This Second Chance Could Be Golden: Stephanie Cox' Return to the Olympic Team
For 10 days in June, Stephanie Cox knew she wasn’t going to the Olympics. For the next days 10 days she knew she might. The day after that, she was going to China.
July 30, 2008
On June 1 of this year, Stephanie Cox stood in the security line at the Los Angeles International Airport with tears welling up in her eyes. Her Olympic dreams were over. Released from the final roster of 22 players being considered for the 18-player Olympic roster, Cox had left training camp and was headed home to … well, she really didn’t know.
She had started all six games of the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup just 10 months earlier, playing very well in some of the most difficult games of her life, and was surely a more than likely candidate to make the 2008 Olympic roster.
But with Lori Chalupny moving from midfield to defender, the emergence of Rachel Buehler, and Heather Mitts returning from ACL surgery that caused her to miss the Women’s World Cup, the options at outside back had now been stacked much deeper.
In a meeting with the U.S. coaching staff, Cox was told that she had not made the final 22.
“I don’t know if I actually had any first thoughts,” said Cox, who was Stephanie Lopez in the WWC before getting married last December. “My main emotion was just grief. I was so sad and a bit in shock. My meeting didn’t last long. I was crying. I tried to ask questions and comprehend what had happened.”
Sundhage felt that Cox had lost some passion for the game and that a break could help her recapture the vitality that had made her one of the America’s top young players. And it is well known that Sundhage prizes passion in her players.
Cox says that while she felt she was giving her all, especially in that final two-week camp before Sundhage cut down the roster, that perhaps her intense schedule of the last five years had caught up with her. Since 2001, she had prepared intensely for and played in two FIFA youth world championships, four college seasons and one Women’s World Cup. That’s a lot of high pressure soccer for anyone.
“I think a lot of it had to with fatigue,” said Cox. “I still loved practice and the game. I was just tired and I guess discouraged at not being as successful as I wanted to be earlier this year. I was drained and that impacted my ability to get up and down the field like she wanted. I couldn’t take time off as Pia was a new coach and she needed to see everyone play as much as possible.”
Sadly, her much needed break came a bit earlier than she thought it would.
Cox went home to her new husband in Gig Harbor, Wash., to mentally process getting cut from a soccer team for the first time in her life.
She had one day to mourn.
On Tuesday of that week, Cox had to fly to Denver for a previously arranged speech on behalf of her shoe and apparel sponsor Nike. She was going to speak at a function for the Colorado Rush Soccer Club, run by her former coach for the U.S. U-20s, Tim Schulz.
The theme for the speech: Overcoming Obstacles. Well, now she had a doozey.
“It was so ironic that I had this speech right at the moment of my greatest personal setback in my career,” said Cox. “I didn’t want to go, but I had committed and I didn’t want to let people down, so I went.”
Looking back, giving a speech 60 hours after being released from the Olympic Team turned out to be a blessing. Cox had written the speech before she found out her Olympic fate. It now needed some editing. That’s when it hit her.
“Going over my speech, I was thinking about what I was doing there,” said Cox. “It seemed kind of cruel at that moment, but then I realized, hey, just go for it. In the end, having to process all my emotions and figure out how I was going to present myself and what I was learning from the whole situation helped me move on. By putting my thoughts into words and speaking them out loud publicly, I found some redemptive value in the whole process of getting cut.”
So, she got up to the podium and started talking. She talked about playing in two youth world championships and not winning gold. She talked about her undefeated season and NCAA title in college at Portland, but also about falling short the other three years. She talked about the crushing semifinal loss at the Women’s World Cup. She spoke from the heart, injected some humor, got a bit choked up at times, and yes, spoke with passion. Towards the end of the speech came the kicker.
“Despite all of these setbacks on the field, I’ve always made every team and continued up the ladder with the National Teams,” said Cox. “But just two days ago, I experienced my greatest personal loss as a soccer player. Two days ago, I found out that I didn’t make the roster for the Olympics, so I won’t be able to pursue a gold medal.”
Cox talked about her experience in world championships, about dealing with the adversity, and how at every level she’d given her best. She talked about how she was at peace with that knowledge.
She finished to a standing ovation.
