Tori Penso

Moms to Know: Meet Tori Penso, FIFA Women’s World Cup referee

Sports: beautiful things. Female athletes: forces for reckoning with.

In 1987, the Women’s Sports Foundation (founded by Billie Jean King; 1974) established National Girls and Women in Sports Day. Celebrated each February, it honors accomplished female athletes and ongoing efforts to expand women’s sports.

Tori Penso, the first American to referee a FIFA Women’s World Cup final, has much to celebrate. The St. Petersburg-based mom of three (Piper Kai, 9; Jovie Birch, 7; Brinley Finn, 5), believes soccer has been a unifying gift for her family. Married to Major League Soccer referee, Chris Penso, Tori forges forward to help female athletes realize their full potential.


Growing up, what did soccer life look like?

Tori Penso: Soccer was our home’s sport—my brothers and dad played. At 10, my mom allowed me to start playing and at 14 suggested I start refereeing for income. I bought my first car with the earnings and gained independence which helped me throughout college.

I played club soccer at FSU. My teammates became lifelong best friends—my bridesmaids. No professional women’s league existed and female coaches were few, so soccer wasn’t a post-college pathway.

Seeing what women’s soccer is today is amazing.


Do your daughters play soccer?

Tori Penso: The girls play soccer because they want to. I ask, every seasonif they want to continue. One also does gymnastics and another swimming. Their activities are up to them, but I think they want to make us proud.

Their impression of soccer is seeing their parents on TV and in big arenas. The first time driving Piper to play, we passed the Rays stadium. She thought that’s where she’d play. We discussed needing experience in the little field. The girls attended the World Cup Finals and have had amazing experiences with the game. While I hope they love soccer as much as we do, they don’t have to. Balancing those experiences and conversations with them is fun.

Tori Penso
The Penso Family at the WWC Final

Aspects of your upbringing that help in executing your referee role.

Tori Penso: Mom raised us as a single mom. I don’t know how she did it. She taught me anything is possible.

When things got hard, she’d coach me through. I felt invincible. I didn’t experience gender bias until I experienced the real world. She remains one of my first calls when things get hard; she reminds me of what I’ve conquered.

My role requires the courage to make unpopular decisions. My mom’s pep talks continue making me feel limitless.


Women in the sports world you admired growing up.

Tori Penso: There are many. Within refereeing, FIFA’s Head of Women Referees, Kari Seitz—always challenging my thinking. Before taking the women’s fitness test at a national camp, she asked why we weren’t completing the men’s.

Brandi Chastain, the soccer star responsible for the winning penalty kick at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, made a lasting impression. She was the first female athlete I saw proudly show her muscles—a transformational moment in my perspective of how female athletes are viewed.

Female athletes continue shattering possibility’s ceiling.


What’s the biggest barrier in amplifying women’s sports?

Tori Penso: Opportunity.

Female athletes need opportunities to shine. People are often surprised by female athletes’ talent, but it’s because the athletes have long been prepared.

Globally, women haven’t received the visibility they deserve. More investments, with significant ROIs, are appearing in women’s sports. Once women get equal broadcasting, people will fall even more in love with the games.

Summer 2023’s Women’s World Cup proved an enormous drawing to watch women’s sports. Panama and Haiti had amazing showings because we’re investing in those regions.

Tori Penso

Where do you see women’s sports in 10 years? 

Tori Penso: Inspiring an entire generation of female athletes to exceed whatever thresholds exist. Today, we’re seeing many firsts. My hope is that many little girls watch, any sport, and grow inspired to say, I want to do that. I want to be that. 

2034 will have many more female athletes competing at the highest levels.


How do you handle the pressure of competing at a high level?

Tori Penso: Officiating entails abundant pressure, stress, and negative energy. Any decision I make is only liked by half the stadium. My job isn’t about popularity or people-pleasing. It’s about making correct, in-the-moment decisions with limited information. We confidently do our best—regularly reviewing matches to improve every game. The Women’s World Cup was close, but I’m still striving for a perfect game.

Before my first Women’s World Cup match, Kari told me, “Take a minute to soak it up. Breathe it in. Be proud of the road that’s brought you here—from sacrificing family time to simply turning down doughnuts. Once you blow the whistle, turn that energy into focus.” It worked. It’s become my practice.


Making travel work as a mother and wife?

Tori Penso: Like anything worth doing, it’s not easy.

Fortunately, we share passions. It helps us understand our careers’ ebbs and flows.

Early on, we made a mantra: Always say yes. Figure out logistics later. We decided family shouldn’t limit career opportunities.

During each of my pregnancies, Chris enjoyed incredible career experiences. The Tokyo Olympics took him away for 70 consecutive days. Sometimes it’s Chris’ turn for amazing experiences. Sometimes it’s mine.

Summer 2023 took me to Australia for 50 days. It’s tough. But it builds respect in our marriage and for one another’s career.

Tori Penso

Instilling work ethic in your daughters?

Tori Penso: We’re high performers. The girls see and experience it.

Sometimes they join my daily training. They see me working—getting uncomfortable. They see me on my hands and knees—fatigued but grinding. Showing kids that grit and determination are required for achievement is critical. Society has lost some basic grit.


Importance of sportsmanship within competitive sports. How do you promote it?

Tori Penso: Player safety is number one. Then, respect. Officials, always anticipating players’ moves as score lines change, help maintain equity. Sports is a beautiful arena where people can compete on raw talent. We take gamesmanship seriously and are proactive against it.


Advice for parents of aspiring professional athletes?

Tori Penso: Let them be kids.

They’re going to play longer and enjoy it longer if they want to play.

I see many young athletes receiving personal training and wonder if it will create burnout by college. Parents burnout too.

Let kids try different sports and enjoy family time. We only have our kids for so long.

Let them be kids.

Tori Penso

Originally published in February 2024 of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.