Getting Her Kicks

Kelley O'Hara is serious about soccer and fun.

November/December 2009

Reading time min

Getting Her Kicks

Photo: David Gonzales/Stanford Athletics

ONE THING YOU WON'T FIND in any official account of Kelley O'Hara's Stanford accomplishments is the blue fish/white fish incident. As O'Hara tells it, she and a co-conspirator covertly substituted the white variety of a certain fish for the blue specimen that one of their soccer teammates had long nurtured and adored. Loud and alarmed screaming began as soon as the teammate looked at her fish bowl. As pranks go, it was wonderfully memorable.

O'Hara, of course, wouldn't be the remarkable athlete she is without an intensely serious side, too. She's known for her ferocious competitiveness, apparently fueled by a seething sense of motivation. "Whenever she walks on the field," says women's soccer coach Paul Ratcliffe, "she wants to prove something."

OK, everybody, shh! Nobody tell O'Hara she has nothing left to prove. Whatever's driving her was in full acceleration when her senior season started in August. She scored two goals in Stanford's season-opening 6-2 win over Hawaii and added eight more over the next eight games as the Cardinal raced to a 9-0 record. At that point, the 5-foot-5 forward led the team in goals and points (24, adding in four assists) and had begun leapfrogging some former Stanford standouts on the lists of all-time records. With more than half the season still to play, she had moved up to fifth in assists and was sixth in goals, points and shots.

O'Hara's early-season exploits were underpinned by a variety of workmanlike factors, including her exceptional conditioning and the competitive edge she maintained by playing alongside some teammates in a Southern California summer league. But there also may have been an extra spark ignited by her sense that the clock is counting down on a college career she savors every day.

"I hope to play after college, professionally, but you can't replicate the college environment," says O'Hara. "There's nothing like playing for our school." It's common for Stanford athletes to describe their years on the Farm as exceeding any expectations they had upon arrival, no matter how gung-ho their attitudes as freshmen. O'Hara says that goes double for her. No, more than double. "Ten times more," she declares.

Her individual accomplishments have trended up along with the performance of the team. Her freshman mindset was that the women's soccer program was "a work in progress," and last season's results—when Stanford racked up a record 22 wins and reached the NCAA tournament semifinals before losing 1-0 to Notre Dame—set the stage for this season's fast start. Along the way, O'Hara not only has improved her stats, she has become the squad's inspirational leader in Ratcliffe's eyes.

Ratcliffe has no trouble pointing to some of O'Hara's technical skills, such as her one-on-one dribbling, but the defining strength he always comes back to is her competitive fire. Other players can take 10 minutes to find their rhythm at the start of a match; O'Hara, he says, always seems to be in gear as soon as the action is under way.

That on-field intensity is complemented by her off-field spirit, which is certainly lighter but still notably energetic. Sure, the fish incident was mostly a matter of imagination. On the more industrious side, consider the Saran Wrap caper. That was the material of choice when she and a co-prankster fastened together two teammates' cars.

To O'Hara, it's all part of a signature Stanford experience. She's propelled in part by the examples of "amazing people" who are everywhere at the University, "all striving to do something great with their lives." That said, "Everybody knows how to enjoy themselves," she notes with a huge smile.

"It's such a good balance."

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