In the summer of 1999, the rest of the United States discovered women’s soccer. I felt like I couldn’t turn on a TV without being bombarded with images of young girls with painted faces, waving American flags and cheering for Mia. They lined the streets into the stadium to welcome the team bus and staked spots along fences to watch the team practice – and every night those images were broadcast across America. Long before anyone had a smartphone or even a digital camera, every American had access to images of the US women’s national team as the furor about them built and crested that summer.
I was about to turn 18, set to play soccer for a small NAIA school. I should have been thrilled that people were finally recognizing not just soccer, but women’s soccer, as a viable and interesting sport. But I couldn’t help but be bitter about the whole thing. Maybe the bitterness flowed from the last vestiges of my sullen teenage years, but instead of being excited for all the attention, I couldn’t help but wonder…where all these people had been?
At the same time, that summer felt like a watershed moment for acceptance and growth of women’s sports for me. It was one of the first times I remember feeling like it was ok to be a female athlete. Rather than strange looks, I started receiving encouragement after telling people I played soccer. Perhaps not all of it could be attributed to the World Cup, but surely some of it was. Yet it was difficult to reconcile those happier feelings with the confusion, anger, bitterness and resentment.
The thing is, while it took the country just two months to fall in love with the national team – and the idea that little girls could be inspired by professional female athletes – there had always been those of us that idolized Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, we just hadn’t gotten put on TV for it.
It’s famously part of the history and story of women’s soccer that these ladies returned from the 1995 World Cup in Sweden to no recognition. The games weren’t broadcast and there was no such thing as streaming. If the national team was anonymous and barely given credence, what chance did girls toiling away on boy’s youth teams in middle-America have?
The sudden and intense interest in something that had basically defined my life to that point was hard to process and understand. Soccer had always made me a bit of an outcast. Suddenly, it was incredibly cool. The turnaround of public opinion – and that of the classmates that used to tease me about my dedication to the sport – left my head spinning. I was so busy trying to make sense of it all, I never really got to enjoy the tournament or USA’s eventual win. Instead, I spent most of that time feeling sorry for myself.
Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t really angry at the young girls who found role models. I wasn’t upset that they’d found easier access to sports. I was sad for me, and all those like me, who’d spent years as the only girl on the field. Who perfected the art of changing shirts on a sideline full of people or behind a small barricade of parents with their backs turned. Who didn’t know what to do when puberty meant the boys got taller and leaner and meant I got slower, with bigger hips and chest.
In the mid-90’s, I spent day after day proudly wearing Umbro soccer shorts with the t-shirts I’d bought at tournaments I played in across the Midwest. When I entered high school, I remember setting a goal for myself to not wear anything soccer-related for the entire first week of freshman year, so I could try to fit in and make new friends. Kids I went to school with didn’t understand why I had practice a few times a week and every summer weekend was spent on the road at another tournament. The girls I made friends with just wanted to talk about the cute boys on my team; it was incomprehensible that I not only wasn’t interested in them, but would want to get sweaty and dirty in front of them. Even the other players on the freshman girls’ soccer team weren’t out playing with their club team on weekends.
There were a few girls teams when we reached U-16, but none were offered by my club. The first time I put on a jersey different to the one I’d worn my whole life, I felt both exiled from the club I’d played at for 10 years and something like betrayal. The switch from the boys’ teams to girls’ was inevitable, but still so difficult. There was an identity that came with saying you played for a certain club – there was pride and history and you’d proudly introduce yourself to other players by saying where you played. I was – and still am – a Bavarian.
In the cocky way kids do, I had staked a lot of personal pride on playing for such an accomplished and storied club. My new club had no gravitas behind the name, no history to build on. I felt even more lost as I tried to navigate the new social aspects of the team, which were as important to my teammates as the final score. They had matching hair ties and elaborate ribbons for tying up their sleeves. They met before games to paint their nails in matching colors.
We still played hard. We still won games. But the tomboy persona I’d cultivated as the only girl on the boys’ team was suddenly a huge detriment to my success. I received quite a few yellow cards for fouling players too hard. And I still had no idea how to relate to my teammates.
Recently I watched my old soccer club as they battled for the Amateur Cup title. At both games I went to, I saw far more young girls in club jerseys than boys. The ball-kids lining the pitch were almost all girls. I was beyond excited to see so many girls in team jerseys featuring my club’s logo. But when I pointed it out to my husband, my voice was tinged with bitterness and regret: I never got that opportunity.
At the time, and for quite a few years after, I lacked the maturity to understand or appreciate all the positive things that came from the summer of 1999. I was too upset about all the girls who were getting the support, funding, attention, and coaching that I never had the chance to get to see anything else. Seeing women playing elite sports on tv and getting lauded for it had an impact that reached beyond just soccer players to all the little girl athletes who were playing sports at that time. Despite the fits and starts, that summer brought us professional women’s soccer.
I’m past feeling sorry for myself. I know how important that summer was in the big picture of the growth of soccer, women’s soccer and women’s sports in this country. But a part of me will never be able to clear the haze of uncertainty and resentment that cloud those memories and my appreciation for that team, their victory and the players. The little girl that first put on cleats at age four and never turned back deserved better.