How Do We Love HAO? Let Us Count The Ways

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Last night, USWNT fans all over spent a good amount of time crying on their couches. A number of those fans may have even spent the past week silently sniffling at work, being moody, and generally acting annoyed at the injustice of the world. Or was that just me?

Affectionately known to one and all as HAO, Heather Ann O’Reilly Werry in the kind of player whose legacy has been woven into the fabric of American soccer since the moment she stepped on the field 15 years ago. Much has been written about her accomplishments on the field since she announced her international retirement, and remarkably all has been positive. To retell all of the stories would take days. Her stats alone are almost inhuman. 15 years, 231 caps, a record for most consecutive caps, championship honors at every level of play …. Few people have been able to accomplish that sort of longevity and stay in top form. Yet just this year in the January camps, HAO was still shattering beep test records. It could be argued that her biggest fan is not actually her husband or her family, but Dawn Scott, the USWNT Fitness Coach.

However, for all of her professional soccer accomplishments, I believe the thing that most people treasure about HAO is her attitude. Always positive, always driven, always focused on helping others to be better even while pushing herself to be better. This is where all of the stories about her stem from. Her teammates, her coaches, the journalists who interviewed her over the years, the fans who got to meet her, they all said the same thing: This is one hell of a woman, and she is basically the best.

We see this in how HAO handled being an alternate at the Olympics this last summer. I can guarantee you that none of her fans handled the injustice of that decision as well as HAO did. She was the social media cheerleader of the team, posting eloquently about her respect for the coaches and the decisions that had been made, demonstrating her dedication to the team no matter what her role would be. In Rio, her teammates called her the Best Alternate EVER, recounting how she was always there, asking what she could do to help, training as hard or harder than the people in the 18. Her social media posts were all about how you had to keep going, no matter what.

That situation was one of many that highlighted HAO in my eyes. I place a high value on leadership, particularly leadership by setting the example. That was what HAO practiced every day. Samantha Mewis posted yesterday about how HAO comforted and encouraged her in the midst of her own disappointment at being made an alternate, even with HAO’s own disappointment at being in the same situation. In an interview on the day HAO’s retirement was announced, national and club teammate Becky Sauerbrunn said, “With HAO, you always know what you’re going to get.” And, she went on, what you were going to get was always 100% effort and then some.

There was also the other side to HAO that fans especially loved. This was the side where she always had a smile on her face, joking around and laughing about pretty much everything. If you go through old USWNT videos, you find her everywhere. She was a tour guide in Portugal during the Algarve, she tried martial arts when they were in China, she broke Lori Chalupny’s hand with her rock hard abs, she did awkward chest bumps with her Irish Soul Sister Kelley O’Hara, she did impressions of her teammates and laughed at the ones they did of her …. The list goes on. If you want to laugh a lot and maybe cry a little, go back and just search for her in the USWNT videos. She never disappoints.

The thing that saves me from going into a tailspin of depression after last night is knowing that while HAO may be gone from the USWNT, she is not leaving soccer, by any means. We will get to see her play club with FC Kansas City for awhile yet, and she has promised that she will not leave the game even after she hangs up her cleats for good. As she said in her Men In Blazers interview yesterday (a sob-worthy affair), she still loves the game of soccer, and she is never going to leave it for good. She has spoken about how she wants to coach, to be involved in the youth game, and to educate.

She has dedicated a significant amount of her time and resources to working towards education through sports, working with Right to Play to teach soccer skills and life skills to kids in poverty, to help grow the game for those who have limited access to it. She’s also dedicated to furthering equality in sports, and to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports and society, as you can see by her recent Instagram posts regarding the situation in North Carolina.

I could go on for days about all the things that this woman does and says that I love. I have spent days mourning her departure from the international game because it will mean the NT losing part of their history, a mentor for the younger players, and an encouragement to the veterans. It felt appropriate that she was taken off in her last match with no sub to replace her, because of course, no one could ever replace our HAO.

Heather Ann O’Reilly Werry, the National Team will miss you.