saying, ‘Lily was good today!” We played against the LAFC boys in the international window, and she smashed it. She did everything we asked her to do. She looked so confident, she wanted the ball. That's what she's developed this season—she's imposing herself on the game.”

That assertiveness has earned Nabet two starts this season—both wins—but she doesn’t plan to lose focus anytime soon. “She does film every week, almost twice a week,” Earnshaw adds. “She does extra work on the field every week, like it's a prescription. It's like this internal, quiet fire that is always on.”

Shadi’s not surprised. She’s watched her daughter make sacrifices for the game she loves since she was little. “When she was in high school, she missed a lot of dances, being with her friends and things, for games,” she says. “I would ask her, ‘are you okay with this? You know, there's a dance and you don't want to go to that?’ And she would say ‘no, mom, I want to do this.’”

Asked where she thinks her daughter got that drive, she says she’s not sure. It’s always been a facet of Lily’s personality. “But,” Shadi adds, “She has another side to her that is full of friendship, compassion and unity. Healing people.”

“I admire both sides of it,” she continues. “As a mother, it's an honor. I always tell her, I don't know how lucky I was to have you, you know, because you have taught me so much as your mother, as myself, just through who you are. It's been a special ride.”