Gunning for the gold


Del Mar resident Rachel Buehler heads to Beijing

Looking for someone to root for in the Beijing Olympics? Look no further than women’s soccer, where Del Mar native and Torrey Pines alum Rachel Buehler is making her Olympic debut. The unapologetically aggressive first timer will turn 23 just two days after the closing ceremonies at Beijing, hopefully with a gold medal as her new most favorite accessory.

“It’s just such an honor to play on the team and represent my country,” said Buehler. “It’s the coolest dream I could ever think of. I’ve been working for this for a long time.”

The defender came home to San Diego to play in a match against Brazil at University of San Diego last Wednesday, a 1-0 victory before a record-breaking crowd of 7,502. The game was the women’s last before they kickoff the Olympics in a game versus Norway in Qinhuangdao on Aug. 6. The U.S. will also face Japan and New Zealand in the first round of play.

Off the field, the 5’5 Buehler plays very much the part of the girl next door - sweet and friendly with strawberry blond hair and freckles on her cheeks. She once played the title role of “Annie” in a school play and cops to owning lucky ladybug socks. But get her out on the soccer field and she transforms into one of the most tenacious tacklers in the history of the U.S. Women’s National Team programs.

“She’s a tough kid,” said Head Coach Pia Sundhage. “You can trust her and have faith in her. It’s hard for forwards to beat her because she’s so tough.”

A great example of Buehler’s toughness is her overcoming two big injuries in her career. She’s torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in both of her knees, the second time coming in 2003 just two weeks after recovering from her first.

“I’m very impressed with her attitude,” Sundhage said. “The reason why she’s on the national team is her attitude, it’s her best quality. For the last few months, she’s been a pleasure to be around.”

Sundhage also said Buehler is a professional who takes good care of her body, always taking a longer warm-up when she needs it. And she is very willing to learn and get better - Sundhage said she always comes to practice with “big eyes and big ears.”

“She’s a dream for a coach,” Sundhage said.

Buehler has been playing soccer since age 7, playing locally with the San Diego Surf Soccer Club. At Torrey Pines, she played varsity all four years and was captain of the team her junior and senior years. She was named defender of the year in 2000 and player of the year in 2001 and 2002.

She went on to play for Stanford, the alma mater of her heart surgeon father Don. Also like her father she was a biology/pre med major and has considered becoming a doctor.

Buehler was a starter on the U-19 U.S. team that won the 2002 FIFA Women’s World Championship and went on to play internationally with the U-21 team as well. Her first full cap on this Women’s National Team came at the Algarve Cup in Portugal this year.

“The girls are amazing,” said Buehler of her team. “I really feel like everyone really cares about each other. They work so hard and are invested in winning. It’s really special.”

Buehler said for the most part she doesn’t get nervous before games but has a pre-game ritual of talking to her mom on the phone. Luckily long distance phone charges won’t come into play next month as both parents will be accompanying her to Beijing.

“I’m just real happy for her,” said mom Mary Ellen. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Buehler expects things to “ramp down” a bit after August, as the year after an Olympics is typically a slow one for the national team. They will probably do some touring and then next spring is the launch of the new Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league. The league is kind of a re-invention of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the world’s first professional women’s soccer league that folded in 2003 after just three seasons. Buehler, along with her national team teammates, are anxious for what the WPS will mean for continuing on in their professional soccer careers. For Buehler, it might mean putting off medical school for a bit.

“I’m going to go with the flow and see where soccer takes me,” said Buehler. “I want to take advantage of this wonderful experience.”

The last few months with the team have lead her to countries like Portugal, South Korea and Sweden, playing 21 games in six countries including their most recent bout in Colorado, against Brazil. But she was more than happy to be home in San Diego before heading to China, enjoying seeing her family, boyfriend and her much loved hometown.

“It’s cool to have so much support from San Diego,” Buehler said.

Wednesday night’s sell-out crowd was an amazing one. Little girls wore their soccer jerseys and painted their hair blue and red. They held signs and yelled for their favorite players as well as breaking into the occasional “U-S-A” chant. There was even a smattering of yellow shirts and Brazilian flags in support of the opposing team.

The throbbing patriotism of the crowd and the aggressive play of the women were exciting but it all came to a halt when the team suffered a crushing blow, losing their number one scorer Abby Wambach to a broken leg. Wambach, who at 5’11 plays the game with un-matched ferocity and strength, was thrown to the turf twice in yellow-card receiving fouls by the Brazilian defenders before her injury. The break came in the 33rd minute of the first half, with Wambach running for a loose ball with defender Andreia Rosa. The two bashed together at full speed and Wambach fractured both her tibia and fibula in her left leg, guaranteeing that she will miss the Olympics.

It was heartbreaking to see the three-time U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year on the verge of recording her 100th career goal carried out of Torero Stadium on a stretcher.

Wambach’s loss seemed to take all of the intensity out of the game as the half winded down. Reserve forward Natasha Kai, the only Hawaiian to ever play on a U.S. national team, brought energy back to the field, flying in with her arms waving to pump up the crowd. She was greeted on field by an aggressive chest bump from a Brazilian defender.

The tattooed Kai got the ball off a crossing free kick and was able to knock in the winning goal - with that, Torero Stadium exploded in cheers.

As the crowd flooded out at the end of the game, the “U-S-A” chants were still loud and lively. Perhaps it was proof that even without Wambach, fans still think this crew is golden.