Before San Jose’s Brandi Chastain made the most famous goal in women’s soccer history, she was unceremoniously cut from the team. Before she made the team the first time, she tore two of the last knee ligaments anyone ever wants to tear, both her ACLs – and the same meniscus, twice – in the space of two years.
She made the 1999 World Cup-winning goal – in front of a record Rose Bowl crowd of 90,185 and an audience of millions more watching on TV – despite these obstacles, despite 90 minutes of play and another 30 of overtime, and despite being unaware that she would be last to kick. (Her coaches declined to mention it, and she didn’t ask.) Moreover, she thundered “The Kick Heard ’Round the World” past China’s Gao Hong into the top right corner of the net even though it was the first penalty kick she’d ever attempted with her left foot.
And you thought the ensuing shirtless celebration was surprising.
Talks with Chastain in advance of the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National, where she will be the lone female competing in a field of 312, reveal other surprises. For one, even at 42, Chastain is still so enthralled with soccer that she can’t help but stop her car when she sees a pick-up game in the park. Two, she has emerged from a double family tragedy more approachable than ever.
The most telling surprise, though, is this: For a woman who will forever be defined by a celebration now cattle-branded on our collective consciousness, it’s actually someone else’s celebration that best defines her identity today.
• • •
Chaistain isn’t good at sitting on the sidelines, even when it came to her own stepson’s games. But hers is not the restlessness found with most parents watching – she’s not twisted up over a coaching decision or a potential injury. She’s hungry for half time.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” she says, “but I’d be standing there, shifting my weight, just wanting to go out and kick the ball. It makes me as happy as can be.”
It would seem little could power-up passion that fierce. But the injuries, the kind few athletes of any pedigree fully recover from, knocked her down in brutal succession. She was stuck on the sideline.
She persevered, though – surgery, endless stretching, conditioning – and admits when she made it back she glided.
“Back from the injuries I thought I could get away without the extra running,” she says. “I thought I was different. I didn’t completely buy into the team.”
Cue the cold reality of getting cut. Suddenly it wasn’t about beating the world, but just getting a chance to play.
Funny how a change in perspective can help.
“Getting cut was the most important thing in my career,” Chastain says. “Not being on first World Cup team [in 1991], not scoring the [1999 World Cup] goal, but coming back.”
She and her ball became inseparable. She ran inhuman amounts. She made fitness her bitch.
“I needed to be a better teammate,” she says, “to understand what it’s like to be a player with no time in the game, who just wants to get better through gruntwork that’s not sexy.”
She finally worked her way back into the eligible player pool. “I knew then what I wanted,” she says.
Only then the striker heard a qualifier no veteran player wants to hear.
“They told me the only way I’d be back is if I dedicated myself to defense,” she says.
Chastain concedes that at that stage in her career (she was 30 by the ’99 World Cup), at that level, that kind of shift was “crazy talk.” Most elite players wouldn’t go for it – “Hey Kobe, no more shooting” – but she had a new humility.
“You can talk yourself into anything,” she says, “and talk yourself out of anything. I lean toward talking into.”
And she saw that her coach Tony DiCicco hadn’t given up on her.
“He changed everything,” she says. “He believed in me. I was valuable.”
• • •
By the time the 1996 Olympics came, Chastain played every tournament minute.
But she and her teammates were willing to give up a dream: Coming off the 1995 World Cup, the lady players knew their sponsorships and duties more than equaled the men’s, but that their salaries and perks weren’t close. Approaching the biggest opportunity of their careers, the members of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team went on strike.
They earned greater compensation and went on to earn a gold medal. It wasn’t until 1999, though, that they earned the world record for women’s sporting event attendance and drew 40 million viewers in the U.S. alone.
Tens of thousands of little girls poured into youth soccer leagues across the country. This was the legacy the women wanted as much as any victory. Few girls, however, came from the country’s poor communities.
Sports were so fundamental to Chastain’s upbringing that she literally can’t imagine what it would’ve been like without them. So she set to work making sure those marginalized girls had that chance. “These kids don’t get to go to summer camp,” she says.
