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Analysis: U.S. women

Credit due to women pioneers.

By Tim Nash
Special to SoccerTimes

PASADENA, Calif. (Friday, July 9, 1999) -- For the U.S. women's soccer team, it wasn't always large crowds, police escorts, plush hotels and chartered flights. Not even close.

The early days of the national team consisted of random training camps, low-budget travel and spartan accommodations. The players had to purchase their own practice gear.

There have been a variety of adventures.

  • In 1986, the team took a 48-hour, frequently delayed flight to Italy on a cargo plane.
  • On a trip to Bulgaria, the door of the airplane fell off on a woman passenger.
  • In China, on a trip in 1990, the team hotel had showers and electricity for one hour a day.
  • In Italy, the practice field had a gravel playing surface, and after two training sessions the cleats on the players' shoes were almost completely worn down.
  • A post-tournament banquet in China consisted of dog, pigeon and snake soup - all considered delicacies. When the players asked, rather begged, for rice, they were told that serving rice to guest would be considered a huge insult.
  • On one trip to Bulgaria, Kristine Lilly lost several pounds because, dismayed at the food, she put herself on an all-cucumber diet.
  • On a trip through Bulgaria - yes, Bulgaria again - the team rode for 12 hours on a coal train with the windows open. Upon arrival, their faces were caked with soot.
  • On one trans-Atlantic flight, the flight attendant pointed to the left side of the plane and said "smoking." Then she pointed to the right side of the plane and said "non-smoking." The same flight featured baggage piled in the aisle.

The team adopted a slogan - "Deal with It."

"We just dealt with it," said assistant coach Lauren Gregg who has been with the team first as a player and then as a coach since its inception. "We knew it wasn't always going to be easy, but we did the best we could with what we had."

So excuse some of the veterans if they are getting a big charge out of having their bags carried for them, their whims catered to. They've earned it. The act of earning it, however, was a struggle. "It definitely made us appreciate everything we had," Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, former national team center midfielder and currently the head soccer coach at Maryland, said in Gregg's soon-to-be-released book The Champion Within.

And they learned to accept the obstacles for what they were - hurdles that needed to be overcome; simply things that needed to be "dealt with."

Anson Dorrance, the team's head coach from 1986-94, and Gregg worked hard to establish an infectious team-wide attitude of finding solutions instead of griping about problems. He coined the simple but telling team slogan "No Whining." Owning a strong dislike for complainers, he still often jokes that he left the movie "Silence of the Lambs" with a strange admiration of the despicable Hannibal Lecter: "He never whined about his position in life."

So the team dealt with problems. Players joked when they slept in airports. They looked at their gravel practice field in Italy and said, "Well, our game field will be better." (It was. It was dirt).

They took care of the food problems by enlisting a couple of chefs to accompany them to China for the 1991 World Cup - Pete Dorrance, Anson's brother, and Greg Overbeck, who would meet his future wife, Carla, on the trip. The two are partners in three North Carolina restaurants.

To understand the humble start of the national team is to better appreciate how far they've come.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has devoted unprecedented resources to the women's program in the past four years, out-spending every nation in this summer's World Cup. But, at times, the federation has done so grudgingly. The veteran U.S. players have fought for and won concessions that have enabled them to train as professionals.

A truly unique group of individuals with a compelling sense of responsibility and morals, the national team has been waiting years for the type of recognition they are receiving now. "The first group -- and every group that came after them -- are all special," Gregg said. "Without those players, there could be none of this."

Countless articles about Title IX and its impact on team sports for women miss the point. Seeing Title IX as a reason for the success of the United States fails to recognize that early star players like April Heinrichs, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski and Carin Jennings Gabarra never were handed anything. They nevertheless played their team sport with intense desire and crowd-pleasing flair. And they presented themselves as strong, confident women with a tremendous work ethic and a very strong sense of commitment to themselves, their teammates and their fans - the few that they had.

The 1999 team consists of several who fell under the leadership of players like Heinrichs, Higgins, still-active Michelle Akers and Tracey Leone.

Players like Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly learned their lessons well. And they've passed them along to the younger players on the team today.

The lessons? A commitment to your fitness. Show up at training camp in top physical condition, no two ways about it. Coach Tony DiCicco said in The Champion Within: "At the national team level, we don't train fitness, we test it."

You help your teammates on and off the field. You act responsibly every where you go, and you are simply a quality person.

The 1999 team is being seen as pioneers for women in sport. And while not belittling their role in shaping the values of generations of girls and boys, their predecessors deserve as much credit, maybe more. "This all had to begin some place," said DiCicco, who was an assistant in '91. "The players from the 1991 team were the early missionaries for women's soccer. They made in-roads for all women."

Some of the players on this year's team know full-well that every player that came before them is a part of what's happening now. "They love what is going on now," Lilly said. "It's what they always strived for."

"We know they are a large part of what's going on," added Tisha Venturini. "I heard that the 1991 team might be all coming to the final. That's just awesome. They deserve to be a part of this."

They already are; seven members continue to be active and will start Saturday against China for the '99 World Cup.

Tim Nash is editor of College Soccer Weekly and can be e-mailed at tim@collegesoccer.com.

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