This Is 40

The number thing. I’ll be honest, the number thing gets to me a little bit.

This month during the World Cup, you’ll hear it again and again — from analysts, commentators, fans.

First my name, then my age.

Christie Rampone, who is turning 40 years old soon.

Every time I get interviewed, the first questions are “How are you feeling?” and “How’s your body holding up?” and “It’s your fifth World Cup, how are you staying in shape?” Or some variation of those.

It’s like clockwork.

And look, I’m not saying it’s the end of the world — I know most people mean well. On one level, it’s awesome to hear a fan say, “It’s amazing that you’re 39 and still playing on the national team!” After two kids and almost two decades of playing elite soccer around the world, I’m so grateful to still be at it. It’s not a fluke that I’m still in national team shape after nearly twenty years at this level.

But sometimes, there is just something about the way people say it. It’s like, “Should she really still be out there?” As though the team’s doing me a favor by having me around.

I get it — soccer is an opinion sport, so everyone’s got one. I just happen to think it’s a lazy opinion. Yes, I’m 39 going on 40. Yes, I’m the mother of two kids. Yes, I’ve torn my ACL and come back from it. I’ve also won three gold medals and now been to five World Cups.

The fact is, those people are not with me training every day, they’re not traveling 200 days a year with me, they’re not staring down Brazil’s Marta, one of the world’s top goal scorers, on the left wing in a World Cup match. They’re not seeing the whole picture, they’re just looking at my age. And I think that, because my personality is mellow and the way I play is very calm, people might not think I’m as fast or as intense as I am.

Society is still wrestling with the image of women in elite sports — to say nothing of the stigma of women’s age. Just take a look at the culture of Hollywood for that one. What roles do “aging” women get? (Though I’ll admit I haven’t seen a non-Disney movie in like a decade. I’m a mom.) But every four years, the popularity of the women’s game at the World Cup shows how more and more people care about the game — especially the young girls who wear our jerseys and hope to one day play at our level.

You might be surprised to find out that I’m still among the fastest on our team. Yep, I can beat most anyone in a sprint. My teammates like to call me “Ma” because I’m one of the only moms on the team and also because I’m the team captain, but the reality is, “Ma” is smoking them in a race from the end-line to midfield. I’ve got to keep those young girls in shape. I want to be judged by my play on the field, not by a number.

If people knew my full story, I think they’d be more likely to see me just as Christie, member of the U.S. national team, proud Jersey girl, soccer mom, Springsteen fan. I’ve always had to hustle. That’s what my whole life’s been about — from growing up in a small Jersey beach town and then going to a small but great university called Monmouth (go Hawks!) where I was better known for my basketball skills. I had to earn my spot on the soccer field, but the work and the hustle paid off.

After graduation at age 21, I got a call that honestly really surprised me. National team tryouts. So obviously I went, but it felt like an invitation to go on vacation to California, not an actual chance to make the team. It was 1997 in Chula Vista, near San Diego, and I remember the fields were just pristine and huge, and I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never played on a field like this.” Right in front of me was Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain — on the same field! And I remember — this is so embarrassing now — I was sneaking pictures of them. Like an absolute fan or tourist. Because I was sure I’d never be back there again.

But I was invited back to the team, for a trip to Australia for a match, and I was thinking, “Wow this is the big time … and I’m not there yet.” Because I knew I wasn’t there. But the coaching staff must have seen something in my speed because they moved me from the forward position — where I played in college — to defender. (Believe it or not, I used to be a goal scorer. No one believes me!) I had never played defense — now suddenly I was getting subbed in at halftime in an international friendly — at defense. I was running around like crazy. Afterwards, the team watched game film — it was mortifying. I got beat miserably a few times and my mistakes were there on display for everyone to see. The worst part: I would put my hands out like I was in a defensive basketball stance. But luckily I had Brandi right next to me on defense and she talked me through everything. She was awesome. As time went on, she took me under her wing and I’ll always be grateful. In soccer, you’re never alone — you always have a friend a few yards away.

Ironically, I think I’ve gotten better with age. How’s that for a stereotype? I guess you can call it experience or perspective. For me, it’s the realization that even if you can’t control everything on the field, you can always control your fitness. It’s funny because I actually flip age on its head: I feel like I look to the younger players to keep pushing me and keep me as competitive as possible. I look to the player in front of me or next to me to make me better. I hope I am doing the same for them.

As the captain and the player with the most World Cup experience, I want to set a good example. That means on the field, but also off the field. For example, we went on two strikes to get where we are. It wasn’t always pretty, and I try to relay to the girls that there’s both soccer and the business of soccer. I was always the person holding out in those strikes because I knew how important it was to maintain a solid voice for the team. I want the next generation of women to carry that torch. The turf issue is actually an important lesson. We lost the turf battle this time, but I’m proud that we raised hell over it. Do you think FIFA would make men play on turf if all the major men’s national teams in the world opposed it? Forget it. Wouldn’t happen. So we still have work to do and I see that as part of my role as captain.

