Oct. 28, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. - There was a time when current Stanford star Kelley O'Hara thought about quitting soccer. She was about 12, and thought she might want to concentrate on basketball ... or was it swimming ... or softball ... or track ... or triathlons.
No matter. Of all the sports O'Hara was involved in, soccer appeared on the way out.
Her club coach, Brian Moore, sat down with Kelley and her father, Dan O'Hara, and did his best to convince her otherwise.
"You have a unique instinct for soccer," Moore said. "You have national team potential. I think you have this type of future if you continue to play soccer."
Though her father remained quiet in the background, Kelley was convinced, and stuck with the game. She went on to earn selections to United States age-group national teams from under-17 on up, earning high school All-American honors along the way.
Years later, when Kelley got a call-up to a full national team camp in 2007, Moore received a call from Dan O'Hara.
"Remember when you said my daughter would make the national team?" Dan said. "I thought you were putting us on. I thought you were just saying that to keep her from playing basketball."
O'Hara, a two-time All-American, is now leading Stanford to one of its best-ever seasons. No. 1 Stanford is 17-0-0 and is led by the senior forward's 46 points and 19 goals, figures that have her on the brink of school records in each category.
According to her coach, Paul Ratcliffe, O'Hara should be the favorite to win the Hermann Trophy, college soccer's equivalent of the Heisman. She is skilled, quick, fast, and a classic finisher with a knack for excelling under pressure.
But if there is a quality that sets O'Hara apart on the field, it's that "instinct" that Moore saw in O'Hara as far back as age 11 on Atlanta-area teams.
"She had the natural attributes and fire that were unparalleled for her age," Moore said. "She was not going to back down. She definitely had an edge to her."
Call her competitive, driven, ambitious, aggressive, and relentless. O'Hara has the qualities that can't be taught, but which separate the good from the great.
"I've always been competitive, since I was little," O'Hara said. "Card games, board games, anything. I always want to win. That clearly carries over into soccer."
"She loves winning," Ratcliffe said, "and hates losing even more."
Moore, who coached O'Hara most years from ages 11 to 19, said he had to banish her from a few practices, punishments for butting heads too vociferously with the coach. The trick, however, was harnessing that intensity for the good of the team and herself.
Moore felt she made a breakthrough in that regard following a tough loss in the regional semifinals. When Moore tried to take responsibility during a postgame meeting with the players, O'Hara spoke up.
"We're not going to let you take the blame for this loss," she said. "This is ours."
At Stanford, O'Hara has fit perfectly into Ratcliffe's system, which calls for high-pressure from the forwards. If the opponent gains possession, the forwards' job is not over. Rather than regroup for the next attack, they attack the defenders, forcing bad passes and preventing the ball from getting into the Stanford end.
It's a style that calls for speed, athleticism, and dogged determination, not to mention a good set of lungs. In short, it's a challenge, one that O'Hara has embraced.
"If you love this game and you love to compete and you want to make yourself better every day, and you want to push yourself," O'Hara said. "That should be something you're willing to do. Expect the most from yourself."
O'Hara undoubtedly has.
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MEN'S GOLF: Tiger Time
To most of the world, Tiger Woods may seem like an unapproachable icon. To the Stanford men's golf team, Woods is a guy you can watch Monday Night Football with. In fact, that's what they did.
This week, the Cardinal played at the Islesworth Intercollegiate in Windemere, Fla., just a long-iron away from the Woods' estate. It's become an annual event for the Cardinal, which is coached by Conrad Ray, a Stanford teammate of Woods in 1995 and '96.
Woods watched some of the event, sharing a golf cart with Ray, and invited the team over after Monday's competition.
"It's a credit to Tiger that he continues to be really passionate about Stanford," Ray said. "Those were times he's really fond of."
Woods follows collegiate golf and has developed a connection with Stanford's veteran players. Ray says Woods has not changed despite 14 major championships and another season as the world's No. 1-ranked player.
"He's a guy who loves to talk shop," Ray said. "He values relationships and is not afraid to share his experiences. He really relates to the guys and our team feels very comfortable around him."
While players from other teams may have been unnerved to know Woods was watching, Stanford got a charge from it and played some of its best golf.
"It felt really good for the players to have his support," Ray said. "He's really a normal guy, even though he gets built up to be this super human figure."
The Cardinal finished third, but Ray is encouraged by his team's performance, especially during a fall schedule tested by some of the nation's best courses - like Shinnecock Hills (N.Y.), Olympia Fields (Ill.), and PGA West (La Quinta, Calif.).
"We're right where we want to be to make a good run," Ray said. "Our senior captain Joseph Bramlett should be healed from his wrist injury when the spring season starts, we're a deep team and we have a good freshman class."
