A Progression In Control: Rachel Van Hollebeke's Story

She played against Japan and lost in 2011. She played against Japan and won Olympic gold in 2012. Now, this USWNT veteran needs the wisdom gained from those experiences more than ever.

We have been talking on the phone with Rachel Van Hollebeke for a good twenty minutes when she states the unspoken truth. The kind of truth that is only obvious after it has been said aloud.

“I’ve learned the idea of controlling the controllable,” she says.

Clearly, I remember thinking. We are in Boulder, Colorado. Rachel Van Hollebeke, née Rachel Marie Buehler, veteran of the U.S. Women’s National Team, is a thousand miles away in California.

She is, of course, talking about the game of soccer. The entire conversation — one that would last well over an hour — has revolved around the game, her life, and how those two things have intertwined throughout a career that has run the gamut of success and failure, certainty and uncertainty.

“There’s so many things you can’t control in soccer,” she continues. “First you have to recognize that you can’t control something – what can I affect? What can I change?”

I didn’t realize this until later, but that admission was a sign that, throughout the entire interview, she has been nothing if not sincere.

“Right now I’m just focusing on this season.”

The phrase forced an infinite blur of press conferences to the front of my mind. Press conferences in which I couldn’t tell who was really pulling the strings: the speaker or the media. Regardless, someone was always grabbing for something.

There is an elephant in the room that day, and its name is Canada 2015. As a member of the U.S. Women’s National Teams that placed second at the 2011 World Cup and first at the 2012 Olympics, Rachel Buehler has the pedigree to represent her country at this summer’s World Cup. However, this summer she is not a part of the chosen few. A tough pill to swallow for a player of her status at this point in their career, and one that is made all the more difficult by the time table involved. The next World Cup is in France in 2019. A long way away for a fan, doubly so for a player.

“I think this new team is incredibly talented,” she says of the group that will play in the final once again against Japan, this time in 2015, this time with the sting of the last defeat as motivation in the back of their minds. “I think we have the strongest group of players that we’ve ever had...It’s an interesting mix of different generations...[with] the talent and the ability to play a more sophisticated style of soccer.”

I can’t help but respect her in this moment. She is the picture of control, and that is not to say that she is holding back. As she talks, she pauses, thinks about her answer, and then responds. It is all natural; it is just a disciplined natural.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I’ve had anything to prove...I’ve always played because I have this love for the game, and I want to be the best version of myself, and I want to do my very best, but it’s not like I was ever proving something. It’s not how I think about it.”

That attitude becomes self-evident as we talk to her. It’s an attitude that I would learn is forged by her own natural disposition, and her parents’ emphasis on freedom and self-improvement throughout her childhood.

Her parents, the Buehlers, were athletic, but not exactly the kind of sports enthusiasts you can find on couches across the country on any given night. They always pushed Rachel to try new things and, no matter what she picked, they always supported her. Listening to Rachel list off her childhood activities is almost ridiculous; it’s hard to believe there was ever a dull moment. She tried swimming, dance, tennis, volleyball, horse back riding, and karate when she wasn’t playing a smattering of games with boys from her neighborhood. Of course, there was always soccer too. Soccer was the one constant throughout her childhood, the game that always brought her back.

She soon realized that she was meant to be on the pitch, and she devoted herself whole-heartedly to the game. “I always just wanted to do my very, very best, be the best I could be.” And the best she could be was very, very good.

She moved up quickly through the club ranks as a child, and soon she found herself on youth national teams. Between the classroom and the pitch, her drive to be the best she could be pulled her in two different directions.

“It was just a lot of responsibility,” says Buehler, thinking back on those days. “I didn’t want to let school ever slip, because it was something I really cared about.”

As I listened to Buehler, it became apparent that caring is the deciding factor in whether or not she, or anyone else in her family, reaches their potential in an endeavor.

