When the Summer Olympics move into the sporting spotlight late next month, one of the first athletes to step onto the stage will be a Duke graduate with extensive experience in major international competitions.
Two days before the Opening Ceremonies in London, the Games of the XXX Olympiad actually will begin at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, where host Great Britain will face New Zealand in the first match of the women’s soccer tournament. One of New Zealand’s top players is Rebecca “Bex” Smith, a 30-year-old defender who was a four-year starter at Duke from 1999 through 2002.
The London Olympics will mark Smith’s fourth appearance in one of the pinnacle events of her sport. She previously represented New Zealand at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as well as the FIFA Women’s World Cup in both 2007 and 2011. She’ll serve as the Kiwi team captain again, just as she did for the ’07 World Cup.
“We have the opening game of the whole Olympics so that’s really exciting,” says Smith, who has played for the Football Ferns — the official name of the New Zealand women’s national team — since 2003. “Football was born in England so it’s cool that we get to play in the home country. I think football will be a high priority in the Olympics for the British, so it’s really exciting.”
Smith’s home country is the United States, as she was raised in the Los Angeles area. She qualifies to play for New Zealand because both of her parents were born there. But her game is more a product of German engineering than of either her native or adopted countries. A professional soccer player since 2004, Bex launched her career in Frankfurt and has spent the past four years playing for VFL Wolfsburg, one of the better teams in the Frauen Bundesliga, Germany’s premier league.
It’s a life she never envisioned while growing up in California or playing for the Blue Devils — but it’s one she has embraced and thoroughly enjoys.
“I never dreamt about this,” she admits. “I loved sports, but I grew up surfing, playing tennis and golf, softball and water polo. I played basketball in high school. I didn’t even play soccer in high school, I played club. I always thought I wanted to go to the best college I could, get the best education and then start my own business, do something different.”
Something different, to be sure. Smith was recruited to Duke by former coach Bill Hempen, whose wife Stephanie hailed from Los Angeles and was familiar with Bex’s club soccer exploits. Smith started 76 of the Blue Devils’ 81 games during her four seasons and helped the team earn three NCAA tourney berths. She also experienced a coaching change, when Hempen left for Colorado after her sophomore year and was replaced by the Blue Devils’ current coach, Robbie Church.
Smith spent a year working in Los Angeles after her 2003 graduation, then decided to tryout for some pro soccer teams in Europe. She had already been invited to play with the New Zealand nationals and she wanted to see if some time on a pro circuit could carry her to the ’07 World Cup. After one season in Germany, she was offered a contract to play in Sweden and remained there for three seasons while also helping the Ferns qualify for their first World Cup since 1991.
“I thought, ‘Gee, if we could play in the World Cup, that would be amazing, that would be something, the highest tournament you can play in as a football player,’ so that’s why I initially decided to do this. Then the year after that was the Olympics and I didn’t want to quit right after the World Cup. And it just sort of year by year continued on like that. It’s pretty amazing.
“When I decided I was going to be a professional player in 2004, I made the World Cup my goal but I thought, ‘We’ll see if I even make it that far,’ because I’ve always had dreams to start my own company and I’ve always been interested in business. I studied languages and economics at Duke and always had a priority on my career and working and thought that would be fun. Somehow this caught me off-guard, but it’s definitely a passion.”
After competing in the ’08 Olympics — the first-ever trip to that event for New Zealand women’s soccer — Smith decided it was time to make a move professionally from Sweden back to Germany, where she saw money, resources and energy going into women’s soccer in anticipation of that nation hosting the 2011 World Cup. “Germany was No. 1 or No. 2 in the world, so you are playing with the best players in the world. It felt like that was the place to be for women’s football,” she explains. She landed with the Wolfsburg club in February of 2009 and has played there ever since — plus another stint with the Football Ferns when they qualified for the ’11 World Cup.
