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Archive for Sunday, July 16, 2000

Girls of Summer’ follows journey of women’s soccer champions

July 16, 2000

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On July 10, 1999, more than 90,000 soccer fans and 40 million American television viewers watched the biggest event in women's sports history.

The impact of that Women's World Cup final has not faded.

Rather, it continues to grow as the U.S. women's team, which won the championship in a penalty-kick shootout -- you surely remember Brandi Chastain's winning kick and subsequent celebratory shirt-removal -- remains the most popular female sports act around.

Everywhere in the United States the women travel as they prepare for the Sydney Olympics, they attract large crowds, good reviews and the hero worship that, in the past, was reserved for American male athletes.

In his book, "The Girls of Summer" (HarperCollins, $25), Jere Longman chronicles the long, often rocky road the U.S. women traveled to achieve their historic feat.

Longman, the Olympic sports writer for the New York Times, provides an in-depth look at most of the players and how they dealt with everything from gender inequity to financial and physical woes, all in pursuit of a championship that, until 1999, was virtually ignored in this country.

The mindset of these superb athletes is explained by Kristine Lilly, who has played in more than 200 international games for the United States -- a record for any soccer player, male or female.

"I was surrounded by guys," Lilly said of her formative years in the sport. "It made me tough. It made me know there was nothing I couldn't do. They never said I couldn't play because I was a girl. My parents never said I couldn't do anything because I was a girl. My brother used to bring me along. I was a girl, but I was one of the guys."

That this team surpassed anything -- on and off the field -- that the U.S. guys have accomplished is a reflection of the times. This squad, like the national teams in basketball and softball, was the first to truly benefit from the effects of Title IX, the 1992 legislation that required equal opportunity for women in scholastic sports. Longman describes how Title IX helped many of the stars of the 1999 team.

He also delves into the psychology of the sport: The opening chapter on how assistant coach Lauren Gregg put together the shooting order for the shootout is wonderful stuff.

So is Longman's examination of the fragile psyche of superstar Mia Hamm, who argued with Gregg about being included among the five kickers. Hamm felt Shannon MacMillan should replace her, yet when Hamm did shoot, she scored easily.

"The Girls of Summer" is best when detailing the three-week tournament, particularly the way the event soared in popularity day by day. Longman at times gets too bogged down in the players' backgrounds, but he never falters in describing the mood of the U.S. team, or in detailing the final against China.

One of several books being released this summer about women in sports, Title IX and the phenomenon that was the 1999 Women's World Cup, "The Girls of Summer" should inspire many readers to look further into the subject.

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