Love can lead to some major lifestyle decisions. In the case of Sara Stern, she made the choice in June 2018 to move to Sweden to be with her fiancé, Laurie Bell, a native of the United Kingdom who was playing soccer professionally for a Swedish league.
Two years later after getting adjusted to the country’s culture, Stern loves Sweden. It’s not McFarland, where she was a girls high school soccer star who was part of two Spartan teams that reached the WIAA Division 2 state tournament in 2007-08 before embarking on a successful NCAA Division 1 women’s college soccer career with UW-Milwaukee. But she’s becoming more accustomed to the surroundings and the country’s way of doing things.
“The language, the food, the way of life is so different from the U.S.,” Stern said. “Different can be good, like fika, which is a break in the day for coffee, cake and conversation — a delicious part of Swedish culture.”
Greatness as a Spartan
Stern entered McFarland High School in 2006 and in spring 2007, the high-scoring freshman helped lead the Spartans to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament in Milwaukee. She and senior Emily Bowen combined for 41 goals as the Spartans knocked off Xavier 1-0 in the semifinal. In the championship game, Catholic Memorial scored four goals in the first 23 minutes to win the title 4-1. It was a great way for Stern to learn about high school soccer and help expand on her talents.
“When I made varsity as a freshman, I was lucky enough to have (Domenick) Genova as my coach and Emily Bowen as my captain. I can’t think of a better pair,” she said. “They built a great culture that was both challenging and fun.”
McFarland returned to state in 2008 but lost an overtime shootout to Catholic Memorial after the semifinal match.
The Spartans won the Rock Valley Conference title in Stern’s junior and senior years, but the team did not return to state. Stern, who scored 33 goals as a junior and 38 as a senior, finished her high school career with 108 goals, and signed on to play NCAA Division 1 women’s college soccer at UW-Milwaukee.
“I always knew I wanted to play in college, specifically Division 1, so I had to make sure that what I did in high school reflected that competitive goal,” said Stern.
Marvelous in Milwaukee
She had a solid career with the Panthers at midfield and forward. In 2013, as a senior, she was named to the All-Horizon League second team.
Milwaukee was a dominant force in the Horizon League and advanced to the NCAA tournament in all four of Stern’s seasons.
“In 2010, we had six freshmen that signed for UWM from Illinois and Wisconsin. None of us knew each other very well, and we were paired off into twos,” Stern said. “We won four Horizon League championships and had four NCAA tournament appearances. I had a wonderful experience studying there, and the city is epic and beautiful.”
Stern graduated in 2014 with a major in communications and a minor in journalism. She said playing women’s college soccer was influential in helping her prepare for the future.
While she studied and played soccer at Milwaukee, Bell was playing on the men’s soccer team, and scored 26 goals in 70 games for the Panthers between 2011-14.
After a number of stops with various teams in the United States and his native England, Bell arrived in Sweden in 2017.
He now plays for Orebro Syrianska in Orebro, Sweden, a city with 124,000 people about 125 miles west of Stockholm. In 2018, Stern left her job in Chicago and decided to move closer to Bell.
“He signed a soccer contract that required him to commit to living there for another year and as much as I enjoyed everything about Chicago, I felt that my relationship of seven years warranted the move,” Stern said. “I was curious what life was like outside of my comfort zone. I wanted a new experience and perspective.”
Settling in Sweden
Moving to Sweden was culture shock for Stern, but two years later, she’s very happy she made the decision. Bell proposed marriage to Stern in the summer of 2018, but plans for a wedding date have not been set. Stern is currently employed for a sports tech company called Heja.
“They are a startup that focuses on the power of youth sports and simplifying communication and coordination among coaches, players and parents,” Stern said. “My role is customer support lead as well as head of the ambassador program. It’s a job that requires me to communicate with athletes and youth coaches all over the world.”
Stern has also been playing soccer for a semiprofessional women’s team called Rynnige IK – located in Orebro – and she is the team’s co-captain.
While businesses and residents in most countries are adhering to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Stern said Sweden is not in lockdown with restaurants and cafes still open, although groups of 50 or more people are not allowed.
“There are stickers on most of the grocery store floors signifying to stay 1.3 meters (about 4 feet) away from each other. Overall, there’s still a lot of freedom here, which makes it difficult to navigate, because my fiancé is from England and when we speak to our families from the UK and America who are all in lockdown, we can’t relate,” Stern said. “I often question if I’m doing the right thing, but I believe everyone is just trying to navigate this situation as best as possible.”
While Stern and Bell plan to stay in Sweden for the time being, she said it’s unlikely they will remain there forever.
“I love Sweden and I believe there are many reasons to stay, but I don’t believe it’s our permanent home,” Stern said. “The plan is to eventually move back to the U.S. and have a home base, while prioritizing travel to the UK where Laurie’s family is from.”