Feb. 8, 2001
By Holly Freeland
When Nikki Serlenga sat her boyfriend down and told him she had something to talk to him about, he worried that something was wrong.
"I have a problem," she began. "I will wake up in the morning, take a shower and get dressed, get in my car. And no matter where I'm headed, I end up at the mall. I admit it ... I am okay with it ... I love shopping."
Her boyfriend was obviously relieved. But he has come to expect anything from Serlenga. It's that personality that makes Nikki Serlenga such a refreshing player to watch.
She may not be able to pass up a bookstore without buying a book and she might not have 10 of the exact same lipsticks, but it's something else she has that's so electrifying...
"I broke my leg my junior year in high school," Serlenga said. "A lot of coaches lost interest and thought it was a career-ending injury. The phone calls and the letters slowed down, and in some cases stopped. Then, I realized I had to show them all."
She did enough to catch the eye of Jerry Smith, and at Santa Clara, Serlenga found a home away from home.
"Santa Clara was very close to my hometown, which made it possible for my family to come to many games," she said. "Jerry Smith and I saw eye to eye on almost everything. We complimented each other well and it was the best choice for me."
But Serlenga was still set on showing everyone the type of player she was. An All American at Santa Clara, she was ready for something bigger -- something greater than college soccer.
Before her senior year at Santa Clara, she didn't think she would have a career after college. In fact, she turned down a couple of invitations to play with the U.S. Under-21 national team.
"I was so impressed with the World Cup '99," Serlenga said. "The players, the fans, the hype... I knew everything I had worked for, all the sacrifices I had made would all pay off. I just kept thinking, I can do this, I can do this."
And do that she did. She's now playing with the best team in the world. After making the U.S. women's national team in early 2000, Serlenga worked and trained hard all year and headed into the Olympics in the fall.
"Sydney was great," she said. "The whole atmosphere was completely invigorating. It made you very happy to be an athlete, but more importantly to be an American."
While most athletes dream of gold and would be completely elated with a silver medal, Serlenga admits they were a bit disappointed.
"Of course we were let down," she said. "We worked hard all year and played a great game in the final. Unfortunately at the end, the ball just went the other way.
"It seems that anytime you are thrust into the spotlight, anything short of perfect is a failure," she said. "But, it's that attitude that keeps me going. Having a 'never give up/nothing is good enough' mentality kept everyone moving.
"Colleen Hacker (the USA's team psychologist) kept us motivated with exercises, and she made us realize we were still the best in the world."
One of Dr. Hacker's exercises was to make the team feel at home and comfortable while being down under.
"Hack asked some of our parents on the team to make home videos of our houses back home or our rooms, dogs, etc," Serlenga said. "Since we couldn't go home, she wanted home to come to us.
"Everyone else's videos were full of friends and boyfriends and everything else. Mine? My mom went and taped mine at the mall! All of the associates in the stores were all like 'good luck, Nikki! Come home soon, we miss you'! Not my friends or my boyfriend ... the mall!
"My mom and I have always been as thick as thieves," Serlenga said. "People mistake us for sisters."
So, when her mother noticed early on that Serlenga was not very flexible, she was determined to do something about it.
"Pretty early my mother was concerned about my lack of flexibility and enrolled me in karate classes," she said. "The kicks and motions helped me out a great deal, and I ended up with a black belt."
Maybe it was the great shopping, or the karate classes, but Serlenga says ultimately growing up in Southern California was the best influence on her soccer.
"San Diego is such a fabulous place for soccer," she said. "The weather is perfect year-round and everyone is always outside playing something. I missed a lot of homecomings and proms because of the perfect weather (always having tournaments), but overall, it's a perfect place to grow up.
"I used to be jealous of my friends who didn't have to miss dances and sleep-overs to get up for tournaments at 5 am. But now while they are working eighth to five, I am still doing what I love. It has been worth every second of it."
And, if you catch a game in Atlanta to see Serlenga play? Steer clear of her kicking/punching range.
And you might want to avoid her favorite mall as well.