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Cheney returns after Olympic gold

By Rebecca Lee

Sept. 20, 2008 9:35 p.m.

On a July evening in Indianapolis, Bruin soccer standout Lauren Cheney was packing, getting ready to return to Westwood for the new season, when she received one of the most important phone calls of her life from Abby Wambach.

Wambach, the leading scorer and superstar on the U.S. women’s Olympic soccer team, had broken her leg in an exhibition game against Brazil merely three weeks before Team USA’s first Olympic match against Norway. Originally an alternate, Cheney was named as Wambach’s replacement on the 18-player Olympic roster.

“She told me she believed in me,” Cheney said. “I was obviously sad for Abby. She was one of my friends. I didn’t want that to happen to anyone ““ I didn’t want anyone to be injured. But I was also excited to fill any role they wanted me to fill and to be with the (national) team again.”

In Beijing, the UCLA junior came off the bench for Team USA in wins over Canada and Japan. But she played 49 minutes against Brazil, the team that pummeled the Americans, 4-0, a year ago, and contributed to USA’s 1-0 victory in the final match, earning her an Olympic gold medal.

“I was so happy,” Cheney said. “All of us were so happy (to) win a gold medal with a better team. We’re a really special team. Everything that I’ve been through paid off.”

Everything, including a congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery when the dynamic forward was 3 years old. Luckily, it might have inadvertently jump-started her soccer career, as Cheney’s medical team encouraged her parents to keep her heart strong by getting her involved in sports.

Cheney ended up following the footsteps of her older brother Aaron Cheney, now 26, into to the world of soccer.

“I kind of just followed my brother around everywhere, and whatever he did when I was younger, I would do,” Cheney said. “He played soccer, so I just tried it and loved it. So I just kept playing.”

Cheney came to UCLA as the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation and high school player of the year.

“She had immediate impact,” UCLA women’s soccer coach Jill Ellis said.

Ellis, the national team’s assistant coach this summer, is entering her 10th year as the Bruins’ head coach. Ellis first met Cheney when she took over the Under-21 national team. That was when Ellis knew that her future star was “a very special player.”

After becoming the first freshman to lead the Pac-10 in points (39), goals (19), and shots (19) since Arizona State’s Stacey Tullock in 1998, Cheney was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and Soccer Buzz National Freshman of the Year in 2006.

“She’s athletic, competitive and a proven goal-scorer,” Ellis said. “She’s got technical ability, and adding intangibles, I’d say she’s a pretty complete soccer player.”

The dynamic forward managed to trump those records one year later as Pac-10 Player of Year by leading the conference in points (57), goals (23), and game-winning goals (9), and breaking the UCLA single-season school records for points and goals. She was the Soccer America, Soccer Buzz, and Top Drawer Soccer National Player of the Year and runner-up for the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy. She led UCLA to an undefeated season (9-0) in the Pac-10, earning the Bruins the conference title, and an overall record of 20-2-2.

“Her ability to find the back of the net ““ that’s the strongest part of her game. She knows where the goal is,” Ellis said. “There’s nothing weak about her.”

As captain of the UCLA women’s soccer team, Cheney sets an example for the rest of her teammates.

“There’s been time and time again that Lauren ““ I don’t know how many game-winning goals she has ““ she consistently finds the net for us. That just contributes to her ability as a soccer player,” Ellis said.

This season, Cheney hopes to lead the Bruins to a sixth-consecutive conference title. While on the 2008 M.A.C. Hermann Trophy Watch List alongside teammate Christina DiMartino, she is also en route to breaking the school record of 26 game-winning goals, held by Danesha Adams.

“She enjoys pressure, (and) enjoys the big stage,” Ellis said. “She thrives in that environment.”

And what bigger stage for the soccer star to perform than the summer Olympic Games?

As a member of the national team, she drew the praises of her college coach.

“She was a team player ““ positive ““ and recognizes that she still has to develop at that level,” Ellis said. “Her willingness to continue to improve is one of her strengths, and she realizes that she can definitely play at that level and belong to that level ““ there’s no question.”

Although she was not playing as many minutes as she was used to during the Olympics, Cheney accepted coming off the bench graciously. She saw it more as a new role, a new challenge to overcome. Once she was in the game, she played hard, making difficult plays, strong tackles, and quick runs ““ doing everything she could to help her team and country win.

“As a player, it’s hard not to grow when you play at an international level. But I got to play that,” she said.

Cheney developed close bonds with her teammates on the U.S. National Team. On the field, she looked up to the veterans, especially captains Christine Rampone and Kate Markgraf.

“They’re amazing ““ all of them,” she said. “They took us under their wings. They were great leaders and really good people, role models to look up to, and just friends. They’re awesome as players, and off the field too.”

Off the field, while she bonded with Lindsay Tarpley Snow, the wife of the UCLA women’s soccer team’s assistant coach, B.J. Snow, Cheney was closest to North Carolina’s Tobin Heath and USC’s Amy Rodriguez. The three collegiate players on the U.S. Olympic squad formed what the Bruin forward dubbed the “three amigos.”

“They are my best friends,” she said. “We did everything together. We were close before, we knew each other before this. We played on other teams together. Being a part of this, we just got so close in the past month.”

Cheney still keeps in contact with her two “amigos,” especially Rodriguez, despite her status as a crosstown rival.

“We don’t care about (the UCLA-USC rivalry). Obviously on the field, it’s completely different. We both want our teams to win. But off the field, we’re just really good friends,” Cheney said.

Beijing is a long way from Los Angeles and even longer from Indianapolis, and the Olympics were a dream come true for the 20-year-old.

“Just being at the Olympics with so many amazing athletes, it was definitely a humbling experience,” Cheney said. “Being there and just knowing how great everyone is, year-round, at their sport. Seeing all these new people (from other countries) every day in the village, I thought that was pretty special. It’s not everyday that you get to do that, and it definitely gives you a perspective on different cultures and everything.”

As Cheney joins Olympic greats Michael Phelps, dynamic duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, and Kobe Bryant as 2008 Olympic gold medalists, she hopes to bring her incredible experience back to Westwood.

“Hopefully, I can just share some of that experience with everyone and just keep playing whatever role I need to play for UCLA and lead by example,” Cheney said.

“I just want us to make the most of the season ““ just become the best team that we can be.”

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