Perhaps still the most enduring image associated with U.S. women’s soccer is Brandi Chastain kneeling on the grass, jersey clenched in her fist, mouth open and eyes closed mid-scream in an eruption of joy after winning the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
That 1999 squad is no doubt one of the most celebrated in U.S. sports history, and for good reason. Before that, however, came the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, another group of players worth remembering during Women of Team USA Week.
Still a nascent sport on the international level, women’s soccer made its Olympic debut that year, and with that came the opportunity to bring the sport into the spotlight. The U.S. had already had international success, winning the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China, but had done so in relative anonymity. By the time the Olympic Games were over, the U.S. had won the gold medal and played in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s sporting event in the history of the world.
As the tournament approached, the significance of what they were about to do was not lost on the athletes. Afterward, the impact of what they did was hard to put into words, said U.S. forward Shannon Mac Millan.
“I dreamt of being an Olympian ever since I was 6 or 7,” said Mac Millan, who led the U.S. in scoring in Atlanta. “Women’s soccer wasn’t in it, but anytime the Olympics were on TV I was glued, watching everything I could. I always knew I wanted to be part of the Olympics, and I had such conviction about it. To all of a sudden see girls (in the crowd) with their faces painted, for these younger generations to have these powerful, confident females to look up to and realize the Olympics are a possibility, it was exciting. Now they had something tangible to hold on to as well as having the dream.”
Things were much different for the 1996 team than they are for today’s national team athletes. There was no women’s professional league, no major lead-up tournaments and no great way to prepare to play the top teams from other nations. Fewer nations invested in their women’s programs and fielded competitive teams, for that matter. So beginning in January of that year, the members of Team USA left home and went into a residency program in Florida where they began training for the Atlanta Games.
Although Atlanta hosted the Olympics, the soccer matches were held in several U.S. cities. The U.S. opened the tournament with a 3-0 win over Denmark at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, with more than 25,000 fans in attendance. Two days later, 28,000 fans showed up at the Citrus Bowl to watch the U.S. beat Sweden 2-1, and then more than 55,000 cheered the team on in the final group-stage match, a 0-0 draw with China at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
Momentum, clearly, was building.
The top four teams moved on to Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia football team, for the semifinals. A crowd of 64,196 gathered to watch the U.S. come back from a 1-0 deficit to beat Norway, the defending World Cup champions, with Mac Millan scoring the winner in extra time.
It was the largest audience to watch a women’s sporting event ever in the U.S.
“We were excited,” Mac Millan said. “We were pumped up knowing we could potentially have a big piece of history with the first gold medal ever, but at the same time we knew we had to do everything within our power to take care of ourselves.”
Members of the U.S. women's soccer team celebrate winning gold at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 on Aug. 1, 1996.
The U.S. team employed sports psychologists to help the players minimize outside noise, Mac Millan said, and staff members helped keep distractions at bay by handling things like ticket requests from family members.
Finally it came time for the gold-medal match against China. This time the crowd would set another world record with 76,489 fans assembled, the largest crowd to ever attend a women’s athletic event at the time.
Mac Millan gave the U.S. an early lead on a rebound off Mia Hamm’s shot. China tied it 13 minutes later, and in an initially awkward moment a loud cheer was soon heard from the American fans. Turns out they were cheering for Michael Johnson; news had just circulated that the U.S. sprinter had set a world record in the 200-meter in Atlanta.
China kept the pressure on after that, but with 22 minutes remaining Hamm fed Joy Fawcett who then fed Tiffeny Milbrett for the winning goal.
Afterward, at the medal ceremony, Mac Millan said no one knew what to do.
“We’d never been part of one of those,” she said. “They announced the gold medalists Team USA and we were all just looking at each other, holding hands, saying, ‘What do we do? Do we step up?’ A few people stepped up then stepped down and finally we all stepped on the podium.”
Between the laughter and the tears and the smiles and the screams, their singing of the national anthem was perhaps one of the worst ever, Mac Millan said, but zero words could describe how it felt at that moment to know they accomplished their goal together.
Being part of the first Olympic women’s soccer competition also gave the players a lot of momentum, Mac Millan said. The task of filling giant football stadiums for the 1999 World Cup began to feel less audacious, and the goal of winning that tournament was cemented.
“We all grew up wanting to be part of the Olympics,” Mac Millan said. “Now we did it, we had that success and it set us up to turn around and host a successful World Cup and really start growing the game on the women’s side, especially here in the U.S. But it also helped other countries realize it’s OK for your females to be athletes and be leaders with confidence and be strong and powerful and grow the game.
“Not just us, but a lot of teams and countries have what they have today because of the 1996 Olympics and the (1999) World Cup. Teams from China, Germany, Norway, Japan, all these federations are now investing in women’s programs. There’s a lot more parity in the game. There’s a viable pro league in the U.S. as well as other countries. There are so many opportunities for these young girls.”