Ray offered Woods a job as a volunteer assistant, though Ray isn't convinced Woods will accept the open invitation.
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WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS: No regrets
Lenika De Simone is strictly a student now. And that's fine with her.
De Simone arrived at Stanford only a month removed from the Beijing Olympics, where she competed for the Spanish gymnastics team. But De Simone was unable to compete for Stanford because of what the NCAA deemed as an illegal payment from the Spanish federation, as a reward for medaling at the 2006 European Championships.
"I was so stressed out with preparing for the Games and then coming to Stanford," she said. "I tried to appeal, but then decided not to because I was overwhelmed."
Because of NCAA rules, she was not allowed to practice with the Stanford team. She still had hopes of competing on the balance beam for Spain at the World Cup, and tried to get gym time by enrolling in every gymnastics class she could find - beginning, intermediate and advanced. Even so, instead of her normal training schedule of seven hours a day six days a week, she was lucky to get two hours only two days a week.
She stayed in touch with gymnastics by serving as the Stanford team manager, and made some great friends, including her roommate Alyssa Brown, but still felt something like an outsider.
"Last year was hard," she said. "I felt like I was losing more than maintaining. It wasn't worth it."
She also felt she had lost her direction.
Stanford honored her athletic scholarship as a freshman, but De Simone - a native of Cooper City, Fla., who moved to Spain at age 13 - had to make a decision on whether to continue, transfer to a more affordable school, or move back to Spain where her mother lives.
She chose to stay and was granted federal aid. Today, De Simone has come to accept the end of her gymnastics career. She's thankful for the chance to live up to her potential, something she wasn't sure she would be able to do after injuring her hip a week before the 2004 Athens Games and being unable to compete.
"I thought I was going to quit," she said of that disappointment. "But I never got to compete to the level that I felt I was capable of."
So, she pressed on, and surprised herself by earning a bronze medal at the 2005 Mediterranean Games on the uneven bars - not her strongest event - and followed with a silver (on beam) and bronze (bars) at the European Championships, and a 2008 Olympic berth.
De Simone has no regrets. What could have devastated her has instead led her down a different path.
"I didn't want people to know me as someone who went to the Olympics," she said. "I wanted to be normal."
Now a sophomore, De Simone is about as normal as a Stanford student can get. She has decided to major in human biology, with an eye toward pre-med. And she has chosen dance as a minor, having grown to love the feelings of movement that are so similar to gymnastics.
"I'm really excited about dance," she said. "I miss the competition, and the adrenaline, and I loved performing. But Stanford has so much to offer even if you're not an athlete."
And De Simone is ready to take advantage.
"Gymnastics was a stage of my life," she said. "Now, there's a new stage, and it's OK."
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MEN'S SWIMMING: Shark bait, Part II
In last week's Insider, former Stanford All-American backstroker Peter Marshall described a 2008 trip to South Africa in which he had a chance to swim with black tip reef sharks. Back in South Africa for a World Cup event in Durban, Marshall was looking forward to another shark dive.
His former Stanford teammate, Markus Rogan, a world-class backstroker representing Austria, was on last week's dive as well. Here is his account:
"The experience was completely undramatic," Rogan wrote in an e-mail. "It turns out sharks are quite relaxed and don't care about eating us. And they're difficult to chase, but quite playful when you try to keep up with them.
"They can also tell how good of a swimmer you are by judging the efficiency of your movements in the water. Also, they have a sense for feeling how fast your heart is moving and can thus judge how scared you are.
"Ironically, the more scared you are, the more the black tips think you're excited to play with them. The tiger sharks actually get more scared when they feel your pounding heart and disappear.
"An interesting experience that proved the irrationality of at least one of my fears."
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HOME GAME OF THE WEEK: Women's soccer vs. Arizona, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Top-ranked Stanford's match against the Pac-10's eighth-place team might not normally qualify as a premier home event. But, if Stanford (17-0, 6-0) beats Arizona State on Friday, the Cardinal will win at least a share of its first Pac-10 title since 2002 by beating Arizona.
A weekend sweep would ensure another record: the longest unbeaten streak in Stanford history. That would make 19, breaking the mark of 18 set in 1993-94.
There could be another reason to head to Laird Q. Cagan Stadium: a school single-season goal-scoring record. O'Hara enters the week one goal short of Sarah Rafanelli's 1993 record of 20 and seems poised to break it this weekend.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
Ideas for future notebook items are welcomed. Please contact David Kiefer at email@example.com. Past editions of the weekly Cardinal Insider can be found on the main page of gostanford.com by clicking on "General Releases" from the "Sports" pull-down menu.