Read an Excerpt
co-captain, olympic gold-medal-winning soccer team, 1996
winner, f.i.f.a fair play award, 1997,
Her agent warns me: "Julie hates photo shoots, so if you want to make her happy, bring doughnuts." We search in vain for a doughnut shop along the way. I arrive empty-handed and nervous. But Julie Foudy has a generous spirit. She jumps out of her car and uploads several dozen soccer balls for the shoot. She puts her hand on my shoulder and tells me how happy she is to be involved in such a great project. She makes me and everyone else around her feel so comfortable--like old friends. Just as we finish, a group of young girls converges on the field to practice. They spot Julie and rush over for an autograph. She goes one better and donates the balls to their team.
In most parts of the world, men's soccer is an obsession. But the most renowned spectator sport in the world didn't become prevalent in the United States until the mid-seventies. From that point on, all over America, soccer was as popular with the girls as it was with the boys.
I had an idea that in other parts of the world it wasn't as acceptable for girls to participate in sports--in some places, it was even taboo--but I had never experienced it firsthand. It wasn't until I was sixteen, traveling to compete in other countries, that I realized that other girls didn't have the luxury or opportunity to play in organized leagues. I was in between tournaments in Spain and wanted to stay in shape so I started to practice with some local men. Every time we played, a crowd would gather to watch--not because we were superstars, but because they had never seen a woman playing with men.
While playing a disorganized and underfunded women's national team in Brazil in 1993, we were literally mocked and sworn at by the predominantly male fans. It was painful. But I don't think it's too idealistic to say that, one day, soccer won't be a gender-specific sport. In three years Brazil has changed drastically. The government now pours money into the women's team, as it always has with the men's team. In 1997 we lost to them for the first time.
I think that's why the U.S. women's team is so successful--because we never had the cultural taboos to overcome. Sports were a large part of my childhood. No one in my family played soccer (although to this day my brothers insist that they taught me everything I know), but it became my sport of choice, and at age seven I started with the Mission Viejo Soccerettes in Southern California. I played on that team with the same group of girls for ten years, through high school.
My parents were very supportive but at the same time very noncommittal. This was really the key to my success. There were other parents who went to every game, as if their lives depended on their children being successful at soccer. I find that to be a big problem with youth athletics; parents push and push until eventually their child burns out. I didn't. In fact, I begged my mom to let me play soccer, but she said I had to wait until I was seven. It was an agonizing year. In second grade, I went out to play with the boys. My brothers' friends called me Jimmy because I used to walk around without my shirt on. Magic Johnson and Joe Montana were my role models. But I never felt like an oddball because of my parents' support.
I think the corporate world has finally realized the marketability of women's sports. But along with these opportunities comes more responsibility. We soccer players had heard about a problem in Pakistan--about children being employed to make soccer balls. There was a buzz about it. Believe it or not, the majority of soccer balls in the world are made in Pakistan. Each panel is still hand-sewn and an entire ball takes four hours to assemble. Unfortunately, for all of this labor there is little compensation. So when Reebok asked me to be a spokeswoman for their new line of soccer balls, I wanted to know specifically what Reebok was doing. I went to Pakistan myself and found out that the ball panels were being taken home by workers and their children were doing the stitching--the more balls assembled, the more money earned. So Reebok quickly took steps to remedy the problem. All of the stitching is now done on a single site, and human-rights activists are closely monitoring the situation. In addition, Reebok has started a school for the nine- to fourteen-year-olds who might otherwise be used as child labor. Now I'm prepared to be a spokesperson for the ball.
I couldn't imagine how different my life would be without athletics in it, which is not to say I live for sports. I do many things outside athletics; you have to have other interests, an education--the whole package. But it has been a blessing to see the world and to be able to make a living as a professional athlete. I'm fortunate--only a handful of the players on the national team can play without taking a second job, which we all used to do. I look toward the day when it is not a few handfuls but a hundred handfuls and women can play and work in the sport they love. It is a slow process, but in the ten years that I've played, it has been accelerating at match speed.
the most decorated player in women's basketball
the only four-time u.s. basketball olympian
three-time winner, u.s.a. basketball's female athlete of the year
Teresa Edwards's shoot was less than perfect. The flight was overbooked, the limo was late, the address was wrong, hotel reservations were lost, and my twelve-foot ladder didn't fit in my ten-foot rental van. Sometimes it happens--a bad day--but Teresa was not only a good sport, she agreed to my every photographic whim and answered all of my questions without even a pause to wonder. Her discipline inspired me. "Christina, I see what you're trying to do, and we're going to do whatever it takes to get it done." It was obvious that getting the job done was this tremendous athlete's theme. Among her many accomplishments, Edwards played an instrumental role in the formation of the American Basketball League, and after two years with the Atlanta Glory (playing and coaching), she joined the Philadelphia Rage in the fall of 1998.
