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Katy Nesbitt, first American woman to ref at World Cup, is living her dream after teaching chemistry: "Felt like something impossible"

American woman referees at men's World Cup
Former chemistry professor becomes first American woman to referee at men's World Cup 05:38

Team USA kicks off its first appearance in the World Cup since 2014 on Monday. But another American who qualified for the competition is also grabbing headlines: Katy Nesbitt, the first American woman to officiate at a men's World Cup. 

It's a role she spent a lifetime preparing for — in some unexpected ways. 

"I can honestly say I am living my dream, and this was the biggest dream come true for me," Nesbitt told CBS News.

"It's such an honor that I get to do this and to represent female referees in this way, and to represent my country," she said.

The assistant referee, who already reffed at the 2019 Women's World Cup and men's league championships in the U.S., was picked as one of just six women who — for the first time — are joining more than 100 male officials at the World Cup.

"Honestly, this felt like something impossible that could never happen, so it was the most unreal feeling," she said about being selected.

MLS and World Cup referee Katy Nesbitt
Katy Nesbitt (C) walks out to the pitch for warmups with her fellow referees Timothy Ford (L) and Kevin Lock (R) before the game between Minnesota United FC and LAFC at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 13, 2022.  Getty Images

The 34-year-old first got involved in refereeing by helping out at her brother's soccer games. It later turned into something she could make money doing. But she never imagined as a kid that it could become a career.

"Everybody asks why I ... stuck with it, and I'm still not really sure sometimes," she said, laughing.

Nesbitt stuck with it even while competing as a figure skater, and then trying a different experiment: a career in chemistry.

"I started liking chemistry when I was in high school," she said. "And my high school teacher blew something up and I was like, 'Well, this could work for me.'"

She earned a PhD studying the brain chemistry of traumatically injured patients and became a chemistry professor at Maryland's Towson University.

"I had two computers set up in my office, one so I could analyze my data, and the other one so I could have every single World Cup game on," she said.

But with two passions, she said she felt the strain of not being able to put her best foot forward in either one. She began to pursue refereeing full-time.

Women have held the whistle in major men's sports for a while. Violet Palmer became the first woman to ref an NBA game a quarter-century ago, and last year, Sarah Thomas made history as the first woman to referee a Super Bowl. She was part of a seven-person crew officiating at Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay.

But Nesbitt said she didn't want to stand out.

"I chose to wear my hair in a bun and not in a ponytail because I ... wanted to ... be seen as just the same as every other referee," she said.

Though, she admits, that didn't always happen, including times when she has faced sexism.

"There have been everything from looks to comments made to me," she said. "It was difficult in the moment, of course. Um, but it kind of also fuels your fire a little bit, too."

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