Around age 50, Rachel’s father, Mr. Buehler, decided that he wanted to learn how to rollerblade. So he used some bungee cords to strap couch cushions to himself and, as Rachel puts it, “just kept rollerblading and rollerblading and rollerblading.”

Mr. Buehler is hardly the world’s best rollerblader (although, to be fair, we haven’t seen him rollerblade), but he is now the best rollerblader he can be, capable of speed skating on 5-wheeled blades. To Rachel, her father’s ambition and eventual success in rollerblading epitomize the way she and her family approach life. “He is constantly challenging himself,” she says of it. “I think I picked up [that] from watching my parents.”

And sure enough, she rose to the challenge of being pulled one way by school and another by soccer. She became an incredibly capable young woman, hyper focused and super diligent. Her rigorous schedule forced her to accelerate her time management skills, and demanded that she be proactive in everything that she did. “I probably slept a lot less than a normal high schooler.”

I could tell the comment was meant to provide levity, but was also completely serious.

And so, all of this led to a teenager who, at an age when the vast majority of people are still finding themselves, was thrusting herself ahead. She would soon find out that one of the few things harder that not being able to stop was not being able to try.

Buehler and O'Hara

Stanford alumni Kelley O'Hara and Rachel Buehler. Photo: @ussoccer_wnt | Twitter

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Rachel Buehler had graduated from Stanford, not after hearing about her childhood, not after hearing about her family. I wasn’t even surprised that she was studying to be a doctor at the same time she was trying to crack the senior roster for the United States Women’s National Team. Impressed, of course, but not surprised. All of that success in the classroom as well as on the field just seemed inevitable, and I took for granted that her story would continue it’s triumphant arc unthreatened.

Truth be told, Buehler said over the phone, coming out of college she was caught in limbo.

“At that point in my career...there wasn’t a professional league, and so I didn’t really know what was going to happen with soccer.”

And that uncertainty was not confined to club soccer. She was stuck a tier below the senior national team and had been for quite some time; she was unable to advance past the U21 and U23 age groups. Her peers meanwhile had all made the jump. Her future in soccer was hardly set in stone, and the pull of academia had not disappeared, either.

While she was trying, hoping, waiting to see if she would make the 2008 Olympic soccer team, Buehler prepared to be a doctor. She studied at the University of California at San Diego.

“I had this feeling that maybe my chances were over, and not that I wanted them to be. I was hoping they weren’t over, but I was also pretty realistic...a pragmatic person.”

That pragmatism forced her to assess her situation, to take control of what she could, and what she could control was her future in medicine. So as the uncertainty of her place on the USWNT and club soccer continued, she studied for her MCAT. She always wanted to be a doctor, and she wasn’t going to wait on one dream if it meant another died.

Then, a breakthrough. In January of 2008, she was called into then-head coach Pia Sundhage’s first camp in charge of the USWNT. Nothing much came from that initial invite — she did not lock down a spot as she had hoped she would — but her foot had been planted in the door. She was called back in a few months later, and this time, she was there to stay.

“I caught Pia’s eye, and, at that point, I was brought in pretty consistently, and slowly solidified my role.”

Somehow, while taking physics and biological chemistry classes and preparing to take the MCAT, everything clicked. She made the team; she would be going to the Beijing Olympics, and a month before she did, she took the MCAT. Everything worked out.

As she reminisced about her past fortunes, she made it clear just how unusual her fate was. She had, quite frankly, dodged a bullet.

Every time a professional women’s soccer league folds and a new league replaces it, the majority of a generation of players is lost in the process. Those in their mid to late twenties have to make a tough decision: do they stick it out or move on? They can play abroad, pursue a different vocation, start a family, or wait for a league to start up again. Those on the national team as Buehler was can rely on a salary paid by U.S. Soccer as they navigate these periods of turmoil. Everyone else must do so without pay.

That is why, Buehler explained, the stability of the current league, the NWSL, which began play in 2013, is so important. So that the current generation of young players can stay and have full careers, and show the next generation that the life of a professional female soccer player in America is a viable one.

