Illini soccer player Vanessa DiBernardo returned to campus this week with a gold medal in hand and stories to tell from the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Japan. Yes, the junior midfielder still is coping with jet lag, but she perks right up when asked about the title she and her U.S. teammates captured Saturday in Tokyo. Staff writer Jeff Huth sat down with DiBernardo on Wednesday to talk about her gold medal-winning experience:
Q: What was your reaction when the final second elapsed on the scoreboard clock at Tokyo National Stadium in the title match?
DiBernardo: Once the (final) whistle blew, I immediately made eye contact with one of our center backs, Cari (Roccaro), and we just looked at each other and just started crying and hugging each other. It was just amazing. It was an amazing feeling.
Q: Team USA was regarded as the underdog after earlier losing 3-0 to Germany in group play. How did your team pull off this victory?
DiBernardo: That game against Germany in bracket play was a little unfortunate, and I don't think the score really showed the (closeness of the) game. We knew that and we were confident going into the final game because we knew we just made some silly mistakes in that bracket play. So we were confident and we knew that we had a good chance.
Q: Germany had not allowed a single goal in the World Cup heading into the title match. What was the offensive game plan against such a stingy defense?
DiBernardo: Our goal was to score first and to score in the first half, which is what we did. We thought if we could do that, we could come away with the win. So it's good that we got our goal, and it ended up working out.
Q: You are now the proud owner of a gold medal. What are your plans for it?
DiBernardo: Just to put it in my room so I can see it every day. It just is a symbol of all the hard work our team put into it and that it paid off. It was a wonderful journey.
Q: You left campus on Aug. 9 for the trip to Japan, so you were away from your Illini team for basically a month. What was that like, and were you able to keep track of how they were doing?
DiBernardo: I would watch Twitter when they had games and GameTracker when it was working. And I talked to my teammates when I was gone. It was tough to see them playing a game and not being able to be there, and not being able (from Japan) to watch it. But I was in contact with them and knew what was going on at the time so it was good.
Q: That month gave you ample time to get really acquainted with your Team USA teammates. Who is your new BFF (best friends forever) from that group?
DiBernardo: It's hard to say. I've known this one girl, Sarah Killion, since seventh grade, so I've been good friends with her since then, and it was great to play with her again. Also Morgan Brian. It's the midfield (players), I guess. You get close with the people you play around. I wouldn't say I have a best friend from there. All of us are just like sisters now.
Q: What was the food like in Japan? Were you adventurous with trying new things?
DiBernardo: Well, we didn't really get to eat a lot of Japanese food. They served us American food and what we're used to. There was a lot of pasta and chicken and rice and fruits and veggies. They wanted to make sure that what we ate was what we were used to and didn't want us to try new things before games and get sick.
Q: No exceptions?
DiBernardo: We were in Tokyo and we got these crepes. It's not like a food; it's more of a dessert. They were delicious (laughing). It was like a crepe with cheesecake in it, whipped cream, caramel. It was so good (more laughing). That was probably the best thing I tasted when I was there.
Q: Janet Rayfield was on the U.S. coaching staff as an assistant. What was it like to share this experience with your college head coach?
DiBernardo: It's nice to be there with someone who you knew prior (that) cared about you and knew who you were. She definitely helped me feel more comfortable. If I knew I didn't play well or play up to my expectations, she would know what to say to me, and that was just comforting. It's great to experience something with her like this. It was just a fun little journey.
Q: Your father, Angelo, is no stranger to international soccer tournaments. He played with the U.S. National Team for seven seasons after an All-American career at Indiana. Does this gold medal give you some bragging rights over him?
DiBernardo: Maybe a little bit (laughing). He told me that 'You did something that no one else in the family has done' (by winning a gold medal), so I think he's very proud and happy for me. He's also done a lot more (in soccer) than I have, so I wouldn't say I have that much bragging rights over him.
Q: Pia Sundhage stepped down as head coach after guiding the U.S. Women's National Team to the gold medal at the London Olympics, so USA Soccer needs a replacement. With Steve Swanson having coached the U.S. Under-20 team to a World Cup title, he seemingly would rate some consideration. Tell us about him and why he might be the right choice to succeed Sundhage.
DiBernardo: He's a great coach, and I did learn a ton from him. He cares a lot about his players and really wants what's best for them, so I think in that aspect he would be a great coach. It's not my decision, obviously, on who becomes the head coach, but he's definitely skilled enough to be the coach.
Q: It looks like the Illini really missed you, particularly on offense, after going 3-3-1 in your absence. With the Big Ten race beginning Sunday, what can you do to help get Illinois back on track?
DiBernardo: I wouldn't say we're off track. Those teams that we lost to were top teams in the country, and we won the games we needed to win. I'm just going to try and help as much as I can and just bring what I learned from Japan over to the team and hopefully that will bring more goals to the team.
Q: Finally, we earlier referred to you being away from campus for a month. Besides your teammates, what did you miss the most?
DiBernardo: Probably the food (laughing). The food is very repetitive over there for a month, so we were all kind of missing American food. And just, I think, living in a more homey environment. We were all in hotels, so you can't really feel comfortable there, and you're always packing up and moving. So it's nice to be in one place for a while.