Anyone can become a champion if they work hard enough, or at least that was three-time Olympic gold medalist Heather O’Reilly’s sentiment when she spoke to young girls from across the East Coast during her three-day Olympic Soccer Camp this week.
The camp, held at Heavenly Farms Fields in East Brunswick starting Monday evening, was the first summer camp O’Reilly has run on her own, with the Olympics and celebration at its core.
“The point of me doing this camp so close to me coming back from the Olympics is to share that experience, talk about some stories that I experienced there in London, and sort of share that celebration,” O’Reilly said.
For one, coming off the bench for many of the games during the 2012 London Olympics, O’Reilly said she had to be mentally prepared every time she got on the field. In the semi-final game, for example, O’Reilly said it took a lot of patience and discipline for her to be ready to go in during overtime. She hoped to share that experience with the campers to illustrate the importance of staying ready and being a team player.
The East Brunswick Soccer Club, with whom O’Reilly played during her youth, helped O’Reilly secure the fields and get the word out to young girls in the area about her camp.
“I feel very blessed to have grown up in East Brunswick and grown up with such great soccer around me,” O’Reilly said.
She said she grew up with excellent role models, especially when she participated in East Brunswick High School basketball camps run by former girls’ basketball coach Reggie Carney. O’Reilly said there was always a group of older teenage girls who looked after O’Reilly and her friends that she admired.
“Those girls really did make an impact on me on how much you can impact youth, how much you can shape lives by just being there and sharing in sport with these kids,” O’Reilly said.
In the future the camp may become available for boys to join, but for now, O’Reilly said she’s happy to present this special opportunity to young girls and help them foster their self-esteem in a comfortable environment.
“It’s a way for the little girls in the town to have something special, to be totally proud to have an all-girls camp,” O’Reilly said.
Jillian Balsamo, entering the 5th grade at St. Francis Cathedral School in Metuchen, has been studying soccer since a young age. Robert Balsamo, her father, said Jillian Balsamo watched her older sister Erica Balsamo play growing up, and she often critiqued her older sister during games and practices. It wasn’t long before Jillian Balsamo took up the game herself.
Now she hopes, with the help of O’Reilly’s camp, to hone her dribbling and shooting skills and develop as a soccer player for years to come.
“I wanted to do (the camp) to learn the skills Heather O’Reilly has,” she said.
After an initial group lesson on ball-work and attacking with O’Reilly, the 140 campers split off into smaller groups based on age and skill level. The small groups were led by a nine-coach staff of former college players. Campers’ ages ranged from 6 years old to 16.
“There’s some of you that are here that are 6 years old, and there’s some of you that are here that are 16 years old, and it doesn’t matter because we are here to get better and we are here to have fun, and it doesn’t matter what age you are, Ok?” O’Reilly said during the initial lesson.
The three-day camp was structured to teach different techniques each day. The first day, Monday, was focused on skill work and confidence. Tuesday’s lessons were structured around teamwork, combination play, give and goes, and passing, while the last day is about the campers finding a way to win and be competitive.
One goal O’Reilly suggested the campers set during the camp was to learn how to use both feet.
“We’re here to get better,” O’Reilly said to the girls. “Nobody’s going to judge each other if you mess up. Who cares? This is all about having fun and getting better.”
O’Reilly’s star power is often a major draw for the campers and their families, something O’Reilly acknowledged as a boon for getting girls excited to play soccer.
“Really, it’s for the girls to say, ‘not only did I see Heather and take a picture with Heather, but I trained with Heather and learned a little bit about the game as well,’” O’Reilly said.
“One of the coolest things about being an athlete is impacting others, it truly is,” she said.