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Wednesday September 28th

UNC's Heather O'Reilly unretires, checks Champions League run off her bucket list

<p>Heather O'Reilly poses for a portrait at Tolka Park in Dublin, Ireland. Photo Courtesy of Heather O'Reilly</p>
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Heather O'Reilly poses for a portrait at Tolka Park in Dublin, Ireland. Photo Courtesy of Heather O'Reilly

When asked what the biggest obstacle was in returning to professional play, soccer star Heather O’Reilly was blunt.

“I can’t really think of an obstacle,” she said.

Earlier this year, O’Reilly ran the Boston Marathon. Over the summer, she competed on American Ninja Warrior. She credits her dad, a track star, and her own effort to her “good base of athleticism, fitness level and aerobic capacity”. 

Even after giving birth to two kids, and despite not having played a competitive match in over two and a half years, O’Reilly was completely confident in her abilities.

“I’ve been staying decently sharp,” she said. “But once I found out, oh gosh, I’m actually going over and doing this thing, I kind of cranked it up.”

On July 28, the 37-year-old announced that she would be coming out of retirement to join the Irish club team Shelbourne in its UEFA Women’s Champions League campaign. For the midfielder and former UNC standout, playing in the Champions League was one item she still needed to check off of her bucket list. So, the Tar Heels' volunteer assistant coach dropped everything to pursue this chance.


“I think I always joked about playing, and obviously the UNC girls know if there’s an extra number needed at training I’m the first one in there because I just love the game,” O’Reilly said. “I love working with them but I love playing the game. I think it’s always been this thing in the back of my head that I never got to play Champions League.”

It’s easy to understand her excitement, even though there’s very little that O’Reilly hasn’t accomplished in her career.

As a forward at UNC from 2003 to 2006, she led North Carolina to two national championships and received the Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top player in her senior season. Three Olympic gold medals and a FIFA Women’s World Cup victory with the U.S. national team are just a few of the accomplishments she’s racked up over the years. 

“Heather O’Reilly is an all-time great,” UNC head coach Anson Dorrance said. “I would put her in the top 10 players of the United States of all time — her resume is extraordinary.“

In 2019, a year out from earning a league crown with the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage, O’Reilly returned to North Carolina as a volunteer assistant coach. It’s a role former UNC midfielder Alex Kimball said she’d been playing unofficially for years as the Chapel Hill resident often popped in to help out with the team.

“With her being a part of training, she’s the type of example that she doesn’t say much, but you watch what she does and you watch her work ethic, and as a younger player you just try to emulate it,” Kimball said. “She jumps into training, post-two kids, post-retiring, and she still kicks everyone’s ass. And I think that contributes to the mentality that she has. I think what separates Heather is her self-belief.”

For O’Reilly, it only took a tiny push from longtime Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger at a June charity soccer game called “Soccer Aid” for the retired mom to picture herself lacing up again. Pulling O’Reilly and Carli Lloyd aside, Wenger told the two former professional soccer players that if they wanted, they should continue to play.

Though O’Reilly said she thinks Wenger was largely joking, she gave his piece of advice serious consideration. O’Reilly approached junior forward Avery Patterson at one of UNC’s ID camps over the summer with the idea of unretiring.

“I told her that she just did American Ninja Warrior, I don’t see why she wouldn’t be able to unretire, honestly," Patterson said. "Even after having two kids, she’s still Heather O’Reilly, at the end of the day. It didn’t come as a shock to us at all."

In July, O’Reilly signed for Shels, as the club is colloquially known. After arriving in Ireland later that month, O’Reilly immediately started to "crank up" her training with several cone agility drills and sprints to get to work prepping for the team’s first Champions League match against Slovenia’s Pomurje on Aug. 18.

“It was just kind of surreal that all this talk about it for years and I thought that my career was done and it would be this elusive thing that I didn’t get to accomplish,” she said. “And then, here it is. It’s right in front of me to take part in and do. There’s definitely this surreal aspect to it.”

The next day, O’Reilly scored the game-winner against Pomurje — a header into the top left corner of the goal in just the fourth minute — to advance Shelbourne to the final game of the UWCL Round One. Three days later, a 3-0 loss to Iceland's Valur ended Shelbourne's Champions League run. 



O’Reilly has since returned to Chapel Hill and could be spotted on the sideline of UNC’s matchup against UCLA on Sunday. Despite a short-lived Champions League run, O’Reilly hopes that her experience can inspire her players.

“There’s going to be adversity, there’s going to be opposition, but if you want something bad enough, and you’re willing to put yourself out there, you can accomplish it,” she said. “So I think if I was able to inspire my players to go after whatever they want, even if other people might think it’s ridiculous or it’s impossible — just go do it. Just grab life. And I hope that they’ve seen that from me.”

To be clear, O’Reilly isn’t done just yet. She told ESPN’s Gwendolyn Oxenham that she may return to Shelbourne in September as a player-coach.

And if she laced up again, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to her players. At the end of the day, she’s still Heather O’Reilly.

@shelbymswanson 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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