Basketball has always been the thrill of my life. As a child, I was a natural athlete. In most sports I held my own, but in basketball I flew. I didn't choose basketball; I believe it chose me. I know God gave this gift to me, and I use it to the best of my ability every day. Basketball is my drug; it feeds me and gives me everything I need. I get a high out of passing, shooting, outrunning my opponents, playing defense. Right now my life is surrounded by it, and I pray that my future will be too. I'm trying to do the best that I can while I'm here, and after this life is over and I have to answer to God, we will both know that giving back has been most important to me. He has his own plan for all of us, and that includes the arena of women's sports. I do feel that women's time on the playing field has come. It's a new day for sports, and it's a great day.
I grew up in a small town in Georgia called Cairo, a southern town where everyone knows everyone else. It was a nice place to grow up slow; I'm in my thirties and it still hasn't changed. I'm the oldest of five and the only girl. My brothers and 1 all played together, creating whatever we could think of. When you don't have a lot of money you become inventors. We'd make drums out of cardboard and have parades in the street. People would watch us from their porches and laugh. In my mind I can still hear and see these things. It was a good childhood.
When you come from a small town it's hard to realize that the same opportunities exist for you as for everyone else, so you can really get stuck. You have to make your own opportunities happen. It became my goal to inspire others and to be an example. I wanted to let kids know that they needed to get out and see the world. If kids could see the world's different cultures--even just the different cultures in the United States--they might want more out of life, to go beyond their local boundaries. I'm fortunate--somehow I made it out of there. I became successful at basketball, but not many other kids have followed me and that makes me sad because I always try to be a role model, a positive influence, a leader.
You have to be well-rounded. A lot of great male athletes from Cairo would get into good colleges on athletic scholarships, but they didn't do their homework. After the first semester they would find they couldn't maintain the academic requirements, or didn't realize the importance of those classes, and they would return home. It was sad because they were great athletes. When I got my scholarship, my mother and I went to sign together for the press to take pictures. She went to work the next day and the women that she worked with said, "Teresa will be back, just like the rest of them." It really hurt her to hear them say that. She always taught me to do my best and instilled in me a sense of pride. The one thing I didn't want to do was embarrass my mother.
My mother has been the biggest influence in my life. She did what she had to do to raise us as a single parent and never complained about her life. That helped me to maintain my focus throughout my education, and I loved basketball so much that I wasn't going to let anything jeopardize my chances. I never considered myself to be the smartest kid, so it was really about putting in the time.
People will gossip, especially in a small town. After college I started to play overseas and make some money--not much, but more than I had ever had in my life. I knew my mother needed a car. 1 couldn't afford a new car so I bought her a used car. All people back home could say was, "Why didn't Teresa buy her a house?" They were just people being people, but for me it was a motivation. I worked liked a dog to buy her the house we always dreamt of buying.
Once I realized that I was a role model, it became my goal to inspire others and to be an example. When you succeed, people want to be like you--that's what being a role model entails. You're out there and your every move is being watched. It is a fortunate situation in that it puts money in your pocket but unfortunate in that you are expected to be perfect. I don't mind being a role model if I am allowed to be human. I am going to make mistakes just like the next person.
I believe the real role models are not celebrities but the people kids grow up around everyday--parents, older siblings, teachers, doctors. Society doesn't want to acknowledge that, because it brings the burden of responsibility home.
If you really love the game, you don't get caught up in who's getting what. Dr. J and Pistol Pete got their due. It was late--but they got it. The payoff is being able to play and get paid for it. It's the reward for sticking it out through so many obstacles. I'm thirty-three and still here on the court, that's a joy in itself. I've been called a legend in women's basketball, and I'm alive to see it.
It's impossible to describe the feeling that this gives you. I feel that giving, not just taking from the sport, has made my life worth living. I don't spend my time looking back yet. There is still so much that I'd like to do. I'm still busy trying to succeed. Even when I'm old and can't move anymore I'll still be able to go to a game and watch the families exude pride over their little girls and know that I had something to do with it.