Linda Caicedo is at one moment fierce on the soccer field, dancing around defenders and baffling goalkeepers. The next, she is all teenager, celebrating goals by making a heart with her hands.

The 19-year-old Colombian, one of soccer’s brightest young stars, is preparing to play at the Olympics in France and maybe — although it’s a stretch — the under-20 Women’s World Cup hosted by her home country starting in late August.

Crowded schedules and the big stage are nothing new to Caicedo, a cancer survivor who was a breakout star at the senior Women’s World Cup last summer.

“I think that at the end, a World Cup is always very significant, and for it to be in my country, even more so,” she said about the possibility of doubling up tournaments this summer. “I obviously want to be there with my national team. Let’s hope and see what time will give me as it goes by, but I want to be there.”

Sometimes referred to as Colombia’s Neymar, Caicedo is unfazed by all the attention and pressure that rests on her narrow shoulders. Her battle with ovarian cancer at 15 has given her perspective beyond her years.

“I always try to stay calm,” said Caicedo, who plays professionally in Spain for Real Madrid. “I simply concentrate on my football and do what I can do on the field.”

Last year, Caicedo helped lead Colombia to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time ever. The fairytale run was stopped by a 2-1 loss to England, which went on to the final. She was the first woman to play in the under-17, under-20 and senior World Cups in the span of 12 months.

Caicedo’s signature goal

In the 52nd minute of a World Cup group stage match against Germany, Caicedo deftly maneuvered around a pair of German defenders, and her precision strike tucked just inside the upper corner of the goal.

She was the second youngest South American player to score in a Women’s World Cup. Only Brazil’s Marta was younger, with three goals in the 2003 World Cup at 17.

Not only was the goal named the best of the tournament, Caicedo was nominated for the FIFA Puskas award for goal of the year. She was also one of the three finalists for the FIFA Best Women’s Player of the year award, joining Spanish World Cup champions Aitana Bonmati and Jenni Hermoso.

Bonmati went on to win, but the point was made: Caicedo had arrived with aplomb.

“She’s just so good,” said Colombia teammate Ilana Izquierdo. “She’s so disciplined. She has love, she has passion, everything that’s good on the field. She’s such a good person as well. I’m happy for her to be part of team and that we get to enjoy her game.”

Promise, struggle, then stardom

Caceido grew up just outside of Cali, idolizing players like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and U.S. forward Alex Morgan.

“She started at a very young age. Already at 3, you can notice that she had that passion for soccer. And, little by little, she started to improve in the pitch,” said her dad, Mauricio Caicedo. “At 4, she was asking for a ball and the soccer spikes, and started to play in the street where we were living. That was when we decided to support her and taking her to soccer grounds.”

Caicedo held her own against the local boys and before long was playing for Colombian powerhouse club Deportivo Cali. But when she was 15, Caicedo was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“It was such a struggle, such an illness is very challenging at such young age, someone with life goals ahead of her. We had to endure that during the pandemic, and at least there were no tournaments, so mentally it didn’t affect her that much,” her dad said. “But it was a real struggle.”

While heartbroken over the possibility she might not play again, Caicedo fought cancer with the same zeal she attacks goals. She had surgery and six months of chemotherapy, but less than a year after her diagnosis she was declared cancer-free. When she came back to Deportivo Cali, she wore a wig on the field until her hair re-grew.

When she turned 18 — in the midst of playing in multiple World Cups — she signed with Real Madrid.

‘Hard work and perseverance’

During last year’s World Cup, Caicedo said she was savoring the moment because she considered herself fortunate to be there. But there was a concerning moment when she collapsed during training. Later, the team said she was simply tired, most likely the result of jet lag.

“Despite how big she is, she is always characterized by humility for hard work and perseverance. She is not just talented, she is a person who has been based in discipline and in perseverance for the many difficulties that have already happened,” Colombia coach Angelo Marsiglia said.

Colombia opens the Olympics on July 25 against hosts France in Lyon. The group also includes defending gold medalists Canada and New Zealand. Caicedo was optimistic about the team’s prospects for a first-ever medal.

“We have talent and I think that when we play with togetherness, as a group of friends, we are unstoppable,” she said.

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AP Freelancer José Manuel Valladares in Bogotá, Colombia contributed to this report.

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games