“And then we continue to just get other good younger players. So the quality of the league increases year after year.”

As it stands, the future of countless, young, aspirational women is practically out of their control. Hard work and talent won’t stop a league from folding, just as it wouldn’t start a league beginning when Buehler was first looking to break into professional soccer.

Buehler’s entrance and eventual success in professional soccer was, quite frankly, out of her control. All she could do was keep at everything she was doing, be it soccer or preparing to be a doctor, and hope for the best.

In her case, things worked out. Her perseverance was rewarded with a spot on the USWNT and a professional career. She passed one of life’s many tests, a test of control, without ever having to face the worst of what it had to offer.

Soon the financial stability afforded by her spot on the USWNT gave her a level of control in her life that many professional female athletes never achieve. She needed to perform at the highest level in order to maintain that control, but she had been doing that her whole life. That ability to perform was, as such, a further level of control, a level of control that would be taken away from her on the biggest stage in the world.

Singing.

The USWNT sings the national anthem. Center: Buehler. Photo: @Tobin_17 | Twitter

There are many differences between attackers and defenders in soccer, but one that stands out the most is the way in which their performances are judged. An attacker can play poorly for 89 minutes of a match and still be deemed to have played well if, for that one other minute, they have a moment of brilliance in which they score. Defenders have the opposite fortune, they can play absolutely brilliantly for 89 minutes and be deemed a failure if a moment’s mistake leads to the goal that defeats their team. It’s a cruel life, defending, and it becomes even crueler as the stakes of a match get higher.

Buehler doesn’t think about these things when she is in the middle of a match, and she wasn’t as she played against Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup. Instead she was thinking about the game, trying to stay in the moment.

She answered question after question posed to her by Brazil’s attack, and that, along with the efforts of her teammates, was enough to earn a 1-0 lead. A dangerous ball and an early moment of Brazilian defensive ineptitude had lead to an own goal in the 2nd minute. It was a fortunate start for the U.S., one that it maintained for the first half and the beginning of the second. However, just as one moment had given the U.S. its lead, another would throw its whole day into question.

A few minutes past the hour mark Brazil won the ball after a United States goal kick and immediately looked to attack. Brazil’s Maurine played a long ball over the top of the U.S. defense in hopes on finding a streaking Marta. A good idea, considering Marta was the defending 5-time World Player of the Year. The ball did indeed find Marta, and she went to work. She was a flash, moving herself among two U.S. defenders desperately trying to contain her. A flick of the ball towards goal took her away from one defender. Another still guarded her, attached at her hip. That defender was Rachel Buehler.

“It was a very dramatic moment in the game, but for me it was just another moment.”

As calm as she might have been on the inside, there was no denying the need for physical desperation. Marta was running towards goal, slightly ahead of Buehler. She was going to get at least one touch in before Buehler could do anything about it. There was no telling what she would do with it, and Buehler didn’t want to explore what options were available with a second. Something needed to be done. Buehler got physical. Marta got her touch. The next thing they know they were both on the floor. Penalty.

“I was like, ‘wait, what?’” says Rachel.

What Buehler remembers as an equal but physical battle for the ball the referee saw as a foul performed by the last defender. Red card.

Buehler lined up on the 18 as Marta prepared to take the penalty. The only problem was, she wasn’t supposed to be lining up at all. A teammate – in this case, Heather O’Reilly, a good friend on and off the field – had to walk over to her and remind her that she needed to leave the field.

“I was just in shock.”

And perhaps it might have been for the best if she had stayed in shock, because once the reality of what had just happened sank in, so did the gravity it. The United State’s 1-0 lead was in question.

Hope Solo saved a Cristiane penalty, but the referee ordered a retake because Christie Rampone encroached too soon. Marta drilled the second attempt.

The United State’s 1-0 lead was gone, and it didn’t even have as many players as Brazil on the field anymore. Buehler could do absolutely nothing to help her team. More than that, she was in danger of becoming the primary reason it lost.