“It was one of my proudest personal moments to give that speech because I let it all out there,” she recalled. “It was hard to do, but I knew that even without the gold medals, it’s really about the process and the journey, about who you become as a person and the relationships you make along the way.”
Cox left Denver still in a bit of a fog, not knowing if her message had reached people. She would find out later that her audience had been impressed with her professionalism and had been positively impacted by her story, including a colleague of U.S. assistant coach Erica Walsh, who told Walsh that his under-13 girls Rush team were now all huge Stephanie Cox fans.
“I realized that even though I wasn’t going to the Olympics, I was happy to have the opportunity to impact people,” said Cox. “Athletes can inspire in different ways.”
Exactly a week later, Cox was asleep in her bed in Gig Harbor at 7:30 a.m. when her cell phone rang. She didn’t pick it up the first time. The second time it rang she looked and saw it was U.S. team general manager Cheryl Bailey from South Korea, where the USA was playing in the Peace Queen Cup.
“Steph, this is Cheryl,” said the voice from 5,000 miles away. “I have some bad and good news for you. Cat tore her ACL. and we would like you to come to Korea.”
U.S. defender Cat Whitehill’s knee injury had opened the door to the Olympics just a crack.
“My husband had just gone to work and I called him and told him to come home,” said Cox. “There was never any doubt I was going to Korea, but I needed some time to think. I had spent about 10 days thinking the Olympics weren’t possible anymore and letting go of the heavy responsibility that we on the National Team carry. I had to prepare myself to step back into that environment.”
About 24 hours after the phone call, she was on a plane to Seoul. Still nothing was guaranteed. There were 22 players still in contention for 18 Olympic spots. Her play at the Peace Queen Cup would be a major factor in rekindling her Olympic dream.
Cox decided she would take it one day, one meeting and one practice at a time. She also decided to heed her own advice and enjoy the journey.
“I knew overall that above the challenge of stepping back into the National Team environment that I was going to enjoy the time with the girls, with my second family,” she said about her trip to the Peace Queen Cup. “I never really thought about the roster or the Olympics, but I knew how fragile this second chance was. I knew that most people don’t get that kind of opportunity so I was going to make the most of it. I was just enjoying every moment and leaving everything out there. I did my best.”
Still getting her legs under her after arriving late in Korea, she didn’t play in the first match against Australia. She came on at halftime against Brazil in the second game and then played the full 90 minutes in the third match against Italy. While she didn’t get on the field during the championship game, she had played well in her 135 minutes of action, showing a renewed spirit and energy.
“I was so nervous when I went into games, which is unusual for me,” said Cox. “While my confidence was low and I was focusing on not falling over, I think all of the things that piled up against me prior to the Peace Queen Cup were totally in my favor at that trip. I felt so fresh after 10 days off, and was able to smoothly transition into things. The coaches were great and they didn’t throw me right back into the fire. Everyone else was tired, so I looked like I could run a marathon. I was feeling the best I’d probably felt that summer.”
The night after the U.S. won the championship with a 1-0 victory over Canada, the team walked into a meeting room at the hotel in Seoul. On a flip-chart under the bold words OLYMPIC TEAM, Cox saw her name written with 17 other players. She had made the final roster.
“I thought I had done well in the games,” said Cox. “I had an assist to Abby and helped other players do well during the games. But walking into that room and seeing my name on that board, my first thought was for the players who didn’t make it because I had just been there.”
Empathy is certainly one of Cox’ defining character traits and now, she hopes, her passion will come through as well. With the rollercoaster month behind her, as the team gets settled in China, she is just starting to let the events of the past month sink in.
“It’s just been an up and down struggle this year, starting some games, then not starting, coming off the bench, no certainty … but that’s pro sports and I am learning that,” said Cox. “I really didn’t take the time to envision what this experience would be like until we got to San Francisco for Olympic processing. Now, I’m just so excited to be here and experiencing all this.”
The lessons in all this? There are many. But surely not all goals are realized and many dreams don’t come true. But if you traverse the valleys as well as you celebrate the ascents to the mountain top, both journeys can be equally beneficial to a person.
“I think it’s wise to not look too far ahead,” said Cox. “My advice would be to look at what is happening in that moment and make the most of it. You string those moments together to achieve your goals, but you have to appreciate each day you get to do something you love, even if some of those days are sad ones.”
The passion, it seems, is back.