When it came to healing her ailing ankle, Kelley O’Hara tried “everything besides maybe chopping it off.”
And even that was perhaps a flash of a thought at one point or another during her journey. In what she says has been one of the toughest stretches of her career, the U.S. national team and Utah Royals FC defender has spent large swaths of the past year fighting to get back onto the field after hamstring and ankle injuries.
O’Hara didn’t play for the national team from March to September of last year, but made a brief return in a friendly against Chile that month. But it was short-lived: In October, O’Hara went under the knife for surgery on her ankle (the same right ankle she’d had reconstruction surgery on in 2013). The most recent surgery kept her off the field until earlier this year, when she finally made her club and national team returns.
It’s been an up-and-down year, to say the least – but one that has finally led to a World Cup roster spot.
“The past year has been a bit of a roller coaster for me, just dealing with injuries and a lot of time thinking I was out of the woods and clear of all the injuries and things come back up and obviously don’t go as planned,” O’Hara said.
“I’ve had a lot of uncertainty and I’ve felt very scared to be honest a lot of times in the past couple months, just not knowing if my body would get back to feeling like I have in the past. I tried to keep a good face but people close to me probably know it’s been hard.”
It’s been a 180-degree turn from how fear has played a role in her playing days to this point: Typically, it’s O’Hara striking fear in her opponents.
The player that is known for her intensity, for once, was the one who was unsure, not able to play with the same full speed she was used to.
Slowly but surely, O’Hara is getting back to the playing style she’s used to.
“I say this kind of jokingly, kind of seriously, but she is that player you need who’s a little crazy on the field,” said Becky Sauerbrunn, O’Hara’s club and national teammate. “You’re so glad she’s on your team and you’re not going against her. She’s going to get in between tackles, she’s going to yell at people, she’s going to get in people’s faces. She just brings this added energy.”
O’Hara’s fiery nature also shows up at the club level.
“The reality is that she’s a winner, and winners are often crazy in a good way,” Royals coach Laura Harvey said. “She wants to win at everything, whether it’s a warmup, a league game, the World Cup. And when you want it like that, the crazy does come out a little bit, in a good way. She challenges herself and everyone around her to be better in everything.”
That energy has been a mainstay on the national team. O’Hara has accumulated 115 caps since her debut in 2010, and this summer’s World Cup will be her third. One of O’Hara’s biggest moments for the national team came in the last World Cup: She scored the U.S.’s second goal against Germany, sealing their 2-0 win and their spot in the semifinals in 2015.
But that’s still not enough for O’Hara, whose competitiveness is one of her most prized qualities. From the moment that trophy touched her hands in 2015, she just wanted another.
“I want that so bad,” O’Hara said. “That’s literally all I’ve been thinking about since we won in 2015, is I want to repeat in 2019. That’s something I’d love to say that I accomplished with this group of women. … That’s all I want right now.”