MANAUS, Brazil — U.S. midfielder Heather O’Reilly’s resume includes three Olympic gold medals, one World Cup title and 230 caps over a 14-year national team career. But even though O’Reilly is training with the U.S. team every day in Brazil, grinding it out in the tropical heat and humidity, she will not be playing in Tuesday’s final group-stage game against Colombia (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
In fact, unless something surprising happens, the 31-year-old O’Reilly won’t play at all in these Olympics and won’t even receive a medal if the U.S. wins one.
But she’s still here—as one of four alternates on the U.S. team—and that says something important about O’Reilly, and it says something important about the culture of the U.S. women’s national team that she holds so dearly.
On July 12, the day the U.S. Olympic roster was released, O’Reilly was at her house in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she won two NCAA titles at the University of North Carolina. She heard the U.S. Under-17 team was scrimmaging a team in nearby Cary, and so instead of running on her own, O’Reilly played in the scrimmage. “Dropped a nice assist on ’em,” she says with a smile.
Part of O’Reilly flashed back to the days when she was a teenager, a phenom from East Brunswick, N.J., who made her senior national team debut at 17 and two years later scored the game-winning goal against Germany in extra time of the 2004 Olympic semifinals in Greece. In that scrimmage against the U-17s last month, O’Reilly paid them her ultimate respect, passing on the culture she learned from playing with greats like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly: She played her ass off.
“And I will say, the future is bright,” O’Reilly added, “because those girls were good players.”
A million thoughts were swirling in O’Reilly’s head as she drove home that day, knowing that the U.S. Olympic roster was about to be released. She knew she wouldn’t be on the 18-player Olympic list, but rather an alternate along with Ashlyn Harris, Emily Sonnett and Samantha Mewis.
O’Reilly’s feelings welled up as she sat in front of her computer. “I’ve nearly spent half my life on this team,” she said during an emotion-filled interview on Monday at the team hotel. “So this team means a lot to me. Obviously, [being an alternate] is not an ideal role for anybody. We’re all ridiculously competitive athletes and people. And all of us scrapped and clawed to be part of that 18 all year.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to make this roster, and I wanted to go for it and felt like I have value and quality to contribute to the team. But things happen, and coaches make decisions. Jill [Ellis, the U.S. coach] asked if I would want to be part of the 22 that was here to help us win another gold. And to me that was a no-brainer. So I’m here pushing the team to do the best that they can—and be the best that I can be for the team.”
The Instagram post that O’Reilly typed on July 12 started out this way:
First and foremost, I want to say congratulations to all my teammates who were chosen to represent the U.S. on the 2016 Olympic Team. While I am incredibly disappointed to not be on the roster of 18 players for Rio, I am also proud. I am proud that I competed and that I truly went for it. I am proud that I bring my unique qualities to the table every day. This team deserves that. This country deserves that!
In most ways, O’Reilly’s role as an Olympic alternate isn’t much different from any other U.S. player here. She’s part of every training session, every meal, every team meeting. “In terms of training,” she says, “we’re there to help the team prepare for the next game. There’s always some time at the end of practice to work on what we need to work on, and we’re always asking the players what they might need, if it’s extra reps, extra shooting, extra heading, whatever it might be. We’re sort of there to serve them.”
But there are some big exceptions. During games at the Olympics, the U.S. alternates have to sit in the stands away from the team. Nor do they get a medal, even though in, say, swimming, the people who are in qualifying for relays but don’t swim in the final do earn medals. The only way O’Reilly would win a medal would be if the U.S. suffers an injury and she is called up to replace that player.
“I knew it would be hard, but there are harder things in life than being an alternate at the Olympic games,” says O’Reilly. “I definitely haven’t lost sight of that or lost sight of the fact that there’s hundreds of thousands of female soccer players in the U.S. who would love to be sitting where I’m sitting.”