The summer before her freshman season at Duke, teenager Smith was among the 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl when the U.S. won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, captained by one of her favorite players and future coaches, defender Carla Overbeck. Smith will turn 31 this month and readily acknowledges that her game has blossomed to unforeseen heights since those days, as she has matured athletically and experienced soccer all over the world. She has now played nearly 70 international matches for New Zealand since her first showing during the spring of her senior year at Duke and was one of the nominees for FIFA women’s world player of the year in 2007. Her repeat captaincy of the Ferns indicates the level of respect she has achieved.
“Rebecca is a vitally important part of the Football Ferns team,” says the New Zealand head coach, Tony Readings. “She brings a wealth of experience from both her international and club playing career. She is one of the most consistent performers on the team and leads the team excellently both on and off the pitch.”
“I had great coaches in college with Robbie Church and Billy Lesesne and Carla,” Smith says. “They were fabulous coaches, but I had no clue. I grew up with coaches who were the dads of the players. I never really took soccer that seriously growing up. I didn’t have amazing private coaching or anything like that, so it wasn’t until college that I started taking soccer seriously and obviously grew a lot then.
“Then being in different countries and playing under different coaches — the Germans are very technical and very strict in how they set up football and they take it very seriously and that’s good, that’s improved a lot of parts of my game. Tactically and technically, I’ve improved the most in Germany. With the New Zealand national team we are very tactically oriented so I’ve learned a lot there.
“I also played in Australia one season (between European seasons) and had great coaches there. Being in different countries with different styles, everyone looks at the game from different angles, which obviously at the end you stand back and you have all these different angles in your game, which makes you a better player.”
Smith jokes that during her first couple of pro seasons, she felt her brain was “turning to mush” and her Duke education was not being used to its full potential. So in 2010 she enrolled in the Gisma Business School in Hannover, about an hour away from Wolfsburg, and earned her MBA while still managing her soccer training and competition. Last year she added a part-time job with Volkswagen that perfectly fits her schedule — three days a week, between morning and evening training sessions.
“What I’ve always done is create as many opportunities as I can, like getting my MBA and working for different companies, learning the language of whatever country I’m in,” says Smith, who likes to grab the latest issue of The Economist when she heads off on a road trip. “It has opened doors along the way, so if an opportunity does arise you can go with it. I think I’ve stayed at Wolfsburg because it’s been an amazing opportunity — I was able to get my MBA and go to work for Volkswagen, which is our main sponsor. And I’m with a team that when I started was in ninth place and now we’re in second. If we remain in second place we would qualify for Champions League next season, which means we would travel throughout Europe and play the top teams, and that’s exciting.
“So it’s been rewarding in a lot of different ways and I’m still getting a lot out of it. As long as I’m enjoying it, and I really do, it’s fun to wake up and be a professional soccer player. Obviously you are always dependent on your body to see how that goes, and I’ve had a couple of injuries, but I’ve not crossed the old lady mark yet.”
With the 10-month Bundesliga season concluding at the end of May, Smith is spending June in New Zealand training with the Ferns. They will head to Switzerland for a pre-Olympic tournament, then it’s on to London. After facing Great Britain on July 25, they will meet the other two teams in their group, Brazil and Cameroon, on July 28 and July 31, respectively. The gold medal game for the 12-team women’s soccer tournament is August 9.
New Zealand has not won a match or advanced out of group play in any of Smith’s previous Olympic or World Cup appearances, but the Ferns did tie Japan in the ‘08 Olympics and Mexico in the ‘11 World Cup, with Smith scoring one of the goals. She says that while the Ferns don’t have the same level of funding as some of the other national teams they will face, they continue to improve and will bring their unique Kiwi spirit to London.
Until last year, Smith was the only professional player on the New Zealand national roster. Now, after added exposure from the ’11 World Cup, there are six Ferns in the Bundesliga, two in a Swedish league and three who play in England, fueling optimism for a strong showing in the Olympics.
“For us, it’s still a huge opportunity and we see it as that,” Smith says. “We’re not jaded by thinking it’s a given that we’re there. We qualified for it, it’s still for us a huge deal, we take it seriously. And how do you describe the Olympics? It’s a huge, huge dream — that’s how we see it.”