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ATHENS 2004

Kicking Back

Women's soccer pioneers can relax after an amazing 13-year adventure

August 28, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Pele was there in 1991, dancing with the victorious American players. That's how big it was.

The site was the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China, and a very young Mia Hamm was wide-eyed at the wonder of it all, the vast majority of her world-record 153 goals ahead of her.

Joy Fawcett was there too, as Joy Biefeld, a marriage and trio of daughters still in her future.

Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly were there, celebrating with all the rest at a postgame bash far from home after the United States had beaten Norway to win the first FIFA Women's World Championship, a tournament now known as the Women's World Cup.

Foudy's role as the team's "spiritual leader," to use Hamm's words, lay ahead of her. Chastain's impromptu striptease at the Rose Bowl in 1999 was unimaginable. Lilly's world-record 281 international games was unthinkable.

The music was loud, the company good, the time innocent, the moment magic.

Flash forward to Friday morning at the Main Press Center in Olympics-frazzled Athens. The U.S. team was paraded into the hall, barely 12 hours after defeating Brazil to win the gold medal.

The media was invited to talk to all the players. The media, with few exceptions, chose to talk to the "'91ers." They were, after all, the women's soccer story of these Games. Their longevity, accomplishments and personalities made them a tale no one wanted to see end.

But it has ended.

In 1991, it was the White Swan. In 2004, it was the swan song.

How different were the celebrations 13 years apart? How did the first championship compare with the last?

"I didn't have the energy to party this time," Foudy said, laughing. "It was just awesome. It was like you could let your shoulders down finally. I can't imagine it any other way. This is what we have envisioned for so long, going out on top.

"I just thank the younger kids for being there and carrying this team. They were phenomenal. To score the last three goals to send us over the edge I think was the difference. So it's interesting how it all comes full circle and how they're now going to carry that torch and go flying with it."

Foudy was asked what she had done with her medal.

"I've been chewing on it," she replied.

Did she sleep with it on?

"I was going to, but then I thought I might, like, whip myself with it in the night and wake up with a big black eye."

Hamm, relaxed at long last, took the questions a little more seriously.

"The first [championship], you don't know what to do," she said. "You don't know how to feel or how to react or what to do. And this time you're standing there in the middle of the field and you're just trying to take everything in. It was like, don't rush anything.

"When we were in the locker room, we talked as a team and we didn't want anyone to push us to speed that up because people had things to say. Before we broke up we wanted to make sure that people heard how grateful we were for their effort and time into making us the best team we could be."

Hamm has hung up her boots after 17 years on the national team.

"Soccer has been my focus for so long," she said, "now it's my family."

Hamm made it a point to talk to the Brazilian players after the final, especially to teenage star Marta. On Friday, she explained why.

"I just told her, 'You're one of the best I've ever seen,' " Hamm said. "That's all I said to her. I said, 'Congratulations. I'm honored to be on the same field as you.' She's amazing."

One day, Marta will understand just what that means.

Lilly underlined the importance of winning the gold one last time, pointing to the disappointments of taking silver at Sydney in 2000 and the bronze at the Women's World Cup in 2003.

"Those have stuck with us," she said. "If we didn't win last night, that would have stuck with us. It's better ... that we could end on a happy note."

Fawcett talked about the lack of media in 1991 and all the media surrounding 2004. And she talked about her three daughters.

"This gold medal is as much theirs as it is mine," she said. "They've come on all the road trips with me."

Chastain will soldier on.

"I think at my age it's a game-by-game scenario," she said. "I love playing soccer. Personally, I don't ever see soccer out of my life. I don't think playing has an age limit on it, and I feel very good about being on a soccer field, so I don't see why there'd be a reason to stop.

"And, like Julie and Mia said, these young players on the team are exciting to be around. They have an incredible enthusiasm. Every time I go on the field with them I feel younger. I still enjoy it."

Foudy made a point agreed to by all the '91ers: "I'm just happy that I don't have to face Brazil for the next four years."

April Heinrichs, the U.S. coach, was there in 1991, as a player. So was assistant coach Tracy Leone. Both were as pleased as their players.

"The thing that kept going through my head was, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it. I can't believe that we've won a gold medal,' " Heinrichs said.

"Good things happen for good reasons. I think that this team embodies goodness and I'm thrilled that they won it."

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