Olympic gold medalist inspired by Pausch

Randy Pausch, the late Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science made famous for his book The Last Lecture, famously declared that “brick walls are there to show how badly we want something.”

These brick walls were more than evident in the journey that the United States women’s soccer team took to win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The team lost two starters to torn ACLs and top scorer Abby Wambach broke her leg a week before the games. When the team finally reached the Olympics, they had a disappointing defeat to Norway in the first round. Only by internalizing Pausch’s message was the team able to continue and come out on top.

Heather O’Reilly, a member of the team who scored the fastest goal in the history of Olympic women’s soccer, explained how the final triumph had people questioning the victory.

“What happened was that we lost our first game, which was something that a lot of people were worried about,” she said. “But that actually matched us up later on with opponents that were not that strong. So a lot of people were saying that we kind of got a little bit lucky in our journey towards our gold medal.”

Winning the gold medal and participating in the Olympics was not like competing in other high-profile tournaments, O’Reilly said.

“I think it’s just so humbling to be there with all the other athletes,” she said. “To go to the Olympics means to celebrate sports with so many different countries and so many different sports. And it’s really a neat thing to be a part in something that has such a rich tradition.”

However, the team has a history that is anything but humble: The team won the gold medal at the Olympics in 1996, 2000, and 2004. They can also boast two championship titles and three third-place finishes at the World Cup.

Yet, O’Reilly best explained this year’s victory by drawing on the lessons of Randy Pausch.

“A lot of people were saying that we got a bit lucky in our journey towards our gold medal. I was at a press conference and I was answering a question about if we felt like we were lucky to draw the teams that we did,” she said. “As soon as she asked that, I thought about what Randy had said in the last lecture, ‘Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity,’ so I quoted that at the press conference.”

O’Reilly mentioned how remarkable it is that Pausch’s Last Lecture applies to so many people; from the 30 different countries in which The Last Lecture has been translated to the entire soccer team.

“One of my teammates had it while we were in China and it was passed around. I had read it there and so did a couple of teammates,” she said.

Though O’Reilly quoted from just one aspect of the book during the press conference, the rest of the book also made an impact on her, particularly Pausch’s embracing of life and the many opportunities that come with it.

Now that the games have ended, the team is starting to feel the glamour that comes along with winning a gold medal at such a high-profile event.

“I think that the cool thing is that after you win a gold medal, your life does change a little bit,” she said. “After we won the final, we were hanging out with people like David Beckham and Tiger Woods — so the people you meet is definitely an impressive list.”

Nevertheless, O’Reilly did not let the glitz and glamour of the gold outshine her true supporters as she once again drew upon lessons she had learned from Pausch.

“I’m sure Randy would agree with this, but the one thing that will be true is that the people who were there for you for your whole journey are the people that you know are your true friends, and your family is always there for you, through the good times and bad,” she said. “You should focus on the people who were there for you when you lost your first game — they are the real fans.”

This Saturday, the team began their 10-game victory tour, known as “Achieve Your Gold,” with a win in their first game against Ireland.

Before the game, O’Reilly was honored for her 100th cap, meaning her 100th appearance at an international competition for her country.