“That was a huge deal,” she says. “It was really hard for me to get over that moment.”

Dwelling on mistakes is something that has come later in her life. She is no longer afforded the luxury of being successful while simply playing for the love of the game. The level of competition she faces demands to be taken seriously; results, even more so. Staying on an even keel has become just as important as following a disciplined fitness regimen. “I [have] a lot of perspective about being able to put things in perspective in high pressure situations.”

She has developed several techniques that allow her to put herself in the right mindset before a game, and maintain that mindset in times of turmoil. She looks at a photo album before she plays now, one filled with pictures of her playing soccer and her family. This and other routines help with the inescapable anxiety that comes with being a professional athlete; they put her mind in the right place. They are examples of how controlling the controllable is more than just a catchy phrase. It is a mantra that allows her to give herself grace when everything is falling apart and it all just might be her fault.

She wasn’t nearly as adept at those techniques and routines as she is today when she got sent of against Brazil in 2011, but luckily for her, her suffering was put to a merciful end. The United States beat Brazil in her absence, triumphing in a penalty shootout. That triumph was a show of grit and determination on the part of the Americans that day. The grandest display of which was Abby Wambach’s game tying nod in the 122nd minute to make it 2-2. It was the greatest header in United States soccer history.

That header, not Buehler’s red card, was the defining moment of the match. Buehler was not punished for events that she could not control. Life as a defender was, for a game, not so cruel. And, she was not forced to deal with the mental trials and tribulations that would have inevitably come in the wake of a loss.

“I’m not that kind of player that dwells in the middle of the game,” says Buehler. “But after the game mistakes haunt me, of course. It’s so hard to mentally move on from things, especially as a defender.”

Since she was a teenager, Buehler has known only one direction: forward. Her drive to simply be the best that she can be has taken her to heights that few could ever reach. When she is playing, she is free to live her life the way she always has; she can affect the outcome of the game. But once her game ends, all of the sudden things are completely out of her control. She can’t affect the game, the thing that she cares about most in that moment. For a person who spent her entire life pursuing what she cared about, this is a crippling blow.

For her, the only thing worse than failing is not trying. This is the cruel nature of any ambitious person, and a case could be made that there is a worse thing still: not having the choice to try.

While on the open sea of choice that is the pitch, where options of self-expression are as innumerable as the blades of grass, Buehler is herself: focused on self- improvement, free, ambitious. Take her off the field and she is no longer free to turn a loss into a win or improve upon her performance. She has no choice, no control; she is no longer able to be who she is. That she dwells on mistakes after a match is not an indication of weakness, or of some unique, unfavorable disposition. It is an indication that she is human. She dwells on what we all dwell on: what makes us question who we think we are.

As you might have guessed, that quarterfinal against Brazil would not be the last time that she would dwell on a match. After the highs of that victory against Brazil, the USWNT won against France played against Japan in the final. They would lost that match in crushing fashion. Twice they were ahead by a goal, and both times they got pegged back, with the last strike coming in the 117’ from Japan’s own legend, Homare Sawa. It was not hard to see the similarities between that game and the quarterfinal against Brazil, and this time it was the U.S. that was doomed to lose. The game went into penalties and the U.S. missed its first 3 kicks. Japan came out the winner.

As crushing as that defeat was, it was once again a learning experience for Buehler, only this time she was joined by the entirety of the USWNT.

“It was devastating to lose to Japan, just devastating,” says Buehler. “I was not depressed, but I was definitely very sad and down. It was hard to lose in that way.”

Could I have done something different here? Could I have done something different there? The classic questions of uncertainty and regret came raining down in the minds of her and her teammates, questions that arise whenever someone in control succumbs to the finality of defeat, but they all persevered.

The highs and lows of the 2011 World Cup were exceptional. The velocity with which the team travelled between emotional extremes served as a lesson, and everyone grew in the aftermath of crashing to such a crushing defeat after experiencing such a glorious victory.

