Kelley O’Hara Plays Tenacious D

by Jen Johns

Kelley O’Hara, Georgia Soccer’s hometown hero, National team player, with World Cup experience and a Hermann Trophy—is primed and ready for the opening match of the US National team Olympic campaign. At 24-years-old, Kelley describes herself as intense on the field. Most others call her tenacious, which is possibly an understatement for this newly re-assigned outside-back holding her own among the best back 5 in the world.

O’Hara grew up in Fayetteville, Georgia, and following her days at Stanford, has maintained her life in California where she trains, hangs out with her teammates, and surfs multiple times a week. So it is surprising when she phones, and the caller ID shows a “678” area code. Surprising that after 6 years in CA, she still has an Atlanta cell phone. She admits, “Well, I’ve lived here since Stanford, but my “home” home is in Georgia.”

If you’ve seen O’Hara in action lately, she’s incredibly intense. She admits that the transition to defensive back (after her entire career as a striker) has been a challenge, but she watches the best backs in the world play every day in training and she’s learning. Teammate and center back Kristie Rampone has played in more WC and Olympics than anyone on the field today, and leads the defense and the entire team on and off the field. Hope Solo pushes O’Hara with honest feedback, as well as encouragement. About the change in positions? O’Hara admits, “If this is what it takes to get time on the field, I’ll take it…..The major difference is discipline and control. If a player makes a bad tackle in the defensive third, it can be a penalty or threat, while not so critical than when she played in the attacking third. So, to prepare for the Olympics, she defends each day in training against the best attackers in the world. She relates to Michael Jordan who played hard and practiced harder.

O’Hara has admitted that it was difficult to be at the last World Cup and not see much playing time, but says that was her role at the time. “Pia (Sundhage, National team coach) is very direct about your role,” offers Kelley, “and if she says you are a practice player, expect to be a practice player.” But she’s looking forward to the Olympics as her first big tournament where she’s expected to play a full 90 every game.

When asked how the rollercoaster climb has been… especially going from top of one level, to missing the cut for the 2011 world cup team, to being re-added to the team, riding the bench at the next, then climbing to a starting role and then beginning again at the next level… she admits sagely, “Everyone has the times in life when they are a rookie and times when they are a veteran. Everyone has to ride out the bad times to get to the good. At least during the bad times [on the bench] you have to realize that you are still doing something you love and go do some more small-sided games and leave smiling. Sometimes if you get success too quickly, you don’t appreciate it.”

And so O’Hara does appreciate it. She looks back over her career and says that one coach stands out for her as one who paved her way: Brian Moore pushed her as a player and as a person, and helped build her confidence and drive. O’Hara admits that her dad always tells the story of how during U13 evaluations, Moore told them “she’s going to play on the US team. “ When asked, Moore admits that, though her dad originally thought he just said that to keep her from defecting to basketball, he really meant it. “In addition to her technical ability, there were just so many things that were uncoachable [meaning innate]. She is incredibly instinctive, which is rare. And her drive and focus are off the charts. I just knew that if she were to continue, she could one day play on the National team.” And would Moore say she’s tenacious? “Tenacious is an understatement.” Moore flatly replies. “She’s the ultimate athlete and a great teammate. I’ve never before and since seen a player that is that determined. She once out-jumped a GK’s outstretched hands. Her determination to go for and get to balls is incredible.“

O’Hara started with the Peachtree City Lazers in U-10, until U-12s, when she switched to the Lightning Soccer Club. She moved back to the Lazers for U-17s where she finished her youth career. Her teams won Georgia state titles at U-13, U-14, U-15 and U-17s. They won Regionals at U-14s and advanced to nationals, where they placed third. She played ODP her freshman year in High School, making both the state team and region pool. After that, she received her invitation to the U16 National team camp and it was off to the races. O’Hara has played on the U16, U17, U20 National teams, including the U20 Women’s World Cup, the U21 team and U23 team, and was called to train with the Senior National team in 2009 after a stellar season with Stanford. She made the National Team squad for the 2011 World Cup team after an injury to teammate Lindsay Tarpley, and after her switch to defense has had more minutes than ever for the USA.

Back at home, Starr’s Mill High School retired her #14 jersey in tribute to her play at Stanford and the youth national teams, but little did they know just how far she would go.

While her role model is fellow Stanford grad Julie Foudy, former National team captain and member of the game’s elite, she looks up to the leaders of the current team as well. “Pearcey (aka Kristie Rampone), is a tremendous leader on and off the field. She is able to [manage the various]personalities [on the team], most of whom have been leaders themselves at different times of their lives.” O’Hara continues, “Boxy (aka Shannon Boxx) in midfield is like the engine of the team. She isn’t the captain, but we look to her for leadership [because of] how she plays. She really guts it out.” Hope is an excellent leader as well, and she’s guided O’Hara. “And Abby, leads by example… and keeps everyone going on the field. Mittsy (Heather Mitts) has a ton of experience and knowledge of the game… and keeps everyone laughing.”

This time, O’Hara’s ready for the full 90.

So after a private Olympic sendoff party at O’Hara’s home in Fayetteville Tuesday night, she met the team and departed for Scotland, where they will make final preparations for the Olympics. They’ll gel again after the time away… and get ready for their opening round match against France, then Columbia and North Korea. Pia Sundhage, Jill Ellis and the rest of the coaching staff will prepare them, but when they hit the field, they’ll take ownership of their own game, do their jobs, and hold themselves accountable.

O’Hara won’t be alone in the Olympic Village. Her teammates seem like her second family. But her Mom and Dad, brother and sister and some close friends are coming to the UK as her personal fan club for the final 3 matches. And undoubtedly, her hometown fans from Georgia Soccer will be glued to the screen, cheering her on.