Christie Rampone: Life as Captain
THE ALGARVE, Portugal (Feb. 29, 2008) - In a modern sporting world rife with scandal and negativity, with steroids and spying, with arrogant athletes whose behavior shows they have given little serious thought to being a role model, sometimes you have to dig deep to find a positive and inspirational story like this one.
Christie Rampone never played a game for a U.S. Youth National Team. She didn’t play in the Olympic Development Program, and heck, she didn’t even go to college on a soccer scholarship.
When invited via fax and mailed airline ticket to her first training camp in 1997 (she had never spoken to anyone with U.S. Soccer prior to getting on the plane), she had so little concept of what it meant to play for National Team that she brought all her own training gear, and the laundry detergent to wash it. She even brought her own sheets and blankets.
Those who were there will tell you that she didn’t say more than a few words the entire camp.
One of the few conversations went like this:
“Where do you go to college?,” she was asked.
“Monmouth, in New Jersey,” she answered.
“Is that Division III?”
“Um, no, we’re Division I.”
Today, 10 years and 179 caps later, she is the captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team.
“I do come from a different soccer background than almost all of the players,” said Rampone, who was named captain at the beginning of 2008 after Kristine Lilly stepped away due to her pregnancy. “But my goals, passion and love for the game have always been there. To have been able to play for my country, and after a decade, getting the privilege of captaining the National Team, I can’t imagine something more special on soccer field. I’m really appreciative of (U.S. head coach) Pia Sundhage and my teammates for giving me this honor and for believing in the qualities I bring to the team.”
“Christie has great experience on this team and has the respect of every player for what she has accomplished and how she conducts herself on and off the field,” said Sundhage after naming her captain. “She is a mother and has a great feel for how to be a leader and a teacher. I think it is a great choice for our team.”
Rampone’s teammates agree.
“She’s subtle, but she’s powerful at the same time,” said fellow defender Stephanie Cox. “Even though she’s not the loudest player on the team, she’s powerful in her effectiveness with her actions and words as a captain. She has so much experience, but her dedication is always impressive. She is so focused on being the best physically and tactically, she seems to get better every year. That’s very admirable coming from my perspective as a young player.”
Rampone has played for the USA in three Women’s World Cup tournaments and two Olympics. She has always gone about her business with quiet determination, always getting the job done, always one of the USA’s most consistent players. Now, her role has changed. Instead of a being in the background, she’s out front. She’s the captain.
“I think being known as sort of a quiet person all these years has helped me because I’ve been able to sit back and listen to the best, from Carla Overck to Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly,” she said, ticking off the last three WNT captains. “I’ve been able to listen and take it all in, understand what playing for the National Team is about and hopefully now, pass on everything I’ve learned to the current team.”
One good thing about this current team is that she knows all the players’ names. That was not the case at that first training camp in 1997, which took place at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
During the first practice session, then head coach Tony DiCicco started with a passing drill that involved calling out the name of the player you were passing to.
“I had never seen the team play,” said Rampone, who was a senior at Monmouth at the time and the starting point guard on the school’s basketball team. “The games at the 1996 Olympics weren’t on TV and in those days, there had been only a few friendly games broadcast on ESPN. That drill was a quick ‘listen-and-learn game’ for me. Not only did I have to focus on my passing, but I had to listen to all the other players to see what names that were calling out. I was embarrassed, but at the same time, I didn’t want to call out a wrong name. These were the Olympic gold medalists.”
Rampone had gone to Monmouth on a basketball scholarship after scoring a remarkable 2,190 points in high school, but she also excelled on the soccer field as a forward, scoring 79 goals in her college career.
DiCicco had seen her play in a college match, and needing some athletic defenders at the time, decided to see if she could make the switch to the back. Good eye, coach.
In fact, over her career Rampone has consistently been one of the best athletes on the U.S. team. In high school, she had led her basketball, soccer and field hockey teams and conferences in scoring. She has long had one of the best vertical leaps and best 40-yard dash times on the U.S. team. She has combined that athleticism with a competitive spirit born from years of competition over hundreds of games. Those qualities have helped her become, with Lilly no longer on the roster, the USA’s most capped player.
Since her debut on a trip to Australia in 1997, Rampone has had to re-earn her spot twice, both after periods where her international career could have come to a close. The first came after an ACL injury suffered at the end of the WUSA season in 2002. Then there was her pregnancy in 2005. With her underdog mentality, it’s no surprise she bounced back even stronger from both.
“It’s definitely amazing, when you consider where I started to where I am now,” said Rampone, who is 32. “It was a long road and I had to overcome a lot. Playing for a small school, coming back from an ACL injury, from a pregnancy, and playing for four different head coaches, it’s been an adventure.”
That journey brought her the captain’s band as head coach Pia Sundhage handed it to her before the 2008 Four Nations in China. It’s a role she’s embraced, as much off the field as on.
“I’ve been enjoying the off the field part,” said Rampone. “You get to know each player more and have more individual conversations. Being able to help everybody is the part I am loving. Being captain is partly about making sure each player is playing their best so that Pia can evaluate everyone at their best before deciding on the top 18. Obviously, I can’t control everyone, nor do I want to, but I want to help everyone get to their highest potential, because that can only help the team as whole. That’s one of my main goals this year.”
Rampone has taken on the added responsibility despite traveling with her two-year-old daughter Rylie, but she believes that being a mom and being captain have some similarities.
“The main difference between these players and Rylie is that the players actually listen to me all the time and I’ve never had to put any of them into a time out…Well, maybe Natasha Kai,” said Rampone with a chuckle. “But overall, being a mom has helped me in this role in several ways. Having Rylie around has helped me facilitate interactions with all the players, especially the young ones, but also it helps in understanding time management, being proactive, and handing situations right when they occur. Being a mom has helped me be a leader because sometimes I have to make some difficult decisions or have some tough conversations with players that I know will may be painful at the time, but will benefit them in the end.”
There’s no doubt her teammates see one of the fittest and most conscientious players on the team and wonder how she does it all with a baby by her side.
“Sometimes they look at me and see someone who gets less sleep than most of the players and is always watching and taking care of a child, but can still go out on the field and be focused for all the training sessions and games,” said Rampone. “They see if I can do it, they can do it too.
“There have been times where players have said to me, ‘I just had a great nap today…ooh, sorry,’ because they know I didn’t get the chance to take a nap with Rylie running around.”
Since January when Sundhage first asked her to be captain, Rampone has settled nicely into the role, with a little help from Lilly, a future Soccer Mom counseling a current one.
“Everything has been feeling normal,” said Rampone. “Lil told me, ‘don’t change who you are just because you are captain.’ Obviously, I have to do more around the team, but she told me not to change my style. I think that was good advice. I’ve tried to lead by example on the field and hopefully, I have everyone’s respect.”
Her teammates have also felt comfortable with the transition, not something that was automatic given the void that a losing a legend like Lilly could have left in the squad.
“It’s been neat to see the ascension of Christie,” said Cat Whitehill, who earned her first cap alongside Rampone in 2000. “I watched her play on TV in the 1999 Women’s World Cup and the 2000 Olympics. I’ve been playing with her consistently since 2003 and see the work she’s put in. She always conducts herself with grace and class, through all the ups and downs she’s been through. Now that she’s captain, there’s no one that deserves it more.”
During the first team meeting at that training camp in 1997, DiCicco took the team through a video session evaluating the 1996 gold medal match. It was the first time Rampone had seen the game. Now, having experienced 10 Olympics matches as a player, she is focused on helping lead the team to Beijing 2008.
And the only laundry she’ll have to do is Rylie’s.