Former Gator Mitts prepares for final Olympics
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team captured America's and the world's attention a year ago in the World Cup.
Former UF standout Abby Wambach's game-winning headers, goalkeeper Hope Solo's big saves and quirky guitar-playing coach Pia Sundhage made the Americans headline news on the way to a heartbreaking loss to Japan in a drama-filled penalty-kick shootout in the final.
The Americans are back, shooting for gold starting Wednesday when they face France two days before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in London.
A year ago, another former Gators standout, defender Heather Mitts, could only watch as a hamstring injury kept her sidelined during the World Cup.
Mitts is once again healthy and at 34, one of the wise old veterans on the U.S. Olympic Team. Mitts is playing in her third – and final – Olympics.
A teammate of Wambach's at UF when the Gators captured the program's only national title in 1998 – only the fourth season of the program's existence – Mitts has enjoyed a stellar professional and international career since leaving UF.
Gators coach Becky Burleigh chuckles when she recalls Mitts' recruiting visit to UF more than 15 years ago. Also a model, Mitts met with Burleigh and assistant coach Victor Campbell at old Yon Hall.
"I'm sure Heather will cringe at this story,'' Burleigh said.
The story goes that Mitts wanted to make sure that Florida's spring season wouldn't interfere too much with her modeling career. During a break in the meeting Mitts left the table for a couple of minutes.
"Vic turns to me, 'what are we doing recruiting this girl? She is not serious about soccer.' It's funny. I think she is now one of Vic's all-time favorites just because of how competitive she was and how tough she was."
Not only did Mitts help the Gators win a national title as one of the best defenders in school history, she remains one of the women's games most visible stars entering the London Olympics.
"You would have never guessed that based on that conversation in the cafeteria that day,'' Burleigh said. "She has just been so consistent throughout her career. I also think she is just a great role model for younger players and what it takes to be a professional for that long."
GatorZone.com recently caught up with Mitts before she left for the U.S. team's training camp in northeast England at the Middlesbrough FC training facility. Mitts plans to retire from soccer once the Olympics are over and focus on starting a family with her husband, NFL quarterback A.J. Feeley.
Here is our Q&A with Mitts:
Q: What's it like to be healthy for the Olympics after missing the World Cup last year?
A: Last year was definitely a challenging year for me. Just to be healthy right now and to be fit, it's a great feeling to be able to have made the team already and look forward to my last Olympics. Originally I had just wanted to play in one World Cup and be done. And then when it came around to going over there and not playing because of my injury, it was kind of bittersweet. I wanted to give it one last shot just to be able to give myself a chance to make the team and see if I could possibly be able to go out with one more gold medal."
Q: The U.S. recently defeated Japan in a warm-up tournament in Sweden. How much of a confidence boost was that?
A: To go over there and play against two teams in the top 10 who we are going to face in the Olympics and to come away with two victories, those were big wins for us. It's great to obviously beat Japan. We've had a lot of really close games against them and they have been coming out on top more than we would like them to. To go over there and be able to get a 4-1 win against them definitely gives us a lot of confidence going over to London.
Q: What was the difference for the U.S. than the loss to Japan in the World Cup?
A: I think that we came out high pressuring them and they just never were able to get into a rhythm. We had the momentum. We were all over them. It was great to see how aggressive we were shutting them down defensively and playing well. We felt like that if we can play like that in the Olympics, good things are going to come.
Q: So this really is it for you? You plan to retire?
A: This is it for sure. This is it for me. This is, in my opinion, to be able to play in my third Olympics at the age of 34 and to be able to walk away after this, I can't think of a better way to go out of the game.
Q: What do you see life after soccer being like for you?
A: Good question. For me right now, as much as we travel, I rarely get to see my husband. To be able to finally settle down and to have a home and hopefully start a family and start the next chapter of my life.
Q: Where do you call home?
A: My suitcase [laughing]. We are nomads. We travel all over the place. We do have the home in St. Louis but we are trying to figure out what's next, for my husband and me. Hopefully we can both end the way we want it to – hopefully for him with one more year [in the NFL] and me winning gold in the Olympics. After that, it's time to settle down and start the life that we've been looking forward to living together.
Q: What is your greatest memory in soccer?
A: It has to be a toss up between being at the University of Florida and winning the only national championship the school has for soccer, and obviously for me coming back from my ACL and winning the [Olympic] gold in 2008. Those are the definite highlights of my career.
Q: How long did it take for you to feel completely healthy after last summer's World Cup?
A: I wasn't fully healthy until probably at the first National Team camp we can back to in November. I think that's when I felt 100 percent. I didn't have any setbacks, no injuries. I came in really fit and sharp and ready to compete.
Q: As you have gotten older, what changes have you made to the way you prepare to play?
A: I have tried everything under the sun. I was sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, getting ART [advanced reflexology training] done. I was just seeking out the best in every profession trying to get me through that World Cup. I have had to be a little smarter in my old age to vary up my routine. That's what you have to do when you want to be able to compete against young'uns and play out your career as long as you can.
Q: What's it been like for you to be teammates with Abby Wambach after UF?
A: It's been great playing with Abby, just to see her grow not only as a player, but as a captain. I think that to be able to play with someone I am so familiar with it's definitely a lot of fun for us.
Q: What do you think of the U.S. team's chances of winning gold in London?
A: If we play like we did this past tournament [in Sweden], I think they are great. It's about peaking at the right time. France is probably one of the hardest teams we're going to face over there, and we start off playing against them. None of the games are easy by any means."
Q: What do you see your role as in your last Olympics?
A: At this point I'm a veteran. I've been to three Olympics now. Just to be able to go over there and help my teammates that are starting to be ready and to be ready when I do go in. I want to enjoy the moment and the journey because this is it for me.