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Kelley O’Hara

231: Responding to Adversity – On and Off The Field

This week’s conversation is with Kelley O’Hara, who plays soccer for both the US women’s national team and Utah Royals FC.

As a member of the USWNT, she has won two World Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal.

Prior to her professional career, she attended Stanford University, where she won the Hermann Trophy in 2009, awarded annually to the United States’ top male and female college soccer players.

We cover so much in this conversation.

Inner Drive. Resiliency. Equality. Authenticity. Impact.

When I think about the challenging times we’re currently facing, those 5 words are just about the most significant words I can think of right now.

Kelley is a tremendous role model for the next generation and I can’t wait for you to learn from her.

“The phrase ‘this too shall pass’ is so perfect for anything. It’s not dwelling on the negative, it’s finding a way to control whatever you can control to change the situation that you’re in.”

In This Episode:

What’s it like to be her?

I wear a lot of hats. Athlete, partner, daughter, sister, friend, teammate, co-workers, representative of a group of players for national team in terms of our PA. I feel like I’m trying to make sure everyone’s okay because I think that’s just in my nature. That I think is what adds a lot of stress. At no point is everyone going to be okay and you have to understand that, but then you have to figure out ways that you can help and impact where you can, but also understand that you have to handle things and try to make things the best they can be, but know that it’s never going to be perfect.

How did her parents raise her?

Growing up, in my childhood, the way my parents raised me was we’re not going to be helicopter parents, we expect you to be your best and I think that’s what has molded me into the person that I am. Do your homework, get good grades, reach your potential and like I said, I think that shaped me a lot in who I am today.

Where does her drive come from?

External factors are going to come and go, and if you’re looking for validation from external factors, if you’re looking for motivation from external factors, you’re going to be hard pressed to find it at times. Therefore, you need to figure out how you find that within yourself because you’re always going to have you and you’re always going to have your internal dialog and your internal drive, and so that’s something that I… It’s developed over the years.

Her Heart

My heart wants people to feel loved, people to feel accepted, people to be open minded, and for me to be a person that helps to create that type of world and society. People to feel valued. At the end of the day everyone just wants to be loved, right? I think that’s the most important thing.

How is she thinking about the current fight for equality?

I have a perspective on inequality that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t in the position that I am with the national team and being a female athlete. It’s made me realize systemic sexism is real, therefore I know systemic racism is real because I’ve had that experience and a lot of people will be like, “Oh no.” They don’t see from my perspective on the world that I live in, and I don’t see from certain people’s perspective of the world that they live in. However, because I live in a place where I have had to fight for equality, I feel like again, I said uniquely, I have a unique perspective. I feel like I can be empathetic and it gives me an understanding of this is so important. I will never understand how you feel but I understand that you are feeling something and this is worth fighting for.

Who has influenced her?

I think for me it’s been female athletes and the trails that they have blazed. I looked up to the ’99ers big time and I watched what they were doing and I wanted to do that and to be that. These aren’t political or spiritual or thought leaders, but in my mind sports is culture… My first recollection is watching the Olympics is in ’96. The gymnastics team, Kerri Strug and hurting her ankle and she pushed through and she landed it and she won. That was my first instance of seeing females on the TV representing their country doing a sport, and then the ’99ers happened, and so I think those influenced me as a kid to be like, “Oh I’m going to do that one day.” I remember watching the Olympics and thinking, “I’ll be in the Olympics.” At that point I didn’t know it would be for soccer. I just thought that I would be there for something. I think that even though female athletes back then didn’t get a lot of visibility or recognition, when I saw it I connected to that and that impacted me in a big way.

Pick a moment and zoom into it, what is the moment that comes to mind?

2011 World Cup and like I said, I was brought in last minute as an alternate but then was added to the roster because Lindsay Tarpley got hurt. I was standing at the halfway line about to sub in, my heart rate was through the roof, I could barely breathe, and I was like, “Just make sure that the circle doesn’t close in and you pass… The camera’s going to be on you, you’re subbing into a game, if you collapse right here that would be really bad, that was going through my head before I went into the game.

What did she say to herself after not meeting the expectations of that moment?

I walked up the steps and stood at the top of the steps on the field, the stadium was empty, it was quiet, the lights were off, and it was just the soccer field. I took a moment and just talked to myself and basically said, “This is a soccer field. You know how to play soccer, you’ve been doing it since you were four. Doesn’t matter the stage, doesn’t matter who’s in the stands, how many people are watching on TV, what the stakes are, it’s a soccer game and you know how to play soccer so don’t doubt that.” Filed that away in the memory bank and went from there, and I feel like I learned a very big lesson that day.


I know that the toughest, hardest, most trying moments are the ones that are the most impactful. Iron sharpens iron, you don’t get to become the best or you don’t get to a level of success without having to go through obstacles and figure out a way to respond to failure. That’s just part of life and I think that goes back to resiliency. Resiliency isn’t I’m not going to mess up, I’m going to try to be perfect. It’s I’m going to come up against obstacles, failures, hard times, and it’s not those things, it’s how I respond to those things that create the person I am.

What’s her purpose?

I’m pursing impact. I’m in a position, whether I like it or not, that a lot of people look up to me and a lot of people are inspired by what I do, what my teammates do. In the beginning of my career people would say that and be like, “Oh, you’re so inspiring. What you do helps so many people.” I’d brush it off and say, “I’m just playing soccer, I’m just doing what I love.” Took me a while to understand that there’s a responsibility that comes with it and it’s true, you are in a position where you have the ability to impact people, you have the ability to inspire people, and for me it’s making sure that I don’t let that go to waste. I think there’s so many different ways that you can use your platform for good, so it’s making sure that I do that, making sure that I impact individuals, communities, teams, society, the world for the better.

Her hope for others

I wish that more people understood the power that they have as individuals, whether they’re in the public eye or not, that your interactions on a day to day basis and how you choose to live your life impacts the people around you and it’s a ripple effect. That is the world that we live in and I understand that I am in a spot that I can do really cool things and really special things and create a lot of change hopefully, but I also think that everyone should feel that empowerment and even if it’s just in simple interactions with their friends or their family or their classmates, that sort of thing, I wish more people felt that way.


I think that so many people want you to be so many things and to do it the way they want you to do it, especially in the position that I’m in. But at the end of the day, you have to respect the fact that I am who I am and I’m going to do it the way I’m going to do it and that is me being true to myself and I would hope that everyone would be happy for that, would applaud that. You don’t want somebody being someone else, be yourself. There’s only you.

How does she define success?

There’s a simple way to do it and that’s the wins and losses column, and then there’s a life way to do it and that’s like how am I internally and how am I, again, creating change, impacting for the better, making the people around me better, which will then ripple to everything else hopefully.

What’s a word she’s focused on right now?

Action. Because I feel like we’ve talked about, so much is happening in the world right now, so important. But it’s nothing, nothing changes without action. We can talk all we want and talking and conversation, educating, listening, is so important and I’m not discounting that, but figuring out ways to take actionable steps to create change is, in my mind, the way that I can be the most useful.

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