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Kelley O’Hara embraces role as torchbearer for the next generation

(Lewis Gettier/USA TODAY Sports)

Kelley O’Hara had a big decision to make when a stranger called her up in 2019 and asked her to be an athlete ambassador for an unknown sports media startup.

The person on the other end of the phone was Haley Rosen, founder and CEO of Just Women’s Sports, on a mission to give women’s sports more media coverage. As O’Hara picked Rosen’s brain about her goals and vision for the company, an idea for a podcast was floated — one that would give athletes an opportunity to share their stories in their own words.

“Oh, I love podcasts,” O’Hara told her at the time, merely making conversation. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to host one.”

“Do you want to host this one?” Rosen asked.

A few minutes turned into an hour-long conversation, and by the end, O’Hara figured she’d give it a go, despite wondering if she’d even be good at it. Never mind that she had no way of knowing where this venture would end up.

It was the fact that women’s sports received only 4 percent of sports media coverage that convinced O’Hara she had to take the opportunity.

“I like to say I’m an optimistic realist, but also am pretty, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but it’s something I want to be a part of because it sounds like something that is going to address a problem that I see and that affects me and a lot of other people,’” said O’Hara. “Therefore, I want to be part of it … You can’t be waiting around, looking for someone else to do it.”

Taking initiative during moments of unpredictability has also defined O’Hara’s career as a soccer player. In her first year with the Washington Spirit last season, the veteran defender built a reputation as a locker-room motivator and on-field leader, helping the young team overcome tremendous adversity to win the NWSL championship. Instilling a “never-say-die” mentality in the Spirit, O’Hara was critical to the team’s 12-game winning streak and come-from-behind victory in the title game, scoring the winning goal off of a header in extra time.

Nowadays, to hear O’Hara talk about her approach to her teams and her podcast feels like one in the same.

“There’s no point complaining. It’s just wasted energy,” O’Hara said. “For me it was like, I want to be part of the solution. I think this is an issue. I think this is something that if addressed and done properly, can take women’s sports to the next level.”

Learning from the best

O’Hara learned to embrace challenges head-on during her early days with the U.S. women’s national team. As a rookie in 2010, she looked up to the older players and the sacrifices they made on and off the field to push women’s soccer forward.

Through her podcast, rebranded this year as The Players’ Pod, O’Hara has had the chance to interview athletes at the top of their games and at the forefront of effecting change inside and outside of their sports.

Within hers, O’Hara has been a leading advocate in the U.S. women’s national team’s fight for equal pay. Nearly two decades after USWNT players sat out of a 1996 Olympic camp in protest of their bonus money, O’Hara was a part of the USWNT Players Association’s bargaining committee that reached a historic settlement in February with U.S. Soccer, which committed to equal pay rates for the men’s and women’s teams across tournaments.

The USWNT’s performances on the field — including four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals — have been just as impactful in growing women’s soccer in the U.S. O’Hara cited Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick in the final of the 1999 World Cup, followed by her ripping her jersey off in celebration, as influencing her own journey.

“One of the most iconic pictures in sports history, in my opinion. A picture that elicits so many emotions in me,” O’Hara said. “Now, having gone through the career that I have and talking with her, I’m like, she’s just incredible. I definitely looked up to her when I was a kid, for sure.”

A key contributor to two of the USWNT’s World Cup championships, an Olympic gold medal in 2012 and a bronze last year, O’Hara cares deeply about upholding the program’s winning mentality and ultra-competitive culture.

Passing the torch

The USWNT roster looks very different now than it did just last summer at the Tokyo Olympics. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has ushered in a new wave of talented, young players, who are vying for roster spots on next year’s World Cup roster and leaving many to wonder what that means for veterans such as Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Christen Press.

O’Hara was the only player on the USWNT’s April roster with more than 100 caps, giving her the responsibility of passing on the values she learned from her older teammates when she was a rookie.

“I’ve always looked at it as this sacred team,” O’Hara said. “I have a responsibility that I didn’t used to have to create the culture, contribute to the culture to make sure the team stays here, and not just stay here, but keep taking steps forward.”

Since moving to the Spirit in a trade from the Utah Royals in December 2020, and teaming up with USWNT newcomers Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, O’Hara has regular opportunities to impart those principles.

O'Hara and the 19-year-old Rodman have formed a close friendship. (Robert Mora/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Spirit head coach Kris Ward says they joke all the time that O’Hara and fellow defender Emily Sonnett latched onto Rodman and Sanchez at the end of the 2021 season, helping them prepare for call-ups to the national team. Rodman and Sanchez were both invited to the November camp in Australia, which took place the same week they won the NWSL championship, and they have been named to every USWNT roster since then.

O’Hara, 33, is aware her career will wind down eventually, and she has begun to encourage some of the younger veterans to step into more vocal roles. Mallory Pugh, 24, and Rose Lavelle, 26, are two players Andonovski cited as emerging leaders during the most recent USWNT camp.

“It is not hard to see how much Kelley influences this team and how much of an example she is for this team and a leader,” Andonovski said in April.

“I think there are a handful of players who are waking up now, who realize that they are veterans, who might not have thought about it before but they are now,” O’Hara said. “I think it’s very exciting. I’ve told those players, ‘Guys, this is now your responsibility. You’ve got to take ownership of where this team goes.’”

Primed for success

The Spirit learned a lot about what they were capable of last season, finding success even as external factors — Richie Burke’s firing, a public ownership dispute, an investigation into workplace culture and multiple forfeits due to COVID-19 — continued to emerge and threaten their progress.

Now in a more secure environment, with Ward as head coach and Michele Kang as the new majority owner, O’Hara feels she can more easily channel her energy into winning games. It helps that on the field the Spirit are “really friggin’ good,” as O’Hara describes them.

As Washington transitions from the Challenge Cup final into the regular season and tries to make a run at a repeat NWSL championship, O’Hara has allowed herself more freedom in the attack, pushing into the opponent’s box from her position on the backline more frequently.

“She’s feeling that, and that’s emanating throughout the entire team to make them really feel like they’re building into something special,” Ward said.

(Ruth Annan/@annanproductions/Just Women's Sports)

Meanwhile, The Players’ Pod, now in its fifth season, continues to grow and reach new listeners. Always looking for ways to use the platform to push women’s sports forward, O’Hara has tapped into a vision she had from the first season: interviewing people like general managers, investors and coaches, who offer a wider range of perspectives and experiences within women’s sports.

O’Hara’s responsibilities as a host, teammate and leader are keeping her busy, and fueling her drive even more.

“Honestly, I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at in terms of my professional career and the team I get to play for,” she said.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.