By Andrew Mishler  |  BSU at the Games

Even as her teammates partied inside their hotel and popped champagne bottles in celebration, U.S. women’ s soccer midfielder Lauren Cheney went to bed at 4:30 Friday morning a sober gold medalist.

“I actually don’t drink,” she said. “So no champagne, but a little bit of dancing. I’ve just never had an urge.”

Five hours later when she woke up, a day after her team had won a gold medal over Japan, business was typical for the 24 year old.

An interview here. An appearance there.

If not for the gold medal tucked tightly into the front left pocket of Cheney’s shorts, it would be hard to pick her out as a U.S. Olympian, especially as most teammates walked around Friday with their prizes draped around their necks.

Cheney’s actions and attitude show she isn’t about soaking up the individual spotlight. The Indianapolis native and Ben Davis graduate appreciates more what her team accomplished Thursday than anything else.

““I just think we’re a family,” Cheney said. “We’ve been together for so long and so many years. I spend more time with these girls than I do with my own family, so they know me.”

Her teammates, however, know what kind of role Cheney has played. Without their 24-year-old leader, those gold medals may not have wound up on their necks.

Or in their pockets.

Injury Setback

The final leg of Cheney’s journey to a gold medal came with an unfortunate complication.

In what Cheney says were the first few seconds of the team’s semifinal match against Canada, her right ankle “busted.”

She only had three days to nurse it before the gold medal match. That healing process first required that she could even stand on it.

“It was upsetting when the morning after the game, I was having a hard time walking on it,” Cheney said.

It wasn’t enough time.

Midfielder Shannon Box started in her place against Japan while Cheney sat on the bench until the final minutes, when she was inserted into the match, swollen ankle and all.

Cheney was supposed to play the entire game. Instead, she was on the field for less than 10 minutes, only able to immediately join her mob of teammates in celebration once the final whistle blew.

No matter. Even as each U.S. player was counting every second that ticked off the clock as the match neared its end, they noticed Cheney’s perseverance.

“(Lauren) handled it so professionally and played really well and was a calming reference for us,” forward Abby Wambach said.

Cheney remained upbeat about the situation.

“Of course, you always want to play, you always want to start,” Cheney said. “But I think this team is so close and so open that we can be happy for each other and know that they can get the job done.”

Born Leader

As a UCLA student who’s on a self-proclaimed “14-year plan,” Cheney is one of the youngest players on Team USA.

Still, it didn’t take long for her to win the respect of the veteran 32-year-old Wambach.

“She’s a young player, but I’d say she’s a born leader,” Wambach said. “She’s a self-proclaimed stubborn woman, and very often views her opinions whether people agree with her or not. And that’s why I love Cheney, because people respect what she has to say.”

Cheney didn’t deny her self-proclaimed stubbornness.

“Yeah, I’m stubborn.”

In what way?

“In every way, every aspect,” she said. “I think Abby’s pretty stubborn too, though.”

Forward Alex Morgan is recognized as one of Team USA’s best players, now famous for scoring the winning goal against Canada in the semi-finals.

Even if some of her teammates look up to her for her skills and talent, it’s Cheney that Morgan looks to for guidance and inspiration.

“(Lauren) motivates me as a player,” Morgan said. “She’s always someone who will give me notes, who will motivate me, talk me through anything. I know I can lean on her.

“When there’s any doubt or anything that I need to get through, it’s always her that I look to.”

Back Home

With plans to return to Los Angeles as soon as the Olympic Games end, Cheney doesn’t have much time to go back to her hometown in Indianapolis.

She admitted that she was only back in the city before the Games to do a video feature on her childhood there. But she still keeps the impact Indianapolis had on her life fresh in her heart and mind.

And on some occasions, even on her wrist.

During Team USA’s game against North Korea on July 31, Cheney flashed a custom-made wristband with three initials on it: JS, KC and AY.

The initials stood for her three childhood friends that stayed with her throughout her soccer career – Jessica Stevens, Kate Cunningham and Annie Yi. The 31st was Cunningham’s birthday.

It’s a reminder to Cheney about where she came from and how she got to this level of soccer. Without those three friends, the gold medal situated squarely in her front pocket would be around the neck of someone else.

As she talked about Cunningham, Yi and Stevens and the wristband she wears to remember them, she recalled a tweet she sent recently that defined her career.

“I tweeted, ‘These are the girls that made me fall in love with soccer.’”

Andrew Mishler is a senior telecommunications and journalism news major at Ball State University covering sports for BSU at the Games. Follow Andrew and the BSU team at @andrewmishler@bsuatthegames