Ali Krieger always has had two dreams. She wanted to play in a World Cup, and she wanted to play in the Olympics.
One year ago this week, the first dream was more than fulfilled. With the United States and Brazil tied after 120 minutes in a World Cup quarterfinal match, the Dumfries native converted the game-winning penalty kick and capped one of the most dramatic comebacks in American soccer history.
The second dream also appeared to be within reach this summer, as the 2012 London Olympics begin later this month. But with the crunch of a late, reckless challenge in a game earlier this year, that dream was abruptly taken away. The 27-year-old suffered a torn ACL and MCL in her right knee and is in the fifth month of a six- to eight-month rehabilitation process.
“It’s been a tough road for me, more mentally than physically,” Krieger said from Frankfurt, Germany, where she is training with her club team, FFC Frankfurt. “But I’ve obviously come to terms with not being a part of the Olympics, and I’m very, very positive in the way that I’m looking at the situation.”
Krieger has every right to complain about the unfortunate timing of her injury, which came in the midst of a 14-0 blowout of the Dominican Republic in a Jan. 20 Olympic qualifier.
But instead of sulking or waiting for her knee to magically heal, Krieger has controlled what she could control and stayed positive throughout the process. Without that mentality, she wouldn’t be perfectly on schedule with her rehab like she is today.
“Now it’s not really rehab anymore,” Krieger said. “It’s just conditioning. I’m not injured anymore. I’m just trying to strengthen my leg.”
Hard work always has been second nature for Krieger, who excelled at Forest Park High School and also had a brief stint with the Washington Freedom of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league.
For the past 22 weeks, she has treated the rehabilitation process like a full-time job, working with trainers at FFC Frankfurt from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, to build strength and flexibility in her leg while also maintaining cardiovascular fitness.
It’s a work ethic that she’s learned from her father, Ken, who has coached in Northern Virginia for more than 30 years.
“I always used to say we all have this little Bunsen Burner inside of us and it’s just a matter of you turning that flame up depending on what type of drive you want to put toward your goals,” he said. “If you have a goal, nothing should stop you. Nothing should get in your way.”
Krieger’s original goal was to get back to 85 or 90 percent by the end of June, proving to U.S. coach Pia Sundhage that her knee was healthy enough to compete in the Olympics. With her work ethic, she thought it was possible. But when Sundhage named her Olympic roster May 27 — a full six weeks before the July 9 deadline — Krieger was at 60 to 70 percent strength, and the process was out of her hands.
“I’m really sorry for Ali, but she’s young and there are so many games in front of her,” Sundhage said of the injury. “I hope she comes back, and I know she will.”
She certainly has before.
As a junior at Penn State in 2005, Krieger suffered a broken leg two days before the NCAA tournament and missed her team’s run to the national semifinals. She did what she could throughout the tournament, speaking with players one on one and trying to inject the locker room with confidence, but there’s only so much one can do while sitting on the bench.
Then in January, after surgery repaired her broken leg, Krieger started having difficulty breathing. Her boyfriend at the time insisted that she go to the hospital, where doctors discovered blood clots in her lungs that were causing her to experience a series of mini heart attacks. Without the blood-thinning medication she was given that night, Krieger may not have survived.
Entering the following season, coach Paula Wilkins asked Krieger to switch from midfield to defense. She responded to the switch (and her life-threatening condition in the offseason) by winning the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award and becoming the only Nittany Lion to be named an All-American at two different positions.
In a way, the broken leg made Krieger — and her teammates — stronger.
“Obviously she’s a really good player, but I think the one thing is that she’s truly a good person,” said Wilkins, who now coaches at Wisconsin. “It’s a terrible thing to say, but I don’t know if we would’ve been successful at the NCAAs if she hadn’t gotten hurt. Does that make sense? The kids were so inspired by her.”
Perhaps Krieger will be able to have the same effect on the United States national team as it prepares for its opening Olympic match against France on July 25. She plans on cheering for the team from her apartment in Germany, though she may make the trip to London if a potential broadcasting deal goes through.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to win,” Krieger said.
In the meantime, the former World Cup star is focused on returning to form in time for FFC Frankfurt’s opening match Sept. 2. The Olympic dream will have to wait.