Hamm a part of O'Reilly factor
HERAKLIO, Greece -- It's almost as though their careers are intertwined, one just beginning, the other only a gold-medal match away from retirement.
Heather O'Reilly rooted for the U.S. Women's National Team while growing up, putting up Mia Hamm posters in her bedroom of her East Brunswick, N.J. home.
So, how appropriate was it that the two combined for the winning goal in the U.S.'s dramatic 2-1 semifinal victory over world champion Germany in the women's Olympic soccer tournament on Monday night.
In fact, the 19-year-old O'Reilly has been touted as the 32-year-old Mia's heir apparent because of speed and finishing ability. Of course, Hamm's finishing ability is known the world over, having recorded 153 international goals, a record for both men and women.
They are certainly are at different stages of their careers.
O'Reilly will enter her sophomore season at the University of North Carolina, where Hamm set many college scoring records that her younger teammate could very well break someday.
It's only a matter of time before O'Reilly spreads her wings, getting an opportunity to play fulltime when Hamm retires after the Olympics.
"She has the skill that is absolutely frightening to any defender and she's the fastest person on our team," Hamm said. "She's one of the fastest players I've ever seen on a soccer field and whether she starts or comes in off the bench, that's a weapon that's kind of hard to contain."
O'Reilly has heard the talk about becoming the next generation's superstar.
"My role is to come off the bench and provide some fresh legs," she said. "If I look forward too much, it is a bit overwhelming. I don't think that will be beneficial at all."
O'Reilly made her debut in a 1-1 tie with Sweden on March 1, 2002.
"I think coming onto this team as a 17-year-old was first a little bizarre to me to be playing up top with Mia," she said. "They were idols to me. They still are ... I can't be star-struck anymore."
Trust me, she isn't. Consider what O'Reilly accomplished on Monday night, converting a pass from Hamm to boost the U.S. into Thursday's gold-medal match against Brazil.
These Olympics have been hailed as the last time five U.S. players who have played on two world championship teams and a gold-medal side will play together - Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Hamm.
That certainly hasn't been lost on O'Reilly.
"All year that has been our focus," she said. "What these women have done for the last 10 years has been so remarkable and this is it for some of them. As young players we wouldn't be happy putting them out with anything but a gold."
Not suprisingly, O'Reilly grew up rooting for this team.
"Every Christmas my mom would stick a (U.S. Soccer women's) calendar under my stocking," she said. "I was a pretty big fan. I had it up all year."
She attended the 1999 Women's World Cup at Giants Stadium "screaming my head off for Mia as a 14-year-old. That's why it's so amazing to play with the team and be a part of this significant event."
Hamm returned the compliment. "It's flattering," she said. "Her love of the game and for the team inspires us old bags a lot."
So, it was appropriate that Hamm set up O'Reilly's fourth international goal in the ninth minute of the first extra time, sort of a passing of the torch.
Defender Christie Rampone started it by passing to Abby Wambach, who fed an onrushing Hamm. She raced to the goal line and sent a backpass to O'Reilly eight yards out. O'Reilly, who replaced University of North Carolina teammate Lindsay Tarpley in the 75th minute, fired a shot with her right foot in traffic to the lower left corner past goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg.
"I'm feeling really good right now," O'Reilly said. "I'm just one piece to this huge puzzle of a team. I did my role today, coming off the bench, providing some fresh legs and a spark. Lucky for me it worked out today."
Veteran defender Brandi Chastain, 36, who knows something about big-game heroics, is O'Reilly's roommate.
"This is a wonderful coming out party for Heather O'Reilly," she said. "One goal doesn't make a career. We'll see down the road for Heather. This isn't a bad jumping off point."
O'Reilly was expected to play a key role as at least a substitute at last year's Women's World Cup, but broke her left fibula last summer.
"It was pretty devastating," she said.
"I did everything I could to try to rehab it. There was a point where I could not fight human nature, could not make the recovery process go any faster."
She returned to health and scored 15 goals in part-time action as a freshman at North Carolina. The 5-5, 138-pound O'Reilly collected a school-record eight goals in the NCAA tournament for the Division I champions. The previous record holder? Hamm. Who else?
As the youngest player on the team, O'Reilly has the most severe generation gap since several of her teammates are almost old enough to be her mother.
When the team played in the Algarve Cup in Portugal, many of the older players visited pottery shops.
"I was getting set for my first dorm room," O'Reilly said. "I was buying posters and things like that. I don't think I need pottery for a couple of more years."
But a lot of it is all in fun.
"They're all like big sisters to me," she said. "They definitely watch after me. They tease me sometimes, but it's all in love. Last year I graduated from high school and I had things like my prom and graduation. They wanted to hear all these stories and kind of live their high school lives through me again. It's kind of cool."
Depending on how the U.S. fares vs. Brazil on Thursday, Hamm will take part in either a victory tour or a farewell tour this fall. Then she will build a life together with husband Nomar Garciaparra, shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. She would like to start a family someday.
Wouldn't it be ironic and appropriate if Mia's daughter has posters of Heather O'Reilly in her room?
"That would be great," Hamm said. "I definitely would buy it."
At the rate O'Reilly is going, so will a lot of young girls in the not too distant future.
The last word
I would like to offer an apology about my gut feeling prediction in Sunday's column. I can't believe I was that far off. I predicted that the U.S. would defeat Germany on a late goal, 2-1, which it did. I also predicted that Kristine Lilly would score the game-winner. Well, she did score a goal, but it was the Americans' first of the match. O'Reilly scored the game winner. Oh well, I guess I can't be perfect all of the time. I guess I have been spoiled by my prognostications at the 2000 Summer Games, where I predicted that the U.S. women would lose to Norway in overtime of the gold-medal match, which the Americans did, and the fact the U.S. would overcome Japan in the quarterfinals of the men's tournament via penalty kicks, which they did. As for my women's gold-medal game prediction, you'll just have to look at my Wednesday column.
Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com