ATHENS — Mia Hamm stood on the podium, waiting for a gold medal to be draped around her neck for the fourth and final time in her career. The moment overtook her and she bowed her head and covered her face with her hands.
"There are few times in your life when you get to write the final chapter the way you want to," she said later. "I think a lot of us did that tonight."
That they did.
The United States, in the final competitive game for veterans Hamm, Joy Fawcett and Julie Foudy, won the gold medal in women's soccer Thursday night, defeating Brazil in overtime, 2-1, in front of 10,416 at Karaiskaki Stadium.
It was the end of one era. It was the beginning of another.
The Brazilians were the better team, of that there was no doubt. But goals by Lindsay Tarpley in the first half and Abby Wambach 22 minutes into overtime gave the Americans the victory.
April Heinrichs, the U.S. coach, said it was the only possible result.
"I feel as if the stars, the sun and the moon all lined up right tonight for this team and these women to win the gold medal," she said. "We feel like it's an appropriate tribute to the senior players on our team who have led the world in women's soccer, who have raised the game, who have poured their heart and soul out on the field so that more and more people could believe in women's athletics and women's sports.
"Obviously, we're over the moon for having won."
At the final whistle, after their second 120-minute game in four days, the Americans raced to surround Hamm and Foudy, who were hugging each other in joy and relief. Soon the entire team piled on.
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who made extraordinary saves and enjoyed even more extraordinary luck when not one but two Brazilian shots hit the left post, broke from the huddle and raced to grab a flag from someone in the stands.
Before long, the victorious U.S. team was parading around the stadium, with flags flying everywhere.
In one corner, the Brazilians cried. It could have been their game, their gold medal. It just wasn't their night.
"Brazil is an unbelievable team," Hamm said. "I'm just proud that this team continued to fight and stayed in there in back-to-back games of 120 minutes. We never gave up. Everyone made an impact for us."
The U.S. had defeated World Cup champion Germany on Monday night in a semifinal game that also went to overtime. Then, the hero was 19-year-old Heather O'Reilly, who scored the game-winning goal. This time it was Wambach.
Tarpley gave the U.S. the lead 38:08 into the match with a goal out of nowhere. Latching onto a pass from Brandi Chastain, she unleashed a right-foot shot from 21 yards that flew past Brazilian goalkeeper Andreia and just inside the left post.
There was some question about the goal's legitimacy. Chastain appeared to handle the ball before making the pass to Tarpley, and she and the Brazilian defenders stopped momentarily, expecting a call. None came and Tarpley scored.
The U.S., thanks to Scurry, held the lead until the 73rd minute, when Cristiane got past Fawcett on the left flank, then crossed the ball just in front of the goal.
The ball slipped past Catherine Reddick and reached Pretinha, who drove it into the net off Scurry's fingertips as the goalkeeper flung herself to her left.
That made it 1-1 and Brazil was soon pounding at the door again, with Cristiane first flashing a shot just wide to the left and then hitting the post.
Somehow, the U.S. survived the onslaught and took the game to overtime.
Seven minutes into the second 15-minute overtime period, Kristine Lilly looped a corner kick to Wambach, who headed the ball toward the Brazilian net. Defender Juliana leaped to head it away, but succeeded only in driving it into the roof of the net and the U.S. was in front again, this time for good.
"When it comes to a pinch, Abby is the one we want to go to," Heinrichs said.
While praising Brazil for its "captivating" play, Heinrichs said she believed the Americans' victory was the correct result, especially in light of the five players who have been with the national team since 1991: Chastain, Fawcett, Foudy, Hamm and Lilly.
In that time they have won gold medals at the 1991 and 1999 World Cup tournaments and at the 1996 and now the 2004 Olympics. Throw in a silver medal at Sydney 2000 and bronze medals at the 1995 and 2003 Women's World Cups and they have quite a haul.
"At the end of the day, I think it's appropriate and fitting that they went out on top," Heinrichs said. "They have endured criticism and speculation about whether they're on the top of their game anymore, and at the same time they rose again."
And so there the five stood atop the victory podium, enjoying the moment one last time. Foudy and Fawcett couldn't stop grinning. Hamm blew a kiss to the fans after receiving her medal from Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, the president of FIFA.