BRICK, N.J. - Standing in a dark hospital hallway, inhaling deeply and pumping the hands of her two young daughters as if they were confidence-boosting devices, Christie Rampone waited anxiously to be introduced at her hometown's World Cup send-off.
In an adjacent Ocean Medical Center lobby, filled with colorful cupcakes, balloons, streamers, and little girls in soccer uniforms, an excited buzz became a shriek when the event's host screamed her name. As he did, a bazooka boomed and, through a blizzard of red, white, and blue confetti, Rampone emerged.
Nervous mom had morphed into soccer idol.
Rampone will turn 40 this summer. She will captain the U.S. entry at her fifth World Cup, which for the Americans begins Monday in Winnipeg against Australia. She has been a part of three Olympic gold-medal winners and played in more international matches (305) than all but one American woman.
When she took up soccer as a shy but physically precocious 5-year-old, she never envisioned an event like this. The rally on a rainy Thursday in May, planned by her Central New Jersey neighbors and a health system that sponsors her, indicated how much things had changed.
Back in 1980, there were no soccer role models for girls like those lining up for autographs, many of them wearing Rampone's No. 3 jersey. Soccer opportunities for females of any age were scarce. And the women's World Cup, the competition that would transform the sport and Rampone, didn't begin until 1991.
The revolution that followed, and her significant role in it, helped explain why, on the eve of her final World Cup, the once introverted and uneasy Rampone is confident and content.
"At least now," she said, "my daughters know that anything is possible."
Women's soccer has grown so fast, in fact, that Rampone's 9-year-old, Rylie, who plays for an under-10 team, might devote more time to it than her famous mother.
"She has practices twice a week, games on the weekend. It doesn't stop," she said with a laugh.
But for Rylie and 5-year-old Reece's mother, the World Cup portion of her historic career is about to stop.
At 39, a U.S. team member since 1997, Rampone decided to return for one more because she desperately wants another World Cup title. Sixteen years later, she alone remains from the team that gained immortality that 1999 day in the Rose Bowl.
"I would love to experience that again," she said. "It would be such a great way to cap my World Cup career."
Rampone, a four-sport star at Point Pleasant Borough High and a point guard and soccer superstar at Monmouth University, was the fastest U.S. player in 1999. This time, because of age and injuries, her value figures to be as the Americans' veteran leader and captain, a title she has held since 2008.
Her on-field role as the defensive centerpiece has diminished. Knee and back ailments, an ongoing battle with Lyme disease, and the rise of young defenders such as Julie Johnston have limited her participation in the lead-up to a World Cup that, much to her joints' chagrin, will be played entirely on artificial surfaces.
Still, Rampone has worked out tirelessly in preparation. Her grueling rehab sessions were so serious and Spartan-like that she refused to listen to music during them.
"When people ask me why, I tell them that there's no music playing during the games, either," she explained.
Many of those workouts, she said, focused on the stamina soccer demands.
"I've done lots of interval running," she said. "I'm trying to trick my body. But really I'm strong and fast and physically in a good place."
Rampone declared herself "100 percent ready" for the World Cup. After an extended absence from competition, she played sparingly in the last few American tune-ups. But regardless of how much playing time coach Jill Ellis allows in Canada, her real function will be leadership.
Though outspokenness didn't always come naturally, she has grown into the captaincy, becoming a vocal mentor for the young U.S. talent, particularly Johnston, now a mainstay at Rampone's center back position.
"I try to communicate with [Johnston and others] both on and off the field," she said. "I want to help ensure we're peaking at the right time and are dealing with all the pressure, pressure that's only going to increase when we get to Canada.
"But things are a little different than when I started out," she said. "These younger players have more experience and confidence when it comes to big games."
Overall, American confidence has taken a hit in the long interval since 1999. Still ranked No. 2 to Germany, in readying for the 2015 event, the United States lost, 2-0, to France and last weekend endured a surprising 0-0 draw with South Korea.
"You don't want to smooth-sail through it," Rampone rationalized after the South Korea match. "You want to make sure you are pushing the limits, you are testing, you are challenging. I think this team embraces pressure. The bigger it is, the better we play. Soccer is all about relationships - about timing and spacing, and connecting with the player in front of you and next to you. I think we have really come together the last two months."
Whenever her soccer days end, Rampone plans to plant herself in her native Central Jersey and, along with husband, Chris, nurture their daughters' ambitions.
"This area and you people have been my comfort zone," she told the rally crowd.
That support system has helped these last 18 years, in many of which Rampone has been on the road for 200-plus days.
After she spent 90 minutes posing for photos and signing autographs, only a few young girls remained in the confetti-covered lobby.
As one approached Rampone, she inhaled for courage and asked her idol a question.
"When you win the World Cup," she said, "will you bring it to your house?"
The soccer star's response was something between a smile and a sob.
"Well, let's win it first," she said. "Then we'll worry about all that other stuff."
Defender Christie Rampone, 39, is on the U.S. roster for the fifth time in a Women's World Cup. Here is how she fared in her previous appearances.
1999: Rampone played in one game for the World Cup champions, in the group stage against North Korea.
2003: She played, and started, in four games, playing every minute. The United States finished third.
2007: She started in all six games for a U.S. team that finished third again.
2011: Rampone again played in all six games and was one of only four players on the runner-up U.S. team to play every minute.