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Lauren Cheney Leads the U-20 WNT Through CONCACAF Qualifying with Big Game and Bigger Heart

Open-heart surgery at the age of three hasn’t stopped U.S. forward Lauren Cheney from developing into one of the best young players in the country. With some experience training with the full U.S. Women’s National Team behind her, the Indianapolis, Ind., product is primed and ready to help lead the USA to the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship. In order to book their tickets to Russia, Cheney and her mates will need one more win at CONCACAF Qualifying in Mexico to earn one of the three coveted berths. If major surgery as a baby didn’t stop her, it’s likely to be difficult for opponents as well.

Legendary ESPN announcer Chris Berman would love U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team forward Lauren Cheney.

At five-foot-eight and with a rock solid frame, Cheney is as likely to go through a defender as around her. Watching her post-up a defender or thunder toward goal, one can almost hear Berman’s famous “NFL Primetime” sound effects as overmatched opponents bounce off her powerful legs, hips and torso.

Seeing the physically dominant Cheney play her position, one would be hard-pressed to believe that at the age of three she underwent open-heart surgery. Baby Lauren had a procedure to correct an atrial septal defect, and the 10-inch scar that runs vertically along her sternum is a lifetime reminder.

That day on the operating table may also have been the last time Cheney sat still.

She has remarkably coherent memories from the day of her surgery and the days after. And none of them include having any fear or nervousness, although she’s pretty sure she didn’t grasp the seriousness of what was going on. On the day she went to the hospital, she was playing with her brother, and as she left, told him to keep all the toys right where they were because she would “be right back.”

Cheney was at the hospital for a total of two weeks, a time span that included tests before her surgery and recovery after. Those who were there could probably testify that the character traits which make Cheney such a tremendous competitor today were present at the beginning.

In her own words: “I could possibly have been the most hell-raising kid that hospital has ever seen.”

When the nurses gave her a liquid anesthesia to knock her out before the surgery, she tried to postpone the sleep by running around and around a couch. She eventually succumbed.

After surgery, when they tried to make her wear a diaper, the already potty-trained Cheney refused. Vehemently.

“I kicked the nurses when they tried to put it on,” she said somewhat sheepishly, but also with some pride. It was perhaps the first clue to her future career in soccer.

In recovery, she tried to play nice with the other kids in the playroom, but ended up pushing over all of their blocks.

If she wasn’t going to wear a diaper, she certainly wasn’t going to use a bedpan. The three-year-old Cheney made the nurses walk her to the bathroom. When she set foot in the hallway and starting walking the day after her surgery, she remembers everyone cheering as she took each step a bit faster.

The nurses also had a little red wagon and asked her to get in so they could pull her down to the cafeteria. Yeah, right. Cheney had received a Teddy Bear after the surgery (which she still has today). She put it in the wagon and pulled it herself.

Her rebellious nature certainly wasn’t going to stop once she got home.

“After the surgery, my mom and dad hid my bike because they knew I would try to go out and ride,” said Cheney. “They told me that I couldn’t get my sutures wet, but then I got in a water gun fight with my brother, and my parents flipped out.”

Cheney has not slowed down since. The procedure, which sealed a hole in her heart, allowing the increased flow of oxygenated blood to her brain and muscles, was completely successful. She has had no ill effects over the years while developing into one of the top young players in the United States and was recently named the NSCAA High School and Youth Player of the Year.

As she grew into a junior high school student, however, the scar was a source of uneasiness. She admits she wouldn’t wear t-shirts that made the scar visible until high school.

“I was embarrassed about it,” admitted Cheney. “My mom said I could I have plastic surgery at the end of junior high, but she also said it was unique, so I never did. I had just gotten tired of people asking me about, but now I don’t care at all.”

It’s part of that carefree attitude that has made Cheney so successful as she rises through the ranks of the U.S. Women’s National Team. A challenge never bothers her, in fact, she rejoices in them. Evidence of that came with the young forward’s quick adjustment to the full national team, attending two training camps in 2005, one in Portland and one in Los Angeles at The Home Depot Center.

Cheney admits, however, that she may not have embraced the process of choosing a college. In fact, when most elite women’s youth players are committing to schools in the beginning of their junior years, Cheney waited until the middle of her senior year.

It wasn’t that she didn’t have some great options, she was just waiting for a gut feeling that had yet to come. And of course, as her stay at the hospital made clear early on, she doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do.

“I wasn’t ready to decide,” said Cheney, who spurned the pressure of several high profile coaches and took her own sweet time. “I went back and forth in my mind and kept having questions. If there was a new school that would call, I would say to myself ‘maybe I am interested in them, too.’”

It became apparent that she needed some focus. As the process dragged on, her parents were even starting to wonder if she could make a decision.
“My parents made me narrow it down,” she said. “I guess it was getting really annoying and frustrating.”

It may have seemed to outsiders like she took forever, but Cheney had actually set a deadline, and she met it.

At 5:30 a.m. (her normal hour to rise for school) on November 30, 2005, the alarm on her cell phone went off, blaring “Waltz of the Flowers.” Four months earlier she had set the alarm as her deadline to choose a college. The phone read:

5:30 a.m.
Make college decision

So she did.

“I checked my phone, put my hands on my head, and the rest of the day that’s all I thought about,” said Cheney. “I got home from school and called my parents.”

Should would attend UCLA.

“It just felt right,” she said.

So next fall the Midwestern girl will come west to Los Angeles, a place she’s very familiar with, having spent much time at the U.S. Soccer National Team Training Center in Carson, Calif. She even graduated from high school a semester early so it will be easier to put all her effort and focus into the U-20’s run to Russia, provided all goes well in Mexico.

For a girl who overcame a hole in her heart to put holes in opponents’ nets, odds are she’ll make sure it does.