DRESDEN, Germany // When Heather Mitts felt that familiar pain in her hamstring during training last month, it was almost too much for the United States defender.
A broken leg had ended what slim chances she had of making the 2003 Women's World Cup, and a torn anterior cruciate ligament ruled her out of the 2007 tournament. This was probably the 33 year old's last chance to play in a World Cup, and here it was in jeopardy yet again.
"I was starting to think I had the World Cup jinx," Mitts said. "Luckily, everything does happen for a reason, so I find myself here at a World Cup after all of my hard work. To be able to be here, it really is a cliche, but it's a dream come true for me."
The US, who are among the favourites to win the tournament, open their campaign in Group C against North Korea today, while Colombia take on Sweden in the group's other match.
Mitts has been an integral part of the US squad for the last seven years, starting all but 15 of the 111 games she has played in since 2004. She helped anchor the defence as the Americans won the gold medal at both the Athens Olympics and Beijing Games.
But the World Cup is football's premier event, and no elite player's career is truly complete without playing in at least one.
Mitts was set to play a starring role in the World Cup four years ago but she picked up a knee injury in a friendly against Canada and knew immediately that she had blown the anterior cruciate ligament.
With the World Cup only four months away, there was no way Mitts could make it back in time.
"I wasn't crying from the pain, I was crying from the fact I knew I wasn't going to be able to be a part of that World Cup," she said.
Mitts returned for the Beijing Olympics, and was a model of durability until January. She helped her Philadelphia team to the Women's Professional Soccer championship game last September, then played every minute of three games during World Cup qualifying. When the US were forced into a play-off against Italy to earn a trip to Germany, Mitts started each game.
And when the Americans returned to China in January for the Four Nations tournament, Mitts was on the field for all 90 minutes of the opener, a 2-1 loss to Sweden.
The next morning, her right hamstring hurt so badly she could not lift her leg.
She threw herself into rehabilitation, spending three and four hours each day in a hyperbaric chamber and having electronic massages to speed blood flow and accelerate repair of the muscle. She did strengthening exercises and got her hips adjusted. Finally, in April, she was ready to go again and joined the US team at their World Cup training camp.
Then, two days before they faced fellow top seed Japan in an exhibition in Columbus, Ohio, Mitts felt that familiar tug in her hamstring during training.
"That's when I was kind of like, 'Gosh, now I'm really going to be pushing it here,' because I knew time kind of wasn't on my side," she said. "I just went back to what I'd done before with my rehab. Honestly, I attribute that dedication to the reason why I'm here."
When Pia Sundhage, the US coach, announced her World Cup squad, Mitts was in it.
"I was relieved more than anything," she said. "I had been so stressed out from January until I found out I made it. I was trying to have a really positive outlook but at the same time, in the back of your mind you're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, is this my last chance?' Everything happens for a reason, and I'm here."
In last night's action, Aya Miyama's 68th-minute strike ensured Japan opened their Group B campaign with a 2-1 victory against New Zealand in Bochum.
Yuki Nagasato opened the scoring for Japan with just six minutes played before Amber Hearn equalised six minutes later. Miyama then stepped up to hammer home a superb free kick midway through the second half.