'Every Cell In My Body'
Aug. 14, 2000
By Mike Klingaman
The brains of the U.S. women's soccer team has Maryland ties, a blue-collar past and a Ripkenesque fervor to win.
Meet April Heinrichs, Olympic coach, who'll guide the women's squad today in a pre-Games game against Russia at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis (Ch. 2, 2 p.m.).
Having coached five years at the University of Maryland and the last four at Virginia, Heinrichs won the Olympic post last winter. Publicly, she vowed to work overtime to take America over the top next month when it goes Down Under.
Privately, Heinrichs' zeal runs deeper.
"The success of the women's national team is first and foremost for me," she said after being named, adding, "It's in every cell in my body."
No one sets loftier goals than the 36-year-old Heinrichs - and none scored more in her day. Twice collegiate National Player of the Year and a three-time, first-team All-American, she led North Carolina to three NCAA titles in the 1980s and was voted Player of The Decade by Soccer America magazine.
In 1991, Heinrichs captained the U.S. team to the first Women's World Cup crown. Then, beset with injuries, she retired on top to coach the bottoming Terps. When she arrived in the fall of '91, Maryland was 0-forever in the Atlantic Coast Conference, four years later, the Terps (18-6) reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
The verve Heinrichs showed in reviving that lackluster program will serve her well at the Summer Games in Australia, say those who played for her at College Park.
"She's in her glory [with the Olympic team], very much ready to take the bull by the horns and ride it for eight seconds," said Missy Price, now an assistant coach at the University of Illinois. "This wasn't a hope or a dream but another goal of April's."
Heinrichs has "an aura" about her, Price recalled. At a team dinner at the coach's home in College Park, someone happened upon her keepsakes in a niche of the basement.
"It was a wall of her medals and jerseys, all framed," said Price. "To us players, it was like a shrine, we just wanted to stand there and soak it all in. Playing for April is like playing for Babe Ruth."
Two years ago, Heinrichs broke ground as the first female player named to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
"She was my hero growing up, my Mia Hamm," said Keri Sarver, Maryland's all-time leading scorer. "Not everyone can play for her, not everyone in college has that fire. April lives and breathes soccer, but she brings that passion to everything she does."
Sarver recalls team members playing a party game called "Taboo" in which opponents race to press a button to answer.
"I got more bruises trying to beat April to that buzzer than I got in a soccer game," said Sarver, of Reston, Va.
Heinrichs' drive is infectious, disciples say. "My competitiveness increased two-fold under her," said Leslie Kerhin, the soccer coach at Towson University. As a walk-on freshman, Kerhin played a pickup game with her coach, who was recovering from surgery.
"She'd had, like, six knee operations. One leg was swollen and the other was sore. But April got out there on the field and made us all look silly," said Kerhin, a graduate of Parkville High. "She just drags a mental toughness out of you."
At Maryland, every practice "was like a World Cup game," said Michelle Salmon, now UMBC head coach, who attended Old Mill High. "April is the most psychologically fit coach I know.
"If you popped into her office to chat, and she asked what you wanted from life, and you weren't sure, she'd get upset. 'You have to have goals,' she'd say."
When Heinrichs abruptly left Maryland in 1995 to become coach at Virginia, the players were "in shock," said Salmon, then a sophomore. "But two years under April was better than four under someone else because she took my game to the next level."
Last January, when vying for the Olympic job, Heinrichs bested several ballyhooed candidates, including two assistant coaches of the national team.
"Not surprised," said Maryland coach Shannon Cirovski, an acquaintance for 15 years. "She always hated for her team to not have the ball for one second, but her leadership style has changed dramatically as coach. She knows the brain has to solve what intensity can't."
The knack of breaking on top didn't come easily for Heinrichs. The youngest of five girls, she never knew her father, who deserted the family before she was born. Her mother later married a fireman, Mel Heinrichs, and April took his surname.
In the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., she grew up a tomboy who held her own with boys. "She grew up playing in the streets," said Gary Gustafson, her high school coach. "April was never given anything. Other kids had the toys, clothes and games. She had to earn things for herself."
As a high school soccer player, Heinrichs drove herself harder than others could push her. Gustafson recalls her training regimen following an ankle injury. Her foot fresh out of the cast, she jogged beside her coach a while, then grabbed his shirt and shouted, "Sprint!"
"She made me tow her to get a longer stride," he said. "That was her tenaciousness."
In her youth, Heinrichs gained a gritty outlook that still defines her. "I am the most competitive person I've ever met," she said in an interview last week. "It's a fire in the belly, a drive to compete that has been in me as long as I can remember, whether it was racing boys on the playground or playing quarterback in tackle football.
"Maybe I came out of the womb like that. Maybe it was a survival mechanism, a coping technique that I was able to hone at a very young age. All of my playing days, I've felt I could control the outcome of games."
Coaching, she said, is "a different matter. On the sideline, the emotion is inside. It's burning, it's brewing. It's always there. But it's under control."
One of Heinrich's seven players who became college soccer coaches said their mentor should have no trouble performing at the Olympic level.
"She works hard, she works smart and she adapts," said Price, the Illinois assistant who has a master's degree in sports psychology. "April would have made a great Wall Street broker - with ethics."
Originally published on Aug 13 2000