July 21, 2004
By Kelly Whiteside
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. - They have spent the last 17 years together, been through life cycles together -- births, deaths, marriages, divorce. They have won and lost world championships together, started and lost a professional league together and through the years became the most significant women's sports team in history. "To good friends," Brandi Chastain says as the others raise their glasses in a toast before dinner last week. Clink, clink, clink, clink. "After a while it wasn't about soccer anymore," Mia Hamm says. "It's what brought us together; it's not what will keep us together." The five pioneers who won the first Women's World Cup in 1991 and the inaugural Olympic gold medal in women's soccer in 1996 will play their final world championship together next month in the Athens Olympics. They play this afternoon against Australia in Blaine, Minn., (4 PT, ESPN2) in an Olympic preparation game. Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett are retiring from international competition. Chastain hopes to play in 23 more international games to reach the 200 milestone before retiring. Kristine Lilly, who has competed in more international games (274) than any player, male or female, might just play forever, her friends joke. Since the first tournament in China in 1987 when Hamm, the youngest, was just 15, they have gone 236-41-31 through the eras of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush; big hair (Foudy's was once so voluminous the joke was she could catch a lofted ball in her poofhead) and bad music ("How can the younger players not know Styx?" Lilly says). Their legacy is all the girls they inspired, yet Foudy thinks the team has to win a gold medal in Athens to gild their goodbye. The USA hasn't won a major championship, Olympic gold or a World Cup, since Chastain's famous penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup. "People will say, 'They lost the last three big events,' if we don't win," Foudy says of the 2000 Olympics (silver medal), 2003 World Cup (third place) and the Athens Games. "They'll say maybe (coach April Heinrichs) should have revamped, maybe she should have gone younger. "But I don't want to go on the next 20 years of my life thinking my last game I lost. Losses stick with me. They don't go away." She's not alone. "We're all the same," Foudy says of Hamm, Chastain, Lilly and Fawcett. "I don't think you stay at this level as long as we have without having that." Quality time for a final time For the last four months of Olympic training camp in Carson, Calif., Hamm, Foudy, Chastain and Lilly rented a three-story house overlooking swank Manhattan Beach. Fawcett, the quietest of the quintet and mother of three daughters, lived a few sandbars away in Long Beach. The rest of the team rented two-bedroom apartments in towns in between. "The four of us never lived together, and we knew that this would be the four best months of our lives so let's enjoy it, live somewhere nice that you love coming home to," Foudy says. "Just that time together, going to the grocery store, cooking dinner together, you realize how precious it is and you're not taking it for granted." The Manhattan Beach setting couldn't have been more perfect. Sunset on the beach at the sunset of their careers. One day last week they rode their beach cruiser bikes, complete with fat tires and wide handlebars, a few blocks to their favorite restaurant, XO Wine Bistro, for dinner. "What's the four sauces for the grilled steak?" someone asks as they survey the menu. "Red pepper, mustard, horseradish and chives," Chastain says before the owner, Carlos, can answer. "Very good. You want a part-time job?" Carlos says. "I may need a job after August, pal," Chastain says. "Don't forget you said that." "You know, I never had a job," Lilly says, forgetting for the moment that playing for her country and helping make the game the fastest-growing sport for girls was her job. "I don't think normal people go to work and say, 'This is so great, we get to spend 10 hours together,' " Foudy says. Jobs past, present and future By starting so young, the group's entire non-soccer résumé is rather brief. Hamm worked in customer service for Eurosport, the soccer retail store. " 'No, that's on back order. No, sorry, that's on back order,' " Hamm says, re-enacting her phone patter. "I worked as a secretary, wearing a full suit and pantyhose every day, 8 to 5," Chastain reports. "When it was slow, the boss used to make me clean the leaves on the ficus tree, every friggin' one of them." "I worked at the snack shop at the pier in Aliso Beach (in Laguna Beach, Calif.)," says Foudy, who surely consumed more chocolate shakes than she served and set up her next job. "I worked at Pizzeria Uno, which had the best chocolate chip cheesecake, with Oreo cookie crust. If it was dented, we couldn't serve it so I would dent all the cheesecake in the back." What can they see each other doing in 10 years? " 'With 550 caps (soccer lingo for international games), playing alongside Carli Fawcett (Joy's 7-year-old daughter), Kristine Lilly,' " Foudy says in her mock announcer voice as Hamm does an impression of Lilly waving to the crowd with a cane in hand. "Mia will have five kids," Chastain says. "Two to three," corrects Hamm, who wed Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra in November and plans to start a family. "And Mia will own a WUSA team," Foudy adds about the professional