November 28, 2016, published on TeenVogue.com
The U.S. women’s soccer team inched closer to the goal. With the score knotted at 1-1 against Colombia at the Rio Olympic Games on Aug. 9, the ball landed at the feet of 18-year-old forward Mallory Pugh.
Pugh, the second youngest women’s soccer Olympian in U.S. history, bolted toward the goal. She wasn’t going to be denied.
“She doesn’t shy away from anything,” said Pugh’s soon-to-be college coach, UCLA’s Amanda Cromwell. “She wants to be a go-to player.”
She zoomed past one defender, then a second, then a third, to the center of the box, creating a sliver of space for herself to power a left-footed shot. The ball whirled into the back of the net in the 60th minute, giving the U.S. a 2-1 lead. Pugh, bear-hugged by her teammates, became the youngest American soccer player to score in the Games.
She doesn’t panic.
“That’s the kind of poise she brings,” said soccer legend Julie Foudy. “We need more players like Mallory who have that calm, and who have that poise, and who can be a game-changer.”
Pugh, who has been called “The Next Mia Hamm,” is too speedy and too skilled and too smart to contain. The playmaker sees the pass before it happens; the seam before it opens. That’s because the young athlete — who aims to help the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team claim the 2016 FIFA World Cup in Papua, New Guinea right now — understood the X’s and O’s of the game before she even reached double digits.
Eight-year-old Pugh would sit on the bench of her older sister’s games and offer play-by-play analysis to anyone willing to listen. “How can you miss that!” Pugh would squeal, if a player missed an easy chance to score. “That should have been a goal!” Several feet of snow outside of her Colorado home didn’t stop her from practicing, either. She’d kick the ball back and forth and try different moves in her garage, coming inside for breaks to watch national-team games on her Hello Kitty television.
“She’d come downstairs and fix herself a sandwich and she’d have a ball at her feet and just be dribbling,” said Pugh’s father, Horace. “There was always a soccer ball at her foot.”
When Pugh was 11, goofing off with a friend, she hooked her shorts to a hanging rope in her garage, normally used to lift her bike. She swung around, as if she could fly—until she slipped and fell. The bone in her wrist stuck out, but she didn’t cry. Thinking of the upcoming club regional championships, she quickly shoved the bone back in place. Doctors, diagnosing the injury as a fracture, advised time off and a cast.
“She talked them into a split so she could still play,” said Jared Spires, Real Colorado’s chief operating officer, “She helped her team make it to the regional final and scored eight goals that weekend.”
Pugh has ignited the U.S. National Team since her debut in January against the Republic of Ireland, when, at 17 years, 8 months and 25 days, she became the youngest to debut for the WNT in 11 years. She has started 12 games for USA in 2016, scoring 4 goals and dishing out 7 assists, tying Tobin Heath for second-best on the team.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play on the national team, so to finally just be out there and play with the best players in the world, it was just something so special,” Pugh said.
And yet, Pugh is like most 18-year-olds. She devours sushi (especially Blue Sushi Sake Grill in Colorado). She watches The Office. She sings. She drops witty one-liners. She hangs with the same pack of friends since middle school.
But, conveying a sense of duty that’s well beyond her years, she also embraces the expectations on her shoulders without letting them weigh her down. USA midfielder Lindsey Horan of the Portland Thorns FC remembers rooming with Pugh shortly after Pugh was first called up to the full women’s team camp. Lindsey asked if her roommate was nervous at all.
“Mallory was like, ‘No. I mean, it’s just soccer. There’s more serious things out there,’” Horan said. “None of it is cockiness. She’s confident and she goes out and just plays her game.”
That confidence comes from hours of perfecting her shortcomings, and a determined will to be the best. She often challenges herself with a grueling conditioning drill with her trainer, Sterling Joseph, owner of Team Speed Training in Centennial, CO, who has known Pugh since she was a toddler.
The drill begins at the 10-yard line with 10 sprints. Next, to the 15-yard-line, followed by nine sprints, and to the 20-yard-line, with eight sprints. The drill, which only gives two to three minutes of rest in-between each five-yard gain, continues all the way down the field until the 55-yard line.
Then, one final sprint.
Sometimes Pugh winces, breathes harder than ever, but she doesn’t bend. She digs deep and blazes through the final dash.
“Some make it, some don’t, but Mal has that mental toughness that nothing’s going to stop her,” Joseph said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best from Mallory Pugh yet. I mean, the kid is hungry. Look out. She’s coming.”