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Heather O'Reilly: Tough Break, Strong Will

She’s precocious, swift of foot and determined of mind. She rebounded from a serious injury to garner college and Olympic glory. And now Heather O’Reilly is set to add a spark to the USA’s attack on the world’s grandest stage for women’s soccer.

Four years ago Heather O’Reilly was limping around the practice field at the University of North Carolina, trying desperately to come back from a broken leg. The injury had kept her off the USA’s 2003 Women’s World Cup Team and now, heading into her freshman season, it was taking a mental as well as physical toll.

So much so that the teary-eyed 18-year-old, with the limited perspective that often accompanies the naiveté of youth, asked her coach Anson Dorrance, “will I ever be the same player again?”

As the 22-year-old heads into her first Women’s World Cup tournament beginning on Sept. 11 against North Korea in Chengdu, that answer to that question would be yes, and more.

“I don’t think I had ever faced much adversity in my young career and it was my first major injury,” said O’Reilly of her fibula fracture in June of 2003. “I was frustrated that my body wasn’t recovering as fast as I would like. It was the first time I realized that you can’t always just will yourself to do things. I had an invincible attitude before and that was the first time I realized that sometimes your body has a different agenda.”

In fact, it only took a few weeks to get back to her old, err…young self. O’Reilly had suffered the injury in Salt Lake City against (ironically) Ireland, just seconds into her first start for the full National Team on a play in which she scored. After the bone healed, and she regained some fitness, she showed her class, going on to score in every NCAA playoff game while helping lead UNC to the national championship.

“In the beginning of the season I was just so slow and out of shape,” said O’Reilly. “I was just proud that I could close that season on a high note and show what kind of player I was.”

With her fitness back and confidence on the rise, O’Reilly entered the 2004 WNT Residency Training camp with the goal of earning herself a spot on the 18-player roster for the Olympic Team. The year was filled with ups and downs, including being left off the Algarve Cup roster in March in favor of a trip to China with the U.S. U-21s. O’Reilly played well in three matches in Shanghai and went back to Residency with new resolve.

“Any player goes through tough periods and that was definitely a really difficult time for me,” said O’Reilly of her struggles in the day-to-day rigors of Residency Training Camp. “Honestly, I wasn’t playing well and that hurt my confidence. Finally, I just decided to focus on the qualities that I have which are different from other players and I tried to make myself hard to keep off the team. I wanted to show that I could give the team something that would help win the Olympics.”

O’Reilly ratcheted up her game just in time and was one of the last players chosen for the Olympic Team, perhaps a bit of a controversial decision at the time as then coach April Heinrichs left veteran Shannon MacMillan off the squad.

O’Reilly validated Heinrich’s faith in her, assisting on two goals during a 3-1 win over Australia in one of the final matches before the team left for Greece, then famously came off the bench to score the winning goal in overtime against Germany in the 2004 Olympic semifinal. Her goal came after she missed a golden chance a few minutes earlier, hitting the left post from a sharp angle despite an open net after she had rounded the goalkeeper.

O’Reilly’s ability to come back from that miss and score such a crucial goal encapsulated the mentality which got her on the Olympic Team in the first place.

Since then, O’Reilly has grown in many ways and has continued to raise her game to new levels, starting 20 of her last 26 international matches after seeing her name on the start list in only four of her first 37 caps.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Carolina soccer for putting me in the most competitive college training environment out there,” she said. “Going through two Residency Camps since the Olympics also helped me became more professional in my training and taking care of my body. I’ve become more two-footed, really worked on exploiting my one-on-one ability and have definitely tried to become more of a technical finisher.”

O’Reilly has developed as a person as well, admittedly gaining valuable perspective on her soccer career and her place on the National Team. The happy-go-lucky O’Reilly is one of the funniest and most free-spirited players on the squad off the field, but that contrasts mightily with the intense and insatiable worker on the field, using her blazing speed on the attack and to chase relentlessly on defense.

She just 22 yet has played 63 times for the USA. It must be noted that she has played in two world championships, with the U.S.U-19s in 2002 and at the 2004 Olympics, and won gold at both.

Now a professional, O’Reilly recalls with some amusement the kid who sat on the edge of tears in Dorrance’s office.

“I look back at that 18-year-old and see so many things, so many changes I’ve made since then,” she said. “I used to sweat the small stuff, freak out after a bad practice, worry about not getting called back into the team again. I guess I experienced the normal college revelations that everyone goes through. It’s just growing up and understanding that one setback won’t kill you and that there are always great challenges to look forward to. Having that kind of perspective makes life more fun.”

Great challenges? Fun? That’s sounds like someone with excellent perspective.