A girl and a treadmill. So begins the story of Heather O’Reilly’s relentless self-belief.
O’Reilly, a midfielder for the Boston Breakers, was 7 or 8, and she and her older brother Kevin were in a hotel gym, passing time at a soccer tournament. Kevin, testing some limits, amplified the speed of the gym’s treadmill to the highest level.
“I can run on that,” Heather thought. “I’m fast.”
She was, even as a young girl, never known to back down from a challenge. She stepped on the flying piece of self-betterment, and fell, hard, slamming her chin.
“Heather is this unbelievable story of not giving up, of incredible self-belief,” said her college coach, Anson Dorrance. “Every time she got knocked down, she kept getting up.”
Years later, O’Reilly, at 5 feet 5 inches with neat brown hair, was an All-Stater all four years at East Brunswick High in New Jersey. Still, it took her club coach to persuade University of North Carolina assistant coach Chris Ducar to recruit her.
The coach, Charlie Naimo, bugged the heck out of Ducar. He told Ducar he had to see this freshman prodigy, that she’d be perfect for North Carolina, which has won 22 national championships.
“This is ridiculous,” Ducar thought. Back then North Carolina only recruited upperclassmen.
A year passed, and finally, at a Maryland tournament at which he and Dorrance were scouting, Ducar agreed to watch O’Reilly’s match.
“I’ve got to go do this PR move,” Ducar told Dorrance.
After the game, Naimo was mortified: O’Reilly didn’t score. He apologized to Ducar, said he didn’t know what happened.
Ducar, though, didn’t care about her stats; he saw her fire.
“If she lost a ball, or someone stole it from her,” Ducar said, “it was like someone had stolen something from her purse or from her family.”
He reassured Naimo.
“Not only is that kid going to UNC on full scholarship,” he told him, “not too long after that she’s going to be on the full national team.”
And in 2002, at age 17, she was, making the first of her 190-plus caps with the United States national team at the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
One morning O’Reilly overslept and was late for breakfast. Julie Foudy, a veteran midfielder, gathered the team and told them they had to run sprints, because some players had been damaging team culture. O’Reilly was in the back of the huddle, sweating nervously.
They lined up; O’Reilly burst forward. When she got to midfield, she realized no one else was with her.
She didn’t know the other players purposely didn’t run to teach the young go-getter a lesson. O’Reilly just thought she was too fast for them.
The summer before her freshman season at UNC — where from 2003-06 she won two national titles and scored 59 goals — O’Reilly broke her leg playing on the national team, preparing for that fall’s World Cup.
She was devastated and questioned whether she’d ever be the same player again.
Her doubts were soon alleviated. In her first season, O’Reilly led UNC to the 2003 national championship, scoring 16 goals en route to being named National Freshman of the Year.
“The national team’s loss in that World Cup was our gain,” said Dorrance.
After that season, O’Reilly resolved to make the 2004 Olympic team, but coach April Heinrichs told her she’d be better-suited training for that year’s Under-19 World Cup.
O’Reilly’s spirit was shattered: She wanted to play on the biggest stage. Dorrance advised her to tell Heinrichs that she’d rather be a practice player on the Olympic team. She did, and O’Reilly started training with the Olympic hopefuls.
The night before Heinrichs selected her roster, O’Reilly called Dorrance.
“Anson, Anson! I think April has to pick me,” she said.
“Why is that?” Dorrance asked.
“The reserves just scrimmaged the starters, and I was playing,” she said. “I scored two goals.”
The next day, Heinrichs selected her for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
In those Olympics, as the youngest player on the team at 19, O’Reilly was the hero.
The Americans were battling Germany in the semifinal: 1-1 in overtime.
The ball was knocked through the German defense. O’Reilly corralled it, moved around the keeper, shot at the open net . . . and missed. She looked to teammates for consolation. No one said anything.
“It was in that moment,” O’Reilly said, “that I had to dig up that self-belief.”
Minutes later, O’Reilly scored the game-winner. The US won gold three days after that.
“She’ll hit a wall, and she’ll figure out a way to get over that wall,” Breakers coach Tom Durkin said. “If she can’t get through it, she’ll go around it, she’ll get over it. But she’ll figure out a way.”
Before joining the Breakers in 2012, O’Reilly played a turbulent season with New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC in 2009.
Sky Blue FC, winners of seven games under three coaches in its first season as a professional team, surprisingly won the league championship, 1-0. O’Reilly scored the lone goal.
It’s her self-belief, Dorrance said, that powered O’Reilly from broken leg to national championship, from Olympic disappointment to Olympic heroics, from professional soccer crisis to league title.
“Sports is a series of highs and lows,” O’Reilly said. “And I feel like my self-belief has helped me keep a level head.”
And it’s stayed with her, Durkin said, on the last-place Breakers (3-12-2), through losses and wins alike, onto the Harvard Stadium training fields, into the locker room.
Her work ethic, the coach says, is unmatched — O’Reilly, 29, plays every game as if it’s the World Cup final, which she hopes to win for the first time next summer in Canada — and provides a standard for other players.
“There’s no one that’s a harder worker,” said midfielder Kristie Mewis.
But what’s more important, Durkin and Mewis say, is this: She’s selfless, offering jokes and tips and lifts to her teammates when they most need it.
Yes, O’Reilly makes others believe in themselves, too.Rob Harms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @harms__way.