She met with a group of women affiliated with college – and professional-level sports and they devised a program designed to pinpoint the populations most in need of an opportunity. They found that in many underserved schools, though the boys programs were aching, they looked robust compared to their female equivalents. Boys play, girls watch. The Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative was born.
Marlene Bjornsrud, former assistant athletic director at Santa Clara University and general manager of the now-defunct San Jose CyberRays, was one of those collaborating. “Some of the reasoning for that, also, is when there is limited income, they’ll chose to pay for a boy to play a sport and not a girl,” says Bjornsrud, now BAWSI’s executive director. “Girls are much more at risk to gangs and unintended pregnancies than boys because they are not physically active.”
Chastain leads recruitment that pulls female student-athletes from Gavilan College to Stanford for weekly appearances at 18 Northern California schools.
“Brandi talks about using their platform in sports to do transformational work in the community,” Bjornrud says. “These female athletes role model fitness and self-confidence for kids who really need to see that.”
Just six years after it was founded, BAWSI is poised to enroll its 10,000th kid next month. Chastain, meanwhile, just launched Reach Up!, which applies a similar approach to the fragile middle-school population, with the help of a “testimonial game”/fundraiser this fall that included former teammate Mia Hamm, Olympic skier Bode Miller and Hamm’s husband, ex-Major League all-star Nomar Garciaparra.
• • •
There’s another quality at work with Chastain – beyond being a good mom (Jaden’s four and a half), wife and assistant coach at Santa Clara (where her husband Jerry Smith is the longtime women’s coach), beyond her ongoing play for the Sacramento Storm, beyond giving girls a chance to play they wouldn’t have otherwise. It might be her most mystical tendency.
“She’s that unique human being that accepts every single human being into her life. On any given day, all sorts of people just drop by her house,” Bjornsrud says. “She has made her home and her life totally welcome and totally inclusive so no one is a stranger.”
An open home is one thing. Playing cards with strangers in airports is another.
“Most people of her stature put up a protective shell,” Bjornrud says. “She doesn’t know what it would be like.”
Chastain “blames” her parents for breeding that openness, and points to their sudden loss for galvanizing it forever. In 2002-03 her mother and father died in the space of eight months to an aneurysm and a dissected aorta, respectively.
“I decided life is too short,” Chastain says. “We don’t have time to not be happy and make friends. There’s no difference between other people and me, so what’s wrong with interacting with people you don’t know?”
Another potentially crushing setback instead meant more perspective.
“We all get caught up,” she says, “and lose track of some things that are important. Maybe when things are busy, in the every day, you forget how you treat people, how you impact other people’s lives, the little things that make a difference.”
• • •
Eighty kids stood in a big circle on an inner-city playground near San Jose. Chastain, there on behalf of BAWSI, stood at its center, having just pulled the third-, fourth – and fifth-grade girls together because she wanted to provide a surge in energy.
“Let’s say you scored a big goal,” she said. “What would your celebration be? I want to see it.”
A hand shot up, a small girl waded into the middle, and then promptly froze, eyes the size of apples. Chastain, a little rattled herself, asked if she still wanted to do this. But words weren’t happening.
Chastain offered to do one first: “I pumped my fist, jumped in the air, let out a ‘woo hoo.’”
Suddenly the little girl was ready.
“She did this incredible Mary Lou Retton sideways backflip thing,” Chastain says.
Silence fell. Then the group erupted like the U.S. women had a decade earlier.
Later, as all the girls scattered to leave, it was Chastain’s turn to be surprised.She felt a tug on her sleeve. She looked down, the girl looked up and said, “Thanks for not giving up on me.”
“I was stunned,” Chastain says. “I draw on that experience every day.”
The choice of anecdote makes sense. It furnishes a nice tidy summary of their efforts: Because Brandi did it, I can do it, whether it is a brave celebration or attending college.
It also echoes some simpler themes that have made Chastain who she is today. Namely, perspective is powerful. And this: Though it’s nice to beat the world, it can mean the world just to have a chance to play.