A big dream and self-belief propelled player to World Cup title, three Olympic golds

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USWNT player and former Tar Heel Heather O'Reilly spoke at a Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC fundraising lunch Friday. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
USWNT player and former Tar Heel Heather O’Reilly spoke at a Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC fundraising lunch Friday. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

Self-belief, self-discipline, and competitive fire.

Those are the three things three-time Olympic gold medalist and 2015 Women’s World Cup winner Heather O’Reilly said her college coach, long-time University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill coach Anson Dorrance, said every great athlete needs to succeed.

The former Tar Heel and current United States Women’s National Team player was in Wilmington Friday to speak at a fundraising lunch for the Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC at the Cape Fear Country Club.

She spoke to a room full of soccer players, coaches, parents, local politicians and business people about the lessons she’s learned throughout her successful career thus far.

At the age of 17, while still a senior at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey, O’Reilly was named to the women’s national team. Two years later, at the age of 19, she was “absolutely the last person” to make the 2004 Olympic team that won gold in Athens.

“I was young, I was inexperienced, but I was hungry and I believed,” said O’Reilly, who was the youngest person on that squad. “I really think that it was this self-belief, this dreaming big, that carried me.”

O’Reilly said that playing at North Carolina, where her #20 is retired along with some of the legendary soccer program’s stars like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, and on the national team showed her that she wasn’t the only one who was driven, disciplined and super competitive. Despite living in a culture where the “cool” thing to do is to act like you don’t care, O’Reilly told the young players in attendance that she learned the opposite is actually true, that caring deeply about something is how you accomplish things.

“That drive, that hunger for improvement is what propelled the USWNT to win the women’s World Cup this summer,” O’Reilly said. “Although we love that people get behind us every four years for the World Cup and the Olympics, we know that a lot more work goes into the weeks and months between those events. Because of that competitive fire amongst ourselves and between the other teams, we were able to win it.”

O’Reilly said it’s also key for young players to have strong support systems, like the one the Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC provides, and credits her parents for always being there for her with their time, resources and other intangible ways of support.

“I think it’s so important to praise things like focus, positivity, hard work, trying something new,” said O’Reilly. “I think it’s very important to surround yourself with people who support your big dreams.”

One of the local soccer players who grew up playing in Cape Fear Soccer Club programs (the name of the organization before partnering with the Hammerheads in 2014) and is looking to make waves at the next level was excited to hear one of her childhood idols speak in her hometown.

“It was amazing. She’s someone that I look up to a lot,” said Laney High School senior Baley Edwards, a key player on her school’s basketball and soccer teams and recent UNCW women’s soccer signee. “I learned that you just have to work hard to get what you want.”

The annual fundraising luncheon for the non-profit Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC raised $9,800 from attendees and $10,000 from an anonymous donor. The money goes to support soccer programs that serve around 4,000 children in New Hanover County.

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