league that folded last year and is hoping for a revival. "Brandi will be coaching the national team," Foudy says of Chastain, who is married to Santa Clara women's soccer coach Jerry Smith and has worked as a Bronco assistant. "Julie will be a congresswoman," Hamm says of Foudy, who served on the Presidential Commission on Title IX and played a major role in preventing changes to the law that provides girls and women equal opportunities in sports. "Definitely," Chastain adds. So it's settled. Nothing cheesy of their tastes They rarely go a few days without talking or e-mailing, even when they have a break from training camp and go home to their husbands. Two weeks ago, Lilly, the only single member, e-mailed the gang pictures of her golden retriever, Scribner, and shots of her remodeled bathroom. "We felt we remodeled it with her," Foudy says. They've taken e-mail to a new level recently. Twice last week, Chastain and Lilly noticed each other online at 6:45 a.m. while surfing the Internet from their respective Manhattan Beach bedrooms. "When can we go and have breakfast? I'm starving," Chastain instant-messaged Lilly. "I'll be right down," Lilly wrote. Their best times in the house were spent doing nothing -- together -- while sitting in the living room they dubbed "the intellectual room," after this exchange: Upon seeing the fanciest room in the house with the nicest furniture, Lilly asked, "Why would you ever have a room without a television? No one would go in there. Why would you do that?" Said Foudy, "To be intellectual." They put the kitchen to better use. Specialties included shrimp Alexander (made by Hamm) and ground turkey lasagna (Chastain), with Foudy and Lilly serving as "prep cooks" (read: vegetable choppers). For road trips, Chastain even made box lunches from leftovers, complete with name tags. Hamm left a jar of pickles on the counter for four months, Foudy left piles of to-do lists everywhere and Lilly left bowls of candy around the house. Other than that, there was roommate harmony amid the usual finger-pointing. "At 9:15 this morning, I saw you eating Skittles from a bowl," Chastain says to Foudy. "So was Mia," Foudy replies weakly. Foudy then launches into her "How many years?" tirade. For a decade or so, she has campaigned for cheddar cheese slices, non-fat milk and cookies to be provided at every team meal. She's mostly been ignored. "Not Kraft American," Foudy says. "I want cheddar cheese. How many years? Seventeen years and 250 caps, and I still can't get my cookies at every meal!" Which leads to her second issue: middle seats. "Two hundred and fifty caps, and I'm still sitting in E!" she says as her friends repeat the line in unison. "After 17 years, you think you know each other, but just the other day Mia said to the waiter, 'I'll have a coffee,' " Lilly says, "and I looked at her and said, 'Who are you? I don't even know you. You don't order coffee.' " "Sometimes I like coffee," Hamm says quietly. "We do surprise each other every so often," Chastain says. "These girls are like my sisters. I've probably spent more time with them than my own family," says Hamm, who endured the death of a brother and a divorce in the last decade. "We all have different roles in our circle of friends. Jules is all about laughter, finding the humor in the darkest of days. Brandi is extremely strong, very caring. Lil has always been consistent on and off the field. Joy introduced us to perspective with bringing her kids along on trips. "In the 1995 World Cup (in Sweden), we lose and then we see Katey (Fawcett's daughter, now 10), who took her first steps in Sweden," Hamm says. "We've shared a lot, endured a lot, good and bad. You just don't replace those people." Always there for each other Because the years run together, they have no recollection of the first game they played in China in 1987, a 2-0 win. "I don't remember '91 to '95," Hamm says. "You won a couple of championships" at North Carolina, Chastain says. "Not a couple. Four," Hamm says with a smile. Thank goodness they took pictures along the way, to fill in the details. There was the trip to Haiti in 1991 with no running water. "We had to jump in the pool to get clean," Lilly says. "We'd all be sitting by the pool, and I remember Julie sitting under the veranda studying biology," Chastain says. "The generator kept going out, and I didn't have power to read and I was in the middle of some intense Stanford stuff," Foudy says, before being cut off. "Ooh, intense Stanford stuff," the group says in unison. "These guys never studied. I should have gone to Carolina," Foudy says. "I had to study by candlelight, and I had all this candle wax on my textbooks so when I went back to school I showed my professors the proof." They are too busy enjoying the laughter to get all sentimental on each other just yet. Those comments are saved for private asides amid the clearing of dinner plates and the stirring of coffee. "As optimistic and excited as I am about my future, I am desperately hanging on to every minute and every hour that I have with them because especially when you've had loss, they're your lifeline," says Chastain, whose parents died during a seven-month span over 2002-03. "They're your laughter, they're your crutch, they're your peace and your rock and they allow you to be you. To think you'll never go back to that is almost overwhelming, but we've all decided that we'll have vacations together. "What am I going to miss most about them?" Chastain says. "Everything."