August 21, 2009
Soccer star Christie Rampone performs a juggling act
By: Christine Brennan, USA TODAY

The busiest professional athlete in the country this summer is someone you almost certainly don′t know, but you really should.

It′s a player who has been at the top of the game of soccer for 10 years, shared Sports Illustrated′s 1999 Sportsman of the Year award, has appeared on the cover of People magazine, is the U.S. national team captain, has won two Olympic gold medals and one World Cup and is the player-coach of a playoff team in a pro soccer league — a job the player inherited only 12 days after having emergency abdominal surgery.

By now you might be saying, "How come this guy hasn′t broken through the Pitino-Vick-Favre din to give us a little old-fashioned inspiration?"

But it′s not a guy.

It′s a woman who plays soccer for a living at a time when if there′s one thing the mainstream sports media care less about than soccer, it′s women′s team sports.

Standing at the lonely intersection where those two meet is 34-year-old Christie Rampone— wife, mother, soccer star and player-coach — who led her Sky Blue FC team from New Jersey to a 1-0 victory over St. Louis in Wednesday′s first-ever Women′s Professional Soccer Super Semifinal playoff game.


WPS SEMIFINAL: Sky Blue wins 1-0 to reach championship game

That Sky Blue has reached Saturday′s championship game in Los Angeles is a minor miracle, considering that Rampone is its third coach of the season. She, of course, is not a coach at all, but a longtime national team defender who quietly watched as Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly, among others, retired or left the team, leaving her, finally, to be chosen as captain.

No one has ever doubted Rampone′s leadership skills on the field; it was a year ago Friday that her steady hand (not to mention her feet) led the USA to a surprising 1-0 upset against the swifter Brazilians in the Olympic gold medal match in Beijing.

But coaching? That is another matter.

Rampone arrived at practice early on July 29 to find that Sky Blue′s head coach, Kelly Lindsey, wasn′t there. When Lindsey did drive up, just as practice was supposed to begin, she told the team she was resigning, handed in her laptop bag and left.

"Everyone′s in shock, everyone′s just staring," Rampone, who also is the Sky Blue team captain, recalled over the phone. "Our GM had told me I might have to run practice, so I just said, ′All right, let′s go jog,′ and that′s what we did."

The next day, Rampone was named player-coach.

It wasn′t the first time the team had changed coaches this season. In May, Sky Blue suspended, then fired, Ian Sawyers, who also happens to be Foudy′s husband. "It was very difficult, having been a teammate of Julie′s (on the national team)," Rampone said, "but this is pro sports and I think management made the right decision and we had to move on."

Not surprisingly, Sky Blue was mired in last place at the time in the seven-team WPS.

Soon, Rampone would face more trouble, this time quite personal. Taking a break from Sky Blue to return to the U.S. national team for a game in Rochester, N.Y., she practiced through intense pain during the day, then passed out in her hotel bathroom and ended up having surgery for a ruptured ovarian cyst.

She was back with Sky Blue in less than two weeks — to become its player-coach, a female Bill Russell in cleats. It didn′t hurt that she played defense; a defender sees all, like a catcher in baseball. Deciding not to go it entirely alone, however, she brought in a man who has coached her since she was 10, Mike Lyons, to be her assistant on the bench.

"He′ll give me a look," she said, "and I′ll give him a nod."

It started working, and Sky Blue moved from fifth place to fourth to capture the league′s final playoff spot. Then Rampone worked a little more magic. Two players she brought in off the bench in the second half scored to give Sky Blue a 2-1 upset playoff victory last Saturday against Washington.

Up in the owner′s box that day was a father keeping one eye on a 3-year-old girl playing with a blue balloon, and the other eye on his wife playing and coaching on the field. Rampone did her best not to return the gazes of her husband and daughter during the game.

After all, she did have a lot going on.


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