As I sat on my couch and watched Megan Rapinoe address the droves of fans after the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) celebrated a fourth World Cup championship, I thought of two young girls.
One was me — the 11-year-old who scored a goal on Mia Hamm.
It wasn’t in a competitive contest or a practice but during halftime of a Temple football game. The USWNT had captured the 1999 World Cup trophy weeks prior and a few members of the squad -- Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Julie Foudy -- held a clinic at the game.
For members of my travel soccer team, this was like Christmas, our birthdays, scoring the game-winning goal, and the last day of school combined. It was a chance to see up close the women plastered all over our walls and on our T-shirts, the women who had us glued to the television all summer.
During the exhibition, I took the ball down the right side. Hamm was “marking” me, but I took a shot anyway and she leapt in the air, allowing the ball to hit the back of the net.
It was the best moment of my life, capping off a summer that was defining in a way that it took years and possibly decades to fully grasp.
It was before I knew that society didn’t normally pay attention to women’s sports, before I knew that my daily wardrobe of soccer shorts and a USWNT shirt was not feminine enough, before I knew that equal pay was something I would have to worry about as an adult.
All I knew was that I loved the team and it seemed like everyone else did, too.
The ubiquitous nature of seeing these women on TV, on magazine covers, in newspapers, on Wheaties boxes, made me think that this was normal. That being a woman who excelled at sports -- and having that excellence celebrated -- was normal. I can’t overstate how significant it was for an 11-year-old to be bombarded by these images daily, how represented I felt by the team.
Looking back, I realize that it must be how little boys feel when they watch men’s professional sports.
Which brings me to the second person I thought of as Rapinoe delivered a rousing call to action — a young girl in the stands of Red Bull Arena in 2013, the day that Abby Wambach broke Hamm’s international scoring record.
As the gaggle of reporters — of which I was one of only a few women — walked down to the field for postgame interviews, I made eye contact with her, dressed head to toe in her team USA garb.
“Take me with you,” she pleaded. “Take me with you.”
That refrain stuck in my head as I listened to the purple-haired forward on Wednesday.
“Yes, we play sports,” Rapinoe said. “Yes, we play soccer. Yes, we’re female athletes, but we are so much more than that. You are so much more than that.”
As the words confidently spilled out of her mouth, I knew she was right.
Now, I also know that society doesn’t pay much attention to women’s sports, that athletic clothing is fine for women to wear but only in certain situations and if it fits your body just right, and of course, I know that equal pay isn’t guaranteed. I also know it isn’t all as simple as that.
But, I also recognize what having players like Rapinoe, Lloyd, and Alex Morgan to look up to can do to young girls and young boys. That the USWNT comprising of five women of color and five openly LGBTQ players matters. That the joy they play — and celebrate — with matters, too.
I know because I learned all of this in 1999 and just hadn’t realized it yet.