“Personally, I think what separates us is the grind that we bring to the training pitch every day,” she continues. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in, and it’s not easy to bring those habits every single day. I learned that from Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy back in the day. There’s a certain expectation. You’re saying I’m bringing the best of me because I expect you to bring the best of you, and that’s how we’re both going to maximize ourselves and get to our highest potential. I’ve learned through the years through good role models that you can always choose your attitude.”
That attitude has stayed 100% positive from O’Reilly in public and on her social media channels during the Olympics. “And privately, too,” says Ellis.
“HAO has been all class,” says Carli Lloyd. “I think it’s helping generations to come to see that as a role model to look at, like, Hey, this girl’s experienced, but she’s an alternate and she’s been class about it.”
“Pure class,” says Becky Sauerbrunn. “I think she knew it was going to be tough to make the 18, and I think it was very clear to her early on. Jill was pretty honest with her, and she took it in stride and worked her ass off. She made it as hard as possible for her to be left off that roster. Playing with her at FC Kansas City, I saw her every day staying after practice and working on things, anything that would giver her the edge. And even when she didn’t make the 18, she was still doing that.”
“I had no doubt that HAO, whatever role she was going to be given, would embrace it entirely,” says Hope Solo. “And I know it’s hard for her. I had a couple discussions with her. It would be hard for any player. But she hasn’t changed a bit. She brings so much humor to the team, so much positive energy that you wouldn’t know what she’s dealing with personally.”
The U.S. women’s team has a lot of hardcore fans, and a fair number of them have wondered on Twitter and other places why Ellis selected Megan Rapinoe for the Olympic roster ahead of O’Reilly if Rapinoe wasn’t 100% healthy to get any playing time in the group stage.
But O’Reilly won’t join in on those questions. “Megan and I have been great friends for nearly 10 years,” she says. “We have a lot of laughs together, and that’s 100 percent the coach’s call. I have a lot of confidence and faith in all my teammates.”
It’s the same attitude that O’Reilly showed in her Instagram post on July 12.
In the 230 games that I have played for the USWNT so far, I have done it with my whole heart, with every ounce of me, regardless of the role, to help us win. Whether I was a starter, or a substitute, or even the times that I did not see the field. At the end of the day, I love this team, and I love representing all of you.
O’Reilly is nothing if not aware. Twelve years after scoring the game-winner as a 19-year-old in the Olympic semifinals, she sees Mallory Pugh—the U.S.’s 18-year-old emerging winger—and observes a bit of her past self.
It’s the way things work in sports. “When I was 19, I knocked some veterans out of their spots,” O’Reilly says, “and now Pugh comes around and I find myself an alternate.” She laughs. “Cue Simba holding up the baby and ‘Circle of Life’ comes on in the background.”
When you play for the U.S. women’s national team, you represent something that’s bigger than you, bigger than your teammates, bigger than the sum of all the individual women who’ve ever played on the national team. The pride in what the team symbolizes, the past and the present, is palpable with a player like O’Reilly.
“This team is just amazing in terms of the attitude and the culture that continue to be passed along,” she says. “Of course, it changes a little bit. But the common thread of our team culture, our desire to win and mutually respect one another, the way we compete at practice, the way we’re bold in our actions and words, it’s really cool to see that passed down.
“I consider myself to be more like a culture carrier, I guess you could say, because I’m one of the few that are left from the Mia generation through the Alex Morgan generation.”
A culture carrier. When it comes down to it, O’Reilly is a little like a benevolent virus, doing what she can to spread what makes this team special, to carry it to a new generation, even if it means she won’t play in these Olympics or take a medal back home with her. It’s in her actions. It’s in her words, right there on Instagram:
The U.S. Women’s National Team is special and it is an honor to be part of it. And next month, I will travel to Rio with the team as an alternate. Once again, whatever I need to do to help the U.S. win, I will do with my whole heart. And of course, I will be ready to go if called on. Now, let’s go win gold!