Dawn Steffens remembers the days when Christie Pearce was a shy, quiet girl, who let her presence on the soccer field do all the talking for her.
That was nearly 20 years ago when Steffens — now Dawn Crawford — and Pearce —better known to the world as Christie Rampone — played for the Peninsula Aztec.
"She was shy but she was always the one who pushed us," Crawford, of Hazlet, said as she waited in line to get a few moments with the most decorated soccer player in the United States. "When you're out on the field, she's a whole different person."
Crawford and her children were among the more than 500 people who packed the Kurr Atrium at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune on Friday to cheer for Rampone at the Olympic victory celebration hosted by Meridian Health and sponsored in part by Jersey Mike's Subs.
Rampone, the captain of the U.S. women's national team, became the most decorated U.S. soccer player as the team defeated Japan earlier this month to bring home the gold medal — Rampone's third Olympic gold (she also has a silver).
Rampone lived for many years in Point Pleasant Borough, graduated from high school there, went on to graduate as a soccer star from Monmouth University, and now lives with her family in Manasquan.
The celebration started with Rampone and her family — daughters Rylie and Reece, and husband Chris— arriving at the hospital aboard a Neptune fire truck, escorted by Neptune police, and then being serenaded by the Neptune High School marching band as they walked through a balloon arch and into the flag-decked atrium, where confetti fluttered down from the ceiling.
"(Rampone) has inspired a generation of soccer players," said Robert Cavanaugh, public affairs manager for Meridian Health, as he and Peter Cancro, CEO of Jersey Mike's, lauded the Jersey Shore product before she spoke to the crowd. Rampone is a paid spokesperson for the medical center.
Afterward, Rampone stood for more than two hours, posing for photos and allowing her fans to get the sensation of the gold medal hanging around their necks, giving them a moment most merely dream of attaining some day.
It's not only the younger generation who Rampone has inspired, however.
"It means everything to me," Crawford said, of seeing her former teammate at the heights Rampone has achieved. "It's so important for my kids to see someone I played with who has gone that far. She's a great role model."
Afterward, Crawford was overjoyed.
"She remembered me," she said with a grin as wide as the hallway. "For my kids to see that she really did know me, to get that validation, was the greatest feeling in the world."
Maureen Brady of Brick said seeing Rampone walking into the atrium, with Reece on her hip and Rylie by the hand, drove home the point that she's a mother as well as a star athlete.
"When she was up on stage, you could see her telling Rylie 'enough' when Rylie was throwing the confetti," Brady said. "You could see that she's a normal mom.
"You're an Olympic star with two small kids," said Brady, whose 7-year-old daughter, Beth, has decided she wants to play soccer. "That's cool."
"I watched all of her games," said Jordyn Osofsky, 9, of Rumson, who plays defense for the Dawgs. Mother Melissa noted, "We gave up a lot of beach time and pool time during the day to watch the Olympics.
"I always want to be that role model," said Rampone, who grew up in Point Pleasant and was a multi-sport athlete who excelled at basketball as well as soccer.
The 37-year-old has played her way through injury — she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in 2001 — and pregnancy (she led SkyBlue of Women's Professional Soccer to a league championship while pregnant with Reece) as well as an ongoing fight with Lyme disease while leading her team to the gold.
The Lyme disease, diagnosed two years ago and treated with two rounds of medication, has been a challenge, Rampone said, more at home than on the soccer field.
"I feel like my medicine is the adrenalin (from playing)," she said. On the days at home where she has to fight to make herself get out of bed, she turns to the mental part of her game to find the resolve.
Rampone, who was interviewed by radio personality Lou Russo of 94.3 FM The Point, said one of the biggest things she's learned along the way has been to not sweat the small stuff — whether it comes to her family or anything else. Being able to go with the flow of life helps her cope with being on the road as many as 230 days a year.
"Rylie is on her second passport," she noted. Chris Rampone said Manasquan Elementary School has been very good about working with them to manage the absences, which they tried to minimize by traveling "half a trip here, half a trip there."
Rampone also said the most stressful part of being the team's captain was getting them to the Olympic final and trying to manage and minimize the distractions along the way.
"When we got to the final, the pressure was off," she said. "I just enjoyed it."
Well, most of it. She did admit to worrying greatly when she got stripped of the ball in the U.S. end of the field late in the game by a Japanese player.
"It was one of those things you do all the time," she said. "A ball was played back to me and I had a bad touch on it."
"I remember thinking, 'There goes my life,' " Rampone said, but added, "That's why I'm on a team sport. I had cleared it off the line earlier in the game, and I thought, 'C'mon, Hope, I saved you earlier in the game, save me now,' " and feeling immense relief when Solo came up with a huge stop on the Japanese player's shot.
"I had nightmares for two nights after that, thinking about what might have happened," Rampone said.
Bob Pearce, Rampone's father, said the hoopla that surrounded his daughter was simply amazing.
"When she started running around on the soccer fields at age 5, I never imagined anything like this," he said. But the whole experience has been good for her, changing her from the girl who was so shy she refused to take phone calls from college scouts to the one who spoke with ease about all she's been through since she stepped into the international spotlight.
"It's been rewarding and nerve-wracking at the same time," he said.
Chris Rampone said the public appearances and the on-the-go lifestyle have been something he and Christie feel has taught their daughters to be adaptable and has taught them useful lessons about hard work.
"They see how hard she pushes herself and they understand more when Mommy's tired," he said. And though the events clearly take a toll -- Reece fell asleep on Chris' lap as Christie posed with person after person, letting them experience the gold medal around their necks -- he said it bothers him less now that the Olympics are over, because the pressure is far less.
Christie Rampone said the opportunity to show people the opportunities that are possible for the next generation of girls, because of the impact of Title IX, means a lot to her.
"When I was at Monmouth, we didn't have uniforms," she said. "The basketball team had uniforms, but for the soccer team. We wore whatever.
"Now even the club teams have matching uniforms," she said.
"It's awesome to see how things have improved, especially for our daughters," she said.
Rampone hasn't decided yet what her soccer future is beyond the end of 2012. The national team has 10 more games as the team tours the country for the U.S. Women’s National Team Victory Tour, and after that she plans to sit down and give it a great deal of thought.
"If you asked me right now, I'd keep playing forever," she said, noting that physically she feels good, despite being 37.
"I hadn't thought about it until I was doing a Q-and-A with Kelly O'Hara," for a video clip, Rampone said, "and it came out that she was 9 years old when I was playing in my first cap (international competition). Then it hit me," she said and laughed.
The bigger question at this point, she said, is the depth of the commitment that will be required, especially with the team aiming to get back to the World Cup final and rectify the loss from 2011.
"Coming home, sometimes I just want to be a mom," she said, and Rylie is now at an age where she cannot travel nearly as much, primarily because of school.
Regardless of her decision, Rampone said, she knows one thing is certain.
"I'll always be busy," she said.