Heather O'Reilly reflects on superb career featuring 231 USA caps & three Olympic golds

Heather O'Reilly and Megan Rapinoe
Heather O'Reilly (right) knocked out Megan Rapinoe's (left) Reign FC side in the semi-finals of the NWSL Championship before going on to win the final 4-0 in her final match two weeks' ago

"What a dream end. I feel very lucky."

American Heather O'Reilly, 34, retired from football last month after making 231 appearances for her country and representing six clubs, including English champions Arsenal, for whom she played from 2017-18. The former midfielder, who was part of the US squad that won the 2015 Women's World Cup, has three Olympic gold medals and is a regular presenter on BBC World Service.

Fresh from winning a fourth league title, she spoke on the World Football Show to reflect on a legendary career which ended with a 4-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women's Soccer League Championship game.

I will smile looking back

There's certainly a feeling it's a turn of a new chapter. I've only known being a footballer.

It's a little bit scary but I know I'm not going to be far away from the game. At the end, it wasn't really the matches at the weekend that I was getting pumped up for. It was the training sessions, being with the team, feeling the joy out on the pitch. I know that will never leave me so it gives me a lot of peace.

I was really proud of the last victory. When I retired from international football, there was certainly a lot of people who thought I was done. I had my doubts too but I felt I still had something to offer.

You don't know what the ending will look like but I didn't care and pushed through. In the end, I started right back at the beginning.

We scored our first goal after three minutes in the Championship final and when I was running back to the middle it was such a good feeling. I could appreciate the atmosphere a little bit more after the third goal though.

I will smile looking back at it.

How Mia Hamm inspired me

Heather O'Reilly and Mia Hamm celebrating
Heather O'Reilly (right) scored the winning goal against Germany in the Olympic semi-final at Athens in 2004. She had just recovered from a broken leg and was the youngest player in the squad at 19. Mia Hamm (left of O'Reilly) assisted the goal. The USA went on to beat Brazil in the final.

Mia Hamm is such a humble athlete. She played in the tournament in 1999, when the USA won the World Cup on home soil, and it lit a fire in so many of our young hearts. She completely inspired me.

I had tears in my eyes watching them win. I was there with my high school buddies and I was definitely taking it a lot more seriously. It really impacted me at a deep level.

Mia was such an icon. We all had posters of her in our room as teenagers. I had Justin Timberlake and Mia, side by side! She did things the right way and set a precedent for what it means to be a true competitor.

It was interesting going into my first USA team camp because Mia was injured and that was sort of why I got the call-up. When she came back I remember going up to her and saying 'thanks for letting me wear your number while you were gone' and she looked at me sternly and said 'it's not my number, it's the team's number'.

I will always remember that because she put the team first. Those moments impacted me and taught me what it meant to play for the USA. I am grateful that I had those pioneers before me.

The USA team are my sisters

USA world cup champions of 1999
The US team celebrate winning the 1999 Women's World Cup, defeating China in a penalty shootout in California

My first time playing with Mia and all those idols of mine was very surreal. If they called for the ball and it wasn't the right decision, I would still give it to them. I wanted them to like me. I wanted them to warm to me as a young kid. I felt like I was trying too hard.

It took me a while to feel like I hadn't just won a cereal box competition to spend a day with them. I deserved to be there. It was weird and I felt very star struck.

In the end, I literally grew up with the team. I was 17 years old when I first came into the squad and I played through until I was 31. The girls even had to help me pick my prom dress.

I had a packet of cookies in my room once and my room-mate was like, 'are you really eating those in bed?' I thought it was perfectly fine to do that. That was teenage Heather, learning the ropes of being a professional.

You spend so much time together so these women are like my sisters now.

What it means to go out on top

All the medals I've won don't really mean that much to me in their physical form. It's the feeling, the nostalgia and the meaning behind each win.

There are certainly some tournaments, squads and managers that mean a little bit more to you. The World Cup is the pinnacle and I won it, but I wasn't very active in the tournament so it's weird that different trophies hit different heartstrings.

That last NWSL title was certainly special - to go out a winner.

What does it mean to go out on top? I don't think it's fair to say it's winning your last game or winning a World Cup - it's preserving your love of the game and your integrity. There's different ways to define it but I was thrilled I went out with a win in my last one.

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women's sport available to watch across the BBC in 2019, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women's sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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