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Experienced Rampone anchors U.S. quest for redemption versus Japan

LONDON -- Mia, Julie, Brandi, Abby, Hope. Rose Bowl, Sidney, Athens, Beijing, Germany, London.

Christie Rampone has the entire list inscribed on her career: people, places, World Cup finals, gold medal games. She is the first four-time Olympian on the U.S. women's soccer team, and Thursday at venerable Wembley Stadium she will play in her fourth gold medal final.

"I've had such an unbelievable career," Rampone said Wednesday after her last Olympic practice. "I could never have written it."

Her teammates may attract the headlines and the twitter followers, but unsung Rampone, the captain, may be the most important member of the team. In her 15-year career with the national team she has evolved from a shy, benchwarmer to a strong leader who is confident and silly enough to do "the worm" on the field at Old Trafford.

"She's the glue," said Carli Lloyd. "She doesn't yell, she doesn't scream. She leads by example."

This version of the U.S. team has strong chemistry and confidence. A lot of that stems from Rampone's quiet leadership. She became the captain for the 2008 Olympics, after Kristine Lilly stepped away to have a baby. Rampone's steady influence helped the team heal from its divisions in the 2007 World Cup and come together to win a gold medal in Beijing. She has gracefully bridged the gap between generations, helping to integrate new players and manage an array of personalities.

"I deal with a lot more behind the scenes stuff rather than being the rah-rah cheerleader," Rampone said. "I do the majority of my work off the field."

She had to do some work when the team, finally, arrived here to move into the Olympic Village. Sequestered in their own bubble for the past few weeks -- playing games in Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle -- the team has operated in a small world. Now that they've finally reached their goal -- and the actual Olympics -- Rampone wants them to maintain their focus.

"I gave them a big talk," Rampone said. "Players can get lost. I told them they need to completely focus on getting their body ready and being ready to play. We'll have three days after to be in the village and hopefully celebrate."

If that sounds like a mother, well, that's because Rampone is one. The women's team once was famous for having two soccer-playing moms -- Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck -- and even having a nanny travel with the team. But turnover has created youth and now Rampone is the only mother. She has two daughters, ages 6 and 2, who are here with Rampone's husband Chris. Rylie is old enough this time around to understand the intensity of the competition.

"She's so emotional," Rampone said. "When we go down (in goals) there are tears in the stands."

Rampone, the center back, is the key to the defense, orchestrating and positioning the back along with goalkeeper Hope Solo. At 37, and despite battling a debilitating case of Lyme disease for the past two years, she remains one of the fastest, fittest players on a very fast, fit team.

"For me the adrenaline of competing is my medicine," she said. "It gets me out of bed and gets me going."

Rampone said she's never felt more stress at an Olympics. The team desperately wanted to get to the gold medal game and earn a chance to redeem their loss to Japan in last year's World Cup final last year. Now they have it.

"Now the stress is gone," she said. "Time to just go out and enjoy it."

That's not likely. Every final that Rampone has played in -- both World Cup and Olympic -- has been decided in overtime: 1999, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2011. Rampone has been there for all of them.

"I thought I'd seen it all," she said.

But then came the game against Canada, one that included three comebacks and a winning goal in the 123rd minute.

"We got back in locker room said 'Why do we do this to ourselves?'" Rampone said.

But they maintained their composure and survived. And some of the credit for that goes to their captain. The one who has seen it all. Everything on the list.

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