Urbana Soccer Player Faces Travel, Travail

By Matthew Stanmyre
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Julia Roberts woke up Saturday morning at her home in Urbana, and for the first time in months, there was nowhere that she needed to be. There were no planes to catch. There were no practices to get to. There were no piles of schoolwork that needed her attention.

The past year has been a blur for Roberts, one of the country's best girls' soccer players. Tournaments in Brazil and New Zealand, training camps in Florida and New Jersey, practices in McLean and Urbana -- it had been an exhausting and exhilarating stretch that filled her passport with stamps and racked up the miles on her parents' cars.

Since earning All-Met honors last season as a junior midfielder at Urbana, Roberts has left the high school team she led to the 2007 Maryland 3A championship to undergo a whirlwind tour with the U.S. under-17 national team. Instead of afternoon practices close to home, she traveled to monthly, week-long training camps in three states, and qualifiers, exhibitions and tournaments on three continents.

"You don't wear a red, white and blue jersey with USA on it unless you're willing to make unbelievable sacrifices," said Urbana Coach Chuck Nichols, who guided Roberts for three years at the school. "How she survived is absolutely beyond me. If she can survive what she's just been thrown, she can literally survive anything."

That's why the past week had been so relaxing. Roberts, who has a month off from soccer for the first time in five years, could take her time as she strolled through a shopping mall in Bethesda on Saturday. She finally had time to buy winter clothes and Christmas presents for nieces and nephews. And she could finally spend time with her friends, whom she accompanied to a basketball game at Urbana High on Friday night.

"It's been a long time since I've had this," said Roberts, sitting at a table in a Bethesda coffeehouse during a midday break from shopping. "I can kind of take a deep breath."

While juggling national team responsibilities, Roberts has continued to play for the McLean Freedom, the Northern Virginia-based club team with which she won a national championship in 2007. She also remains enrolled at Urbana, where she takes three Advanced Placement courses and holds a weighted 4.2 grade-point average, despite doing the majority of her studying in hotel rooms, on planes and in the passenger seat of her father's car. Some of her classmates at Urbana see her so infrequently that they are surprised to learn she is still enrolled.

About a month ago, as a starting midfielder, Roberts helped the United States finish second at the U-17 World Cup in New Zealand, a tournament that lasted almost three weeks. Before that, she had spent the summer at tournaments in Maine and Trinidad and Tobago, and at training camps in New Jersey and Florida.

"She's really progressed over the past two years," national team coach Kazbek Tambi said. "She played very well, she was very consistent. She was a big part of our equation that allowed us to go all the way to the finals" at the World Cup.

As a freshman at Urbana, Roberts became the starting center midfielder on a team with nine seniors. "It was like handing the basketball to a freshman point guard and telling them to run the team," Nichols said. Two seasons later, Roberts had become such a powerful ball-striker that Nichols had to purchase a portable free-kick wall that Roberts could use so that her kicks would not accidentally strike teammates and injure them.

She scored seven of Urbana's nine goals in the 2007 Maryland playoffs, including a 25-yard free kick in the state final against Wilde Lake that arched around a wall of defenders to send the game into overtime. After Urbana prevailed on penalty kicks, Nichols looked at his assistant coaches and said, "Julia just played her last game for us."

Roberts became a fixture on the national team last November -- she is one of 48 players nationwide who are in the pool it draws from -- and the commitment forced Roberts to leave her high school team because of scheduling demands. She added that national team coaches prefer their players do not compete in high school, to avoid injury.

"It was a difficult decision," said Roberts's mother, Norma. "But you get that opportunity to play for your country, you have to think about all the other kids that came into the national pool and didn't make the team. She made the commitment to stay healthy, basically."

The travel schedule often prompted Roberts to fall asleep in airport terminals while waiting to board, and when she would get on the plane she usually fell fast asleep before it left the ground.

Roberts, who has committed to play for the University of Virginia in the fall, has worked closely with teachers at Urbana to keep up with the curriculum and makeup work. Her textbooks go everywhere with her -- on planes, where they present the challenge of keeping her luggage at a reasonable weight, and in the car while she crams during the hour-long trips to Northern Virginia for practices with the Freedom.

"You really have to force yourself to sit down and read your textbooks," Roberts said. "That's kind of the last thing you want to do after training. You want to take a nap, watch TV, but you have to force yourself to get it done."

Roberts will spend the holidays at home in Urbana for the first time in three years. She can make plans spontaneously with friends, enjoy her mother's chicken potpie and sleep late into the morning if she pleases.

"Just in general there have been a lot of things I've had to miss out on," Roberts said. "But it's been worth it."

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