Look, there’s already been a lot written about Mallory Pugh. And plenty more will be written after the 18-year-old “wunderkind” and her U.S. Women’s National Soccer teammates take ownership of the Rio Olympics, which most commentators predict they will.
So in the interest of saving you time—and keeping you more informed than your friends cheering on the red, white and blue at the 2016 Games—here’s a quick rundown of why this 5-foot-4 mighty mite of a midfielder might be the coolest story to watch in Rio.
Pugh is a kid.
Pugh turned 18 in April, so she’s not the youngest U.S. Olympian this year—that honor belongs to Laurie Hernandez—but it means she had to balance her U.S. team play with her studies at Mountain Vista High School (Highlands Ranch, Colorado). Her other big event of the year was prom.
“I’m still just kind of in shock over the past six months,” Pugh told STACK. “I always knew that I wanted to be on the National Team and represent my country, but I never thought that I’d be doing it right now.”
She still acts like a kid sometimes.
When she travels, Pugh brings a purple monkey blanket with her. “There’s kind of this innocence about her that she brings to this team, which we needed. I love having her on the field and playing with her,” said forward Alex Morgan.
She doesn’t play like one though.
Pugh scored a goal in her very first appearance with the U.S. team. It came in the 83rd minute of a game in January against Ireland. So far this year she leads the team in assists. Teammates praise her skill and poise.
“When we’re on the field, I would never guess that [Pugh] was one of the youngest players,” said USWNT defender Julie Johnston. ”She just has so much confidence in herself, which brings so much confidence to the team. She has such a high soccer IQ and she’s so comfortable out there.”
In fact, Pugh’s been playing beyond her years for a long time.
By age 12, she was scoring nine goals in a weekend tournament—even when injured.
You know, I don’t think any moment is too big for Mallory. That’s a testament to her and who she is. She debuted on the U.S. U-17 team in 2013, where “she was scoring goals left and right,” according to USWNT midfielder Lindsay Horan.
“Two years ago she was in camp with a different age group while the national team was in camp in Los Angeles,” said USWNT Strength and Fitness Coach Dawn Scott. “The coach at the time just brought her in to the [senior-level] team to make numbers in a scrimmage. She took to the field, and you were just like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s pretty good.’”
You won’t hear her brag about it, however.
“Even after a game, she’ll come back and you’ll ask her about [certain plays], and she’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t remember doing that,’” Pugh’s father, Horace, told The Denver Post. “It’s not standoffish. Her thing is, ‘I don’t understand what the big deal is. I like to play soccer. I’m halfway decent at it.’ She never likes to say she’s good at it.”
She’s adjusted well to playing at the international level.
At the She Believes Cup in March, Pugh played a complete 90-minute game with the senior-level USWNT for the first time. Following the match, Scott worried that Pugh might need an extended recovery period before she’d be ready to play again. But the team needed her in the next match, and so Pugh again played the full game.
Scott, who records an extensive amount of players’ biometric data using heart rate monitors and GPS trackers, was amazed when Pugh’s body handled the second game even better than the first. She said, “Speed, strength, power—she’s already got massive natural ability without really having had to work on it a great deal. She’s a very special talent.”
She’s been paying close attention to recovery lately.
“After these games, I feel pretty tired and fatigued. But I think being in this environment and learning how to be a professional helps me get my body back, so if I do need to play the next day, I’m able,” Pugh said. “After every training session or game, I ice-bathe for six to 10 minutes. Then if the massage tables are open, then I’ll try to get a massage.”
The other big change she’s learned as “a professional”? “Emails!” Pugh said with a laugh. “Like, I never even got emails earlier.”
When she’s not on the pitch, Pugh still likes to be outside.
“I usually just go hang out with my friends at the pool, or go hiking” Pugh said. “There are a bunch of trails by me, but we might go up to Boulder and do Chautauqua Park. Red Rocks has some great places too. If we’re really feeling adventurous, we might go deeper into the mountains.”
While nothing is certain, indications are that Pugh will see plenty of playing time in Rio.
Since joining the USWNT in January, Pugh has started 10 of 14 games and played 858 minutes. During that time, she’s scored three goals and assisted on seven others.
Coach says Pugh is ready.
“I don’t think any moment is too big for Mallory,” said Jill Ellis, head coach of the USWNT.
Whatever you see from her in Rio, it’s only the beginning.
“I just think there’s so much more to come from [Pugh],” Scott said. “I don’t think she even knows how good she could be.”
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