For five United States women's soccer players who helped elevate their sport's popularity around the world, the Olympics were a storybook ending.
Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain. Just about anyone who knows anything about women's soccer has heard of them. They were on the pioneering U.S. team that won the first women's football World Cup in China in 1991. They have competed for the U.S. team in all three World Cups that have been held since then (except for Chastain in 1995), and in all three Olympics that have included women's soccer.
Women's soccer, or football, made its debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and the Americans won the gold medal. Norway defeated the U.S. team in the final of the 2000 Sydney Games.
The five veteran Americans range in age from 33 to 36, all but Lilly is married and Fawcett is a mother of two. They had made it clear that Athens would be their last international competition together. And they were determined to go out on top, which they did, winning the gold medal Thursday night.
It was not easy, as much of the rest of the world has caught up to the Americans, who a decade ago dominated women's soccer. In the semifinals, they won in extra time, 2-1, over a German team that had knocked them out in last year's semifinals of the World Cup in the United States. And in the Olympic final, they needed extra time again for their 2-1 win over Brazil, who most observers believed outplayed the Americans.
The retiring Julie Foudy said she was glad she would not have to face teams like Germany and Brazil again, and it took a lot of heart to win the gold medal.
"The thing I loved about this group is that they never doubted," said Julie Foudy. "What we've always talked about this group is strength and just believing in each other and that came through, I think, playing back-to-back 120-minute games."
Foudy added that the five veterans finishing together with a gold medal in Athens made the victory extra special.
"We'd been reading about the history of the Olympics, from the ancient games to the modern games," she said. "And you always know as an Olympian you're taking part in something that's bigger than sport. But to actually be at the birthplace of it, I think brings it home even more."
The winning goal against Brazil in extra time came off a header from one of the new stars of the U.S. team, 24-year-old Abby Wambach.
"I just feel privileged and honored that we can send these special ladies off with a gold medal around their necks," said Abby Wambach. "And this is what it's all about. I was just happy to help my team as much as I could, be it one goal during this tournament or the gold medal-winning goal. Either way, I just feel happy to be a part of it."
Brandi Chastain said the players danced around the locker room and took a lot pictures after the match. She is most remembered for removing her jersey and displaying a black sports bra as she slid to her knees after her winning penalty kick to beat China in the 1999 World Cup final. She said this time, it was all about a special group of players.
"Afterwards, it was great to finally be able to take that big sigh of relief that we had kind of collectively been holding our breath, waiting for the gold medal game, and once that game was over, allowing ourselves to really enjoy it," said Brandi Chastain. "I think every one of us being with our families, it was perfect."
Mia Hamm was clearly the star of this American soccer team through the years. In fact, she is considered the best woman player of all time, with a record 153 in goals in 267 international appearances. I had a chance to speak with her the day after the gold medal victory.
Where do you see yourself in the history of women's soccer and where it's progressed over the last decade? asked our reporter. "I hope I see myself at the very beginning," said Mia Hamm. "That there are so much greater things to come. And with the game continuing to grow, to see a team like Brazil. I think they've set a new standard in terms of how people [women] play. And you're going to see other teams, whether it be from South America or African nations. Nigeria had a huge tournament this year. The sport just continues to grow and people see the value in investing in the young girls, the youth of their country and definitely their women's national team."
Mia Hamm added that for young girls hoping to reach the pinnacle in women's soccer, it takes a lot of hard work:
"One of the things we've talked about since day one is that in success, there are no shortcuts," she said. "You have to pay the price and it's not always glamorous, not always fun, but the rewards in going out there and expressing yourself and being a part of the Olympic Games, or events like this, and definitely coming out victorious, it's all worth it."
While Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain have finished playing soccer together internationally, they plan to take part in what is being called a fan celebration tour. It will feature up to 10 matches across the United States. Fittingly, one of them in late September, against Iceland will be in Rochester, New York, hometown of Abby Wambach, the rising star of the next generation of U.S. national team players.