- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

— After voyaging up and down the eastern part of China for the last three weeks to train and play qualifying games, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s traveling circus finally has reached Beijing.

The mascots for the show: Rylie Rampone, nearly 3, and Keegan Markgraf, 2.

When the United States faces Japan in an Olympic semifinal at Workers Stadium, defenders Christie Rampone and Kate Markgraf will get two hours of solace on the pitch.

But as soon as the game ends, it’s back to their full-time jobs as moms on the road.

“It’s truly unbelievable to see,” teammate Heather O’Reilly said. “People ask me who my role models are or my idols are, and it’s those two and some of the women who have come before them. It’s incredibly hard being a player. I can’t imagine being a mom with it.”

In the late 1990s, when Markgraf and Rampone were breaking into the national team, defenders Carla Overbeck and Joy Fawcett had children, returned to the team and brought the kids along. Veteran forward Kristine Lilly is missing these Olympics after giving birth to a daughter in late July.

Markgraf, 31, and Rampone, 33, will anchor the middle of the Americans’ defense as the United States strives toward a repeat of its gold medal in Athens.

“They’ve had every experience possible,” outside back Heather Mitts said. “They can tell you what’s right, what’s wrong and how to fix things. Everybody looks to them.”

On the back line, Markgraf has become a constant. She made her national team debut in 1998 and will make her 162nd appearance today. She said becoming a mother has changed her perspective as an athlete.

“Before, I was pretty selfish and pretty clueless about everything,” she said. “Now I can’t spend 20 hours worrying about every other thing. I have two hours on the soccer field, and then I have to be a mom. It makes me very, very tired at the end of the day, but it’s enhanced my life more than I could ever imagine.”

Rampone, who has worn the captain’s armband since Lilly went on leave, looks to the previous players who were still effective even with children in tow.

“As a mom, it’s definitely Joy and Carla,” she said. “Being on the team then as a young player and how they came back, it was inspiring.”

The fact that Markgraf and Rampone are still starting is a tribute to their lasting power. But the comebacks from child birth weren’t seamless.

Markgraf played six weeks after Keegan was born, and she developed back problems.

“I lost all my core strength when I was pregnant, and I came back too quickly,” she said. “I think every person who has an injury or takes time off wonders if they’ll be good as they were.”

Rampone was a little more patient because she had experience from playing after a layoff. An ACL injury shelved her a few years ago, and she didn’t play for the United States until three months after Rylie was born.

“It took close to a year [to get back to full strength],” she said. “Fitness wise I was fine when I came back, but it was about catching up to the speed of the game.”

Rampone and Markgraf have employed a nanny to travel with the team, and they try to find activities that interest both kids.

“We definitely share each other’s supplies and toys,” Rampone said. “It helps having another mom around, and we can help each other.”

The kids also serve as a diversion for the rest of the team.

“It adds perspective because if training didn’t go so well, we’ll go back and see the little guys run to their moms, and it keeps things in place,” O’Reilly said.

Said Mitts: “Personally, I never could do it. I give them so much credit for what they do. It’s hard enough to focus on soccer alone but to take care of a child when they get a break … they do it with ease and grace.”

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