18-year-old wunderkind Mallory Pugh graduates to Rio Games
Mallory Pugh wondered if she was in over her head. Surrounded by clicking cameras, she and her peers the centers of attention in one of the most iconic outdoor entertainment venues in the country, she hesitated.
For once, the teenager felt nervous, unsure she could trust her feet.
Then she made her way down more than a hundred steps at Colorado's famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre to accept her high school diploma. The high heels that she picked out for the occasion -- a choice made without consideration of the long descent that would be required -- didn't betray her.
When it comes to the flat expanse of the soccer field, such moments are harder to come by for the second-youngest player ever to make an Olympic soccer roster for the United States.
Which helps explain how the future of the women's national soccer team, in the form of an American Olympian who -- at 18 years, 3 months and 5 days -- is younger than either gymnast Simone Biles or swimmer Katie Ledecky, became an integral part of the team's present over the span of seven months.
In fact, the impressive thing about Pugh's rise is how dull a movie it might make. It can take players years to be at home on the national team. It took Pugh a matter of days.
Trials and tribulations? If you blinked, you might have missed them.
Playing beyond her years is nothing new for Pugh. Way back when she was just 15 -- the dusty historical reaches of early 2014 -- she was invited to train with the youth national team that was preparing for the U-20 World Cup later that year. Most of the players competing for places on that roster were already part of elite college programs -- or even beyond. Among the group was current national team midfielder Lindsey Horan, by that time already playing for Paris Saint-Germain at the highest level of European professional soccer.
"Her first camp, she was coming in as a 15-year-old, so we were all wondering who is this young player," Horan said. "But then she came in and she was scoring goals right and left. She owned it, showed what she had. She was confident -- she wasn't a cocky little superstar, but she was confident, and she came in and killed it. And then she ended up starting for us."
The campaign that followed wasn't particularly successful for the United States, ending in a quarterfinal exit, but Pugh was among the bright spots. Rather than the prospect of watching from the bench and accruing experience, she started all four games in Canada.
For all of that, it still felt like a nod to the future when Pugh's named appeared on the list of invitees for the senior national team's January training camp. With another U-20 World Cup on the horizon at the end of the year, Pugh this time captain of the U-20 team, the January invite looked from a distance akin to a baseball team giving its No. 1 pick some spring training at-bats before sending him back to the minors for seasoning.
Let her get her feet wet. Don't let her drown.
Pugh flew to California for the camp with Horan and Jaelene Hinkle, fellow Coloradans. That a different environment awaited her was clear almost the moment they disembarked. Instead of a van waiting at the airport to corral arriving players as she was used to on youth teams, the three were left, like business travelers the world over, to make their own way.
There had been a chance to train with the senior team for a couple of days during the U-20 process, so the faces that greeted her at the hotel weren't total strangers. She nevertheless recalled what went through her mind as she found herself amongst them that first evening.
What is going on right now?
And it was an internal monologue, to be sure, her normal talkativeness muted by the surroundings.
She wasn't a cocky little superstar, but she was confident and she came in and killed it. And then she ended up starting for us.Lindsey Horan on then-15-year-old Mallory Pugh making the U-20 World Cup roster
United States coach Jill Ellis recalled that during the first few days of that camp that began Jan. 5, Pugh's physical ability shone through, and it was clear even then that the talent was there to be in the hunt for the roster. But it was during the middle of the two-week camp that the young player hit a wall. The pace, the strength, the intensity -- all of it was new.
"I think being into a new environment and being around players that I've looked up to, just this intense environment, it was new to me," Pugh said. "I was nervous. I just didn't really feel like myself."
What being herself encompasses makes for a lengthy list of assets. Pugh's first step with the ball is like a sprinter coming out of the blocks -- speed she maintains over greater distance than most defenders can match. She has the ball skills to embarrass those same now-weary defenders. And she does it all with remarkable spatial awareness and vision -- her soccer instincts.
For UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell, the wait goes on. Having first edged out the rest of the NCAA to secure Pugh's commitment, she then waited anxiously as Pugh mulled professional opportunities that would bypass college altogether. Now Cromwell will wait and hope again, Pugh's Olympic and U-20 duties dictating that the player won't enroll at UCLA until after the season. But the reason she will count herself fortunate to wait was clear as soon as she watched Pugh play.
"She ran the show every time I saw her," Cromwell said. "She made the players around her better, for sure, and that's something that really caught my eye. But it wasn't going to be like sharing the ball. I think from an early age, she knew she was a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. She wanted the ball."
That was who she had to be in January, too. She had to think more about where her teammates were on the field, passing the best course of action far more often when those passes were going across the field to the likes of Carli Lloyd or Alex Morgan or to Meghan Klingenberg's overlapping runs.
It took her all of a week.
By the time she scored a goal just over 20 minutes after entering the game for her first appearance with the senior national team against Ireland on Jan. 23, the future was written.
Ellis won't say Pugh was a lock at that point. Nor will Pugh claim to have thought as much. And certainly she is far from a finished product, more strength needed to protect a small frame and more consistency required on defense. Those things will take time. But in a matter of days, taking the field in 11-on-11 settings in the January camp and showing the élan and skill we've seen since, she earned her place.
"It was seeing how would she do in with, quote-unquote, the senior team, the big girls," Ellis said. "Because she'd only played with youth players coming into the January camp, which was a physically and mentally very demanding camp. She did, she had a bit of a lull in there because it was so intense. ... Ultimately she showed really well in our training environments."
It shouldn't be that easy at 17 going on 18. Not anymore.
"The first couple of days were a little scary," Pugh said. "But I got used to it."
Those few words neatly sum up how a high schooler became a potential Olympic starter.
Lloyd, who it can be safely said thrives in the most granular details of motivation, training and execution, said she asked her younger teammate what she saw on a goal in a recent game against Costa Rica -- if Pugh calculated she could find the sliver of space available at the near post.
Pugh's response? She just shot.
"That's just kind of her demeanor," Lloyd said in what sounded like amused consternation. "Nothing rattles her."
It leaves Pugh with a lot of years to write a lot of history.