Every October, students in Lisa Neubauer’s third-grade class at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic School in suburban Cincinnati were assigned to pick a biography of a personal hero and, in the spirit of Halloween, present a book report while dressed as that person.
In 2003, 8-year-old Rose Lavelle chose to read about Mia Hamm, a women’s soccer legend and two-time World Cup champion. Lavelle, who cried when the U.S. team lost to Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup earlier that month, showed up to class wearing Hamm’s No. 9 nationals team jersey and white shorts, with a gold medal draped around her neck.
Neubauer was delighted to see one of the girls in her coed class of about 20 students pick an athlete for the project, but later that school year, she grew concerned that Lavelle was dedicating too much of her time to soccer, even missing school on occasion for tournaments with her club team.
“She was very bright, and she was good in all of her classes,” Neubauer, who has retired from teaching and now works as an office assistant at Archbishop Moeller High in Cincinnati, said in a phone interview Monday. “Missing school at that young of an age really wasn’t that big of a deal, but I was just worried that she was going to have gaps because she wasn’t here that much. I said to her mom, Janet, ‘It’s not like she’s going to grow up to be a professional soccer player.’”
Neubauer was happy to be proved wrong.
On Sunday, Lavelle, a midfielder for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League and, at 24, one of the youngest members of the U.S. women’s national team, scored a dazzling goal in the 69th minute of the World Cup final to help the Americans defeat the Netherlands, 2-0, for their fourth title. Hamm was among those who congratulated the champs, and third-grade girls around the country no doubt watched in awe and dreamed of becoming the next Rose Lavelle.
A few hours after the Americans’ triumph in France, St. Vincent Ferrer Principal Mikki Dunkley, whose daughter, Caitlin, was a classmate of Lavelle’s, shared a photo of Rose in her Hamm jersey in 2003 along with a heartwarming message on the school’s Facebook page:
“Once upon a time, this little girl dressed up as her hero, Mia Hamm, for a book sharing project,” Dunkley wrote in the post, which has since gone viral. “Today, this amazing woman won her own gold medal, wearing the number 16, as part of the United States National Women’s Team that won their 4th World Cup Championship AND she won the Bronze Ball as the third best player in the tournament! Now, little girls everywhere look up to her, and will be working hard to become like Rose. Here’s to you, Rose Lavelle, and the entire Lavelle Family. The St. Vincent Ferrer School and Church Community are so proud of you!”
Caitlin Dunkley, who ran a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati dedicated to empowering young girls before becoming a full-time photographer, watched Sunday’s final at an Irish pub with her boyfriend. She was thrilled to see Lavelle’s hard work pay off.
“Rose was always everyone’s cheerleader, so it’s just been really cool to see everyone cheering for her,” Caitlin Dunkley said. “She truly deserves this, because she’s one of the most humble individuals that I know. Everyone growing up knew how good she was at soccer, but she was just Rose."
“She always had a great sense of humor,” said Neubauer, who watched Sunday’s match with family at home. “She was very popular with the boys and girls, but the boys would come in and gripe after recess that she was beating them at soccer all the time.”
Bryan Barrett, Lavelle’s classmate throughout elementary school, remembers her exploits on the soccer field during gym class and recess.
“Even from such a young age, everyone knew that she was the best, she was the fastest,” said Barrett, who dressed as then-Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. for his October book project in Mrs. Neubauer’s third-grade class, but did not grow up to become a major leaguer. “A lot of the guys in our class tried to race her to see if they could beat her. We all tried to get her to show off her soccer skills. She could do kind of a front-flip cartwheel throw-in that we all thought was the most incredible thing we ever saw.”
Neubauer taught Lavelle in sixth, seventh and eighth grade as well. Before graduation, she asked her students to write an affirmation about a fellow classmate, to be printed as a surprise in the yearbook and shared at a prayer service at the end of the year. Barrett was assigned Lavelle.
“You’re great at everything,” wrote Barrett, who considered traveling to France with his sister to cheer on Lavelle but ended up watching from home. “You’re smart, athletic and funny. You’re a friend to everyone. Your sense of humor can lighten up any situation. I wish you the best of luck at [Mount Notre Dame High School].”
After a standout high school career, Lavelle attended the University of Wisconsin on a soccer scholarship. In 2017, the Boston Breakers selected her with the No. 1 pick of the NWSL draft. Shortly thereafter, Neubauer bumped into Lavelle’s parents at a restaurant. Janet gave her a hug and reminded her what she had said some 15 years earlier.
It’s not like she’s going to grow up to be a professional soccer player.
“I said, ‘Yep, I’m eating my words,’” Neubauer recalled with a laugh. “And then I offered to buy them a drink.”
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