My Carolina Experience: Heather O'Reilly
By Zoya Johnson, GoHeels.com
Heather O'Reilly is a legend on the soccer field and yet one of her proudest accomplishments off the pitch was receiving her degree from The University of North Carolina.
Because of O'Reilly's amazing talent as a soccer player, she could have chosen to pursue a career solely based on soccer and relegated her education to secondary status. Instead, she says, "It was important to earn my degree because I valued my education. A degree from the University of North Carolina is something I am very proud of and it will help me continue my career when my days playing professional soccer are done."
When the education major started her collegiate career at UNC, she was already well on her way to leaving her mark in the women's soccer history books. While in high school, she had been a pivotal player on the U.S. Under-19 team and helped the American side claim the first ever world championship at that age level. Her impact was equally felt when she was asked to join the full U.S. National Team at the precocious age of 17.
Even then, as the youngest player on the team, Heather continued to excel playing alongside her idols and fellow Tar Heel alumnae Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly. In just her first year on the full national team O'Reilly played in eight games.
Then, the summer before her freshman year at UNC, Heather was invited to the U.S. tryout camp for the 2003 World Cup Team. That year, she earned 10 full national team caps and scored two goals, but the O'Reilly's meteoric rise was cut short that June during a game in Salt Lake City.
As Heather scored her third goal of the year, she collided with the Irish goalkeeper and broke her fibula. The injury prevented her from making her World Cup debut as a teenager, but she was determined to be back in time for the UNC season.
With the help of Carolina's trusted athletic training staff, as well as support from her teammates and coaches, O'Reilly returned to the practice field 10 days before the first game that fall.
"As a young soccer player, I dreamed of going to North Carolina. The moment I stepped foot on campus I knew instantly that I wanted to be part of the program and meeting a legendary coach like Anson Dorrance only inspired me to a greater extent. It really was a love at first sight kind of feeling between Carolina and myself," says O'Reilly.
That feeling never left O'Reilly. Once she began her career as a Tar Heel her attachment to the campus and its community only grew stronger.
Through Dorrance, O'Reilly gained not only great direction from one of the best coaches in soccer but she also discovered a mentor who would continue to guide and support her throughout her career.
When asked about how her Carolina Experience helped her grow as a person, O'Reilly mentioned how holistic her time in Chapel Hill was. In every aspect of her experience, whether it was rehabbing with the athletic trainers and medical staff, practicing with her teammates or utilizing the assets of the Academic Center, she always felt tremendous support.
When she was a senior, she was named the National Academic All-America of the Year for women's soccer in balloting by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Of her experience, she had this to say, "Academics were always emphasized and I always felt a great deal of support from the academic support community. I think my time at Carolina was a fantastic experience overall. Socially, athletically and academically I just felt incredibly fulfilled."
An important piece of Heather's success while playing at Carolina was her participation in what is now call The Richard A. Baddour Carolina Leadership Academy.
The Academy provided a safe space for leaders like O'Reilly to come together and bounce ideas off of one another. It served as yet another vehicle that bonded different athletes at the university by allowing them to share things that facilitated their success as well as confide in one another about the various issues preventing them from it.
The other staple that student athletes are able to utilize during their time here is the Carolina Outreach program.
As an Outreach representative, O'Reilly led her team in adopting a classroom, organizing a canned food drive, raising relief funds for Hurricane Katrina, and being a part of the Share Your Holiday program. She also volunteered time at the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill, with Habitat for Humanity and with the Carolina Dreams program.
"At Carolina, we always did things for the community because we realized that we had a great responsibility in that regard," said O'Reilly.
"It's a matter of paying back in a way. I think that I've been blessed and fortunate. I received an incredible opportunity to go to a fine institution and receive a great education while playing in a legendary program and have the mentorship of one of the great leaders in soccer in Anson Dorrance."
Since leaving Carolina, O'Reilly has continued to give back to the communities around her. She uses her talents to help instill the values she feels the "beautiful game" has instilled in her through her work with Right to Play and America Scores.
"I can list the incredibly important things that sports have given me: discipline, the ability to work with others, lifelong friendships, persistence, and drive," says O'Reilly. "I learned all those things in sports, and I just want to make sure that other children have an opportunity to play and grow through sports. As an athlete, you're an incredible role model for a lot of young people and you can bring a lot of joy into this world. I think that that's one of the most important gifts you can give."
As a student in Chapel Hill, O'Reilly found a community that embraced her and nurtured her passions. She also found the love of her life in a fellow student-athlete, Dave Werry, a lacrosse player at Carolina who graduated a year ahead of her and was the founder of the Carolina Dreams program that partners with North Carolina Children's Hospital.
Ultimately, after seeing success the world over while contributing to three Olympic gold medals, two World Cup medals and winning two NCAA championships as a Tar Heel, O'Reilly found a new place to call home. The New Jersey native and Werry, originally from Ontario, decided to make Chapel Hill their home.
"The sense of community and support is something that I've never felt anywhere else and that was the reason I wanted to move back, and I want to raise my family in Chapel Hill. Now I'm back and I never want to leave again," says O'Reilly.
With a retired jersey number that hangs amongst 18 other program greats, and scoring records that will stack in the record books for years to come, it's inspiring to hear just how much she feels the University impacted her.
In O'Reilly's words, UNC has always proven itself to be an institution of integrity. Heather and other student athletes like her stand for a legacy that proves overall greatness is achievable with the right tools. Those tools are the very things that an experience at UNC engrains in the individual, and the reason why even greats like Heather O'Reilly come back to Chapel Hill feeling like there is no better place in the world.