Even though I’m the oldest, until I was captain, I never saw myself as a “leader.” Back in 2007 when Pia Sundhage took over as national team coach (now she’s Sweden’s coach), she came to me one day and said, “I think you’d be a great captain.” (Quick story about Pia: one of her first days as coach, she came into the locker room and saw one of my daughters and got really overwhelmed. “I’m not good with kids. I have two dogs,” she admitted. Pia is funny like that.)

So she wanted me to be captain. In my younger years I went to a sports psychologist and he said the same thing to me. I flat out told him he was nuts. So I asked Pia if she was sure. I heard his voice and hers and was like okay, if two people really think I could do this, I’ll give it a shot. I’m a listener and an observer first, not an overly talkative, loud leader. After about a month, I felt like the girls were respecting my voice and maybe even embracing it. Over time, players have figured out that I’m a player’s captain, not a coach’s captain — I’ll always go to them with an issue before I go to the coach. They know I’ve got their back. I wasn’t always comfortable dealing with the media, that part of it I didn’t love, though I’ve grown to understand that it’s a piece of the whole pie. But the soccer part, and taking care of people off the field (see, they call me “Ma” for a reason), and making sure we were taking the right steps to keep growing women’s soccer and standing up for ourselves to U.S. Soccer, I love all that stuff.

It’s obvious that part of the focus on my age is because I’m a mom. And yeah, it was crazy at times to be a mom and be playing for the national team. I was back on the field less than four months after having each of my girls, but isn’t maternity leave typically less than that? (My teammate Amy Rodriguez recently wrote about .) I think it’s why women feel like they have to work twice as hard sometimes. To have two kids and maintain my fitness, I had to radically change my diet and workout regimen. I had to sacrifice time normally spent for friendships and socializing for my two priorities: motherhood and soccer. But any working mom knows what I’m talking about. Sometimes you can’t be there for a school play, but you make it up in other ways.

It’s funny how everyone assumes moms are prepared to be moms. As I said, I’m on the road more than 200 days a year and I think people see that I’m a professional athlete and assume I must have a nanny. Nope, my husband and I just take the family show on the road. These girls have more passport stamps than most adults, and 20 or more “aunties” who love them to pieces — and who chase them down hotel hallways (sorry for the screeching), color with them, and so much more.

When I’m traveling with the team and my husband Chris travels with my two daughters alone, people stop him in the airport and ask how he’s doing. A dad, two girls, a bunch of luggage and a stroller? And you packed lunches? How do you do it all? It’s like people are seeing an exotic animal for the first time. Chris and I joke about it all the time because no one would stop a mom in that situation and think anything of it.

Age and parenting make me think about longevity. I definitely believe one big reason for my longevity has to do with the dietary and fitness changes I made after being diagnosed with auto-immune conditions after giving birth to my youngest daughter Reece in 2011. For example, I’ve gone gluten-free and have started to eat to my blood-type. Also, a friend introduced me to a natural ingredient called EpiCor to help strengthen my immune system. I have taken EpiCor daily for the past three years and it has become a beneficial part of my daily routine of rest, recovery, working out, eating healthy, and being in airports and hotels more than my own house.

It’s hard because no one knows what the retirement age is supposed to be in women’s soccer. How long can somebody play? No one really knows. Longevity in soccer is a mysterious thing. We’re always pushing the limits. I think that’s what makes people focus on the age and not the player. My mindset has always been: play hard and you’ll get noticed. Forget the distractions.

That’s why one of the most important things I’ve been saying to the girls in the last few weeks has been, “Do not open your phones and read stuff during the World Cup.” Because there will always be negative comments about you and positive ones. But you get five great articles and you get one bad comment … what are you going to think about? The bad comment. And it becomes a mental game — who are you really playing for? Are you playing for the comment, or playing for yourself and your team? I truly believe we need to play this World Cup and win it for our team. Not to prove anyone right or wrong, and not even to compare ourselves to the ‘99 team.

Here’s the thing about our team this year: most anybody can stay with us for 60 minutes. We take nothing for granted this World Cup. Teams are really strong. But that last third of the match, those last 30 minutes, we’re going to turn it up a notch. That American style of play — 100 percent, all the time — is gonna kick in.

The last thing I want to do is take away focus on our team, which includes a bunch of great younger players, who are the future.

I want people to view me as more than the numbers 39 or 40. Everybody, from their personality to their body type, is different and you should never compare yourself to anybody else. If you can hang, you can hang. End of story.