|“Being an Olympic athlete is great in itself and then to be honored for the Hall of Fame is just a whole other level.” - Kristine Lilly|
BY PAUL D. BOWKER
The dream of an Olympic Games started long ago for Kristine Lilly. Before her sport was even part of the Olympic program.
“It’s amazing, really,” Lilly said. “When you’re a young kid and used to watch it on TV and wish one day to be there. It’s that feeling that multiplies. I can remember watching the Olympics as a young kid and never thought I’d play soccer because soccer wasn’t there yet.”
But when women’s soccer arrived on the Olympic stage in 1996, and so did Lilly. In three Olympic Games, beginning in Atlanta and finishing at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, Lilly played in every game for the United States. She won three medals, including two gold. She rose to be captain of the team.
“I think every American in one way or another can relate to the Olympics,” Lilly said, “and then to be on an Olympic team, let alone three, it doesn’t get old, and it (is) something that I’m honored for, to represent my country. You’re always still very honored to do that.”
Lilly was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate in July in Chicago, and the induction ceremony will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network Aug. 23.
“When I was first told that I was up for nomination, you’re overwhelmed a little bit,” said Lilly, 40, who now resides in Needham, Mass., with her husband, Dave Heavey, and daughters, Sidney and Jordan. “Being an Olympic athlete is great in itself and then to be honored for the Hall of Fame is just a whole other level.”
In addition to Lilly, the Class of 2012 includes Gail Devers and Dan O‘Brien, track and field; Jean Driscoll, Paralympic track and field; Jenny Thompson and Gary Hall Jr., swimming; Lisa Fernandez, softball; Ed Temple, coach, track and field; James Connolly, veteran, track and field; Ted Stevens, special contributor, and the 2004 U.S. Olympic Women’s Softball Team.
Lilly holds a world record that many feel is untouchable. She totaled 352 international caps for the U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team, starting 330 of those games.
“That’s never going to be broken, I don’t believe, by either a man or a woman,” said Tony DiCicco, coach of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Lilly was just 16 years old and a junior at Wilton High School in Connecticut when she scored her first goal for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 1987. She went on to play in five FIFA World Cups, including the memorable 1999 World Cup won by the United States in a shootout over China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Lilly headed away a China shot from the goal line in overtime of the title game, and scored one of the U.S. goals in the shootout. She retired in January 2011.
The length of her career and all those medals turned Lilly into one of the icons of women’s soccer, along with all-time leading scorer Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett. Lilly was a three-time winner of the U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year award, and also a four-time All-American at the University of North Carolina.
“Most of the years, when all of us were first on the team, we didn’t know, let alone me, Julie, Mia, Brandi, Joy, would play for 17 years together,” said Lilly, whose 130 international goals are second only to Hamm’s 158. “We didn’t know that was going to happen. And then I played 23 (years). It was great. It was fun. It was competitive. It wasn’t easy to play for that long because you still had to perform every day.”
Lilly’s tremendous durability as a soccer athlete carried into the 2012 Boston Marathon, where she ran the race for the first time in order to raise money for charity. She completed the marathon, raising more than $21,000 for Children’s Hospital Boston. Along the route of 26.2 miles, Lilly was greeted by well-wishers and soccer fans.
“I made it,” she said. “I had an incredible time. That was great.”
Lilly has continued her connection with soccer and Olympic fame by teaching and coaching kids at soccer camps. She is a partner with three-time Olympian Hamm and 1996 Olympian Tisha Venturini Hoch in the TeamFirst Soccer Academy. She also runs the Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy in Connecticut and Massachusetts.