The USWNT would not have to wait long to put what it had learned to the test. The London Olympics in 2012 were a year away — just around the corner, really, and those games gave the cloud that hung over the team after the 2011 World Cup a silver lining. After the team had taken its time to reset, it found motivation in the promise of competition.

That next summer the U.S. entered the Olympics as a team mentally and physically prepared. Buehler was more in control; the whole team was. There was a sense of unity and confidence in the group. In short, they were on a mission, and this time they would not be denied.

One year and 23 days after losing to Japan in the final of the 2011 World Cup, the USWNT beat Japan in the final of the 2012 Olympics. It was a rematch one year, bundles of emotion, and two tournaments in the making; a fitting rematch, to say the least.

As Buehler thinks back to what was so special about that team, she sounds as sure of herself as she has at any point in our conversation.

“Sometimes if something negative happens, or you face a challenge, I think the team’s going to respond in two different ways: either they get up for the challenge, and it’s almost like extra motivation and you just really come together, or you don’t. And I think that’s what’s been so special about my experience with the national team.”

“In those difficult moments most of the time we really do come together and somehow find a way to win. I think that’s what’s made our team so successful and special, really. I think it’s a unique quality that we have.”

I can’t tell anymore if she is talking about the team she played for, or the one that is currently playing now. I don’t think there’s any reason why it can’t be both.

Coming together and succeeding when the stakes are highest is a great attribute to have. It’s what defines a champion, and after thinking on what Buehler has said, it is clear that it is also what defines her, even now, even in 2015. The USWNT’s ability to come together and succeed is nothing if not a multi-person manifestation of Buehler’s own drive to be the very best that she can be.

We, Buehler, and all the fans of the USWNT hope that they can come together and succeed one more time when they face off against Japan in the 2015 World Cup Final on Sunday, July 5th. It will be the third time in a row that the two countries meet in a major international competition’s final, and a true test of how well the USWNT has been able to adapt and stand the test of time.

Still, they are in Canada and Buehler is in America. I can’t help but think, what is she going to do now?

Thorns Stadium.

The home of the Portland Thorns. Photo: @ThornsFC | Twitter

I know that our conversation is coming to an end not because it is dying down, but because we have scheduled it for only an hour and the clock is running out. She has done nothing but give us information and insight into her life, and a very eventful life it is. The events of her past, however, pale in comparison to the situation she finds herself in now.

She is at a crossroads that few others outside of the community of professional athletes can truly relate to. The goals she has placed in front of herself spread out in what sometimes seem like completely opposite directions. She wants to have an injury free season, to make it to France 2019, and be a doctor. It’s daunting to say the least, but you would never know it by listening to Buehler.

“Right now I’m just focused on this season, and doing everything I can to help my Portland team be successful. I feel really grateful to be able to have this season.”

She is still that picture of self-improvement. She still wants to be the best that she can be. She is free, too, but not in the way that she was as a child, teenager, or even fresh out of college. Now, the question of whether or not to start a family is as real as it is unavoidable. At the age of 30, it would be unfair to say that the tick tock of Mother Nature has become a countdown, but it grows more undeniable every year.

“When you have a child as a woman, you are out for quite a few months...It’s a risk that you take.”

I cannot tell in the slightest what is certain in her future. If she becomes the first professional footballer to simultaneously start her own private practice in five years, I honestly would not be surprised. The lessons she has learned throughout her life, how to control the controllable, have made her a very capable person. A very capable person that says all the right things.

“I’m just focusing on right now, and this moment.”

Contrary to what her guarded speech might imply, there is no secret to what she is doing. After not being able to control her fate as a post-undergrad athlete, the fate of her team after being sent off at the World Cup, her selection to the current National Team representing the United States in Canada, or the reality of being a woman who must make sacrifices to play — amid all of that, she is controlling the controllable.

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @yetly

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