Commentary

Rampone's brilliant balancing act

The U.S. women's captain thrives on family and team leadership

Updated: July 22, 2012, 2:35 PM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

As Christie Rampone picked up the phone, it was clear that she was being pulled in a million different directions. Her departure for the London Olympics with her teammates on the U.S. women's national team was just a few days away. There was packing to be done and media commitments to attend to, and oh by the way, she had promised her daughters Rylie, 6, and Reece, 2, that she would take them to the beach.

But the U.S. defender wasn't the least bit flustered by the seemingly hectic schedule. It was just another day in the life, one in which Rampone has learned "not to sweat the small stuff."

Not that it has always been this way. There was a time when Rampone would trudge back to her hotel room after practice and agonize over every mistake. But parenthood gave her a new perspective, and now the balance between work and family is juggled with the same deftness of touch that she displays on the field.

"I don't put as much pressure on myself, I enjoy [the national team] for what it is and the time I have with my teammates," Rampone said. "When I'm on that field, I give it everything I have, and when I come off, I'm a mom. As tired and exhausting as it is, it's about coming back, even after double days, and still being able to enjoy the kids."

[+] EnlargeChristie Rampone
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesChristie Rampone is the ideal leader for the U.S. women's national team: nurturing, focused, perceptive and assertive. Her ability to listen and work through team problems is equally invaluable.

Rampone admits that none of this would be possible if not for her husband, Chris, who walked away from a career in Internet sales (and coaching college and high school baseball) to be a stay-at-home dad. And as much as she tries to allocate distinct blocks of time to her personal and professional lives, the two are perpetually intertwined. Rampone's entire family often travels with her on the road, but the benefits go beyond keeping close connections and being able to share in and celebrate her successes. In her role as U.S. captain, the lessons of raising a family frequently dovetail with the responsibilities of leading a team.

"I think as a mom, you're always listening and observing, and I think it's exactly the same with the team," she said via telephone. "I'm not a leader that's a motivator with the 'Rah-rah, let's go' type of stuff. I'm more, I see things happening, and I'm always watching, and then addressing things in small settings, talking to that player if I know they're struggling. Or if [manager] Pia [Sundhage] has made a decision that affects the team, talking to those players and communicating."

Having her family around often creates a relaxed setting in which players feel more comfortable expressing their concerns. On the road, players will swing by Rampone's hotel room, and the conversation inevitably starts with the children. With any tension sufficiently eased, difficult topics come to the surface more easily.

"It's more inviting," Rampone said of the meetings she has with players. "At the same time, you're getting right to the issue and not letting it linger. It's the same thing with a child. If they're misbehaving, they need to know what's going on in that moment, otherwise you lose that opportunity."

The role of Rampone's unassuming leadership style within the squad can't be underestimated. After all, this is a team with some big personalities like goalkeeper Hope Solo and striker Abby Wambach. That and the toxic chemistry issues during and after the 2007 World Cup campaign -- there are seven holdovers from that squad on the current Olympic side -- are fresh enough to drive home the importance of monitoring the pulse of the team, lest any undercurrents of discontent begin to ripple through the squad.

Rampone is also the last link to the famous 1999 team that won that year's Women's World Cup; passing on her experiences in a way that isn't overbearing is vital as well.

"We're all confident women," said U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly, now in her 11th year with the national team. "Sometimes there might be a lot of opinions about how to play in a scrimmage or play a certain style, and Christie seems to always have, not necessarily the loudest voice, but the one that garners a lot of respect, and I think that it's just the perfect tone for the team."

That is by no means the extent of Rampone's contribution. On the field, her ability to read the game and organize the team's back line remains critical to the Americans' success. The fact that Rampone, even at age 37, has maintained her speed -- a gift that long made her one of the fastest defenders in the world -- is stunning, especially when you consider that just last year she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. O'Reilly calls Rampone "a physical freak," and her mobility allows the U.S. defense to recover from almost any situation.

Sundhage is less effusive but no less appreciative. "[Rampone] is still the fastest player in the back four, and she's the oldest one," the U.S. manager said. "I'm impressed with that. I've never seen that before. It's unreal. But it says something about how she's professional, and she knows that she needs to be fit and prepared for the next practice and the next game, and she does everything she needs to do to take care of her body. She leads by example, she's a good captain. I think she will have a great Olympics this year."

Then there is Rampone's competitiveness regardless of the venue. Her husband, Chris, recalls how when he first met his wife, she was shy and introverted. Except when they argued.

[+] EnlargeKristine Lilly
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty ImagesRampone's unassuming style of captaincy was crucial in helping the U.S. women work through the toxic, bitter aftermath of their 4-0 semifinal defeat vs. Brazil in the 2007 World Cup. No matter the pressure, Rampone is able to rise above.

"Early on I noticed that if we had an argument, she'd be trying to be almost lawyer-ish," he said with a chuckle. "You would raise points and she would find a way around it. And she doesn't get emotional. She always sticks to the facts, she stays right on point. I was like, 'Whoa. Forget it.' It's not like. 'I told you so.' She just wants to win."

This extreme combination of qualities has helped Rampone's longevity, leading to the inevitable question of just how much longer she'll continue to suit up for the U.S. squad. At present, Rampone admits that not even she knows.

Then there's the issue of whether Sundhage -- whose contract expires at the end of November -- will continue as the team's head coach, not to mention the physical demands of the game, all of which are counterbalanced by the joy of playing with the team. Rampone insists that being a contributor -- and not necessarily a starter -- is enough to keep her involved. But a bigger issue is trying to divine what the future might hold.

"My speed hasn't gotten any slower," Rampone said. "I'm still able to compete and train, but the unknown is, in two years, will I be able to do that? That's where I kind of have to re-evaluate. Do I want to continue to push my body, and train, and juggle being a parent and a wife? I think it's more of a family decision to be honest with you more than an individual decision."

For the time being, the Olympics are more than enough to occupy Rampone's thoughts. The penalty shootout loss to Japan in last year's World Cup final is one that "definitely lingers" for the U.S. captain as well as the rest of the team. Also on her mind are some nagging questions about the state of the U.S. defense, especially given the torn ACL suffered by right back Ali Krieger in January. But Rampone feels that the defense is beginning to come together thanks to the work of new assistant coach Tony Gustafsson. The U.S. has been playing less of a high line of late, and there has been more communication among the defenders. Of course, that latter attribute is Rampone's specialty.

"I think now we're really in a good mind frame," she said. "We're ready to go."

And focused on winning the gold medal.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.