BOOK EXCERPT: The 12 Most Socially Significant National Teamers of All-Time
When Joanna Lohman and Paul Tukey started conceiving of a soccer book, they never envisioned writing about the Xs and Os of playing the game, or who scored the winning goals and made the greatest saves. From the beginning, they were focused on the impact the women have had on society, as well as the lives of girls and boys. The authors’ thesis was simple: The U.S. Women’s National Team has become the most socially significant sports team in American history.
For the Prologue, the authors kicked off their book with the selection of the 12 most socially impactful players of all-time. Some of the most iconic names and faces are a given: Mia Hamm was women soccer’s first superstar; Abby Wambach became America’s greatest scorer; and out-and-proud Megan Rapinoe may be the most recognizable female athlete on the planet today who’s not named Serena.
Some of the names, however, are much lesser known. With 241 all-time National Teamers to choose from (at the time of the book’s publication), did the authors get their list right? Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Raising Tomorrow’s Champions:
11 Plus 1 Who Changed the Rules
At the end of 2020, a total of 241 women had appeared in at least one game for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, aka the National Team, since its inception in 1985. In addition to winning more World Cups and Olympic gold medals than any other team in the world during that period, the USWNT and its members have recrafted the very definition of what it means to be female in the 21st century. Few have made more of a collective difference than these trendsetters whose successes and challenges are reflected in the pages that follow. And, we submit, every good team needs a captain. We picked one for the ages.
Michelle Akers — Appearing in the National Team’s second-ever international women’s soccer game and its most famous game 14 years later, she quickly became America’s first dominant player, proving we could compete without embarrassment on the world stage.
April Heinrichs — Ferociously and unapologetically competing on the soccer field like no woman before her, she infused the team with a DNA that would span generations, and she later became the National Team’s first full-time female coach.
Mia Hamm — Discovered as a high school freshman and placed on the national team a year later at age 15, she would become America’s first female sports superstar and the reluctant face of soccer the world over.
Brandi Chastain — Others scored more goals and drew more fanfare until the instant in 1999 when she became forever known as “the one who took her shirt off” and landed women’s soccer on nearly every front page in America.
Briana Scurry — The first truly transformative yet misunderstood minority player, the self-described “fly in the milk” led the National Team as goalie through some of its greatest triumphs and most controversial moment.
Abby Wambach — A reluctant youth soccer player who dominated on the field despite her lifestyle and inner demons, she became the first Generation X and out team superstar as the sport entered a new century.
Hope Solo — The girl from the wrong side of the tracks parlayed scholarships and the generosity of strangers into a singularly dominant, yet controversial career as the nation’s female anti-hero.
Carli Lloyd — Originally derided as lazy and unfit, then cut from the National Team with unnerving regularity, the Jersey girl doubled down on effort every single time and became the proverbial lunch pail hero in the process.
Alex Morgan — Late to the pay-to-play soccer culture by modern standards, her knack for scoring big goals in huge games and girl-next-door smile made her the first-ever soccer pin-up model and Generation Y superstar.
Megan Rapinoe — Once known in soccer’s inner circle as a dependable player who showed up most in the biggest games, she emerged in the past decade as the out-and-proud voice of an entire generation of women in their fight for gender and wage equality.
Mallory Pugh — Still in high school when she scored a goal in her first-ever National Team appearance in 2017, she set what some see as a new example by walking away from a full scholarship at UCLA and turning professional at age 18.
Julie Foudy (captain) — Taking the lead from her mentor, Billie Jean King, the first female recipient of a soccer scholarship at Stanford led her fellow National Teamers on the field, and has remained one of the world’s most important voices in sports and gender equality.
Pioneers: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Still Imparting the Life Lessons of the Game
INTRODUCING: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams
COLLEGES — Western Washington University, University of California-Berkeley
TOUGH KID IN TOUGHSKINS — Growing up in Enumclaw, a rural farm community southeast of Seattle, Kathy’s only initial connection to soccer was the “Soccer Made in Germany” show hosted by Toby Charles on PBS in the early ’70s. “I am the youngest of four siblings who are all much older — so I had to do everything I could to keep up,” said Kathy. “We had a pretty competitive household, including my brother, Wally, who was four years older and super athletic, so by the time I started school I didn’t even think about what girls did at recess. It wasn’t really a question for me. I went to school dressed in Toughskins ready for any sport on the playground with the boys.” What she didn’t realize, at 5 years old, was that it had only been a year or two since girls weren’t required to wear dresses to school and that she also wouldn’t be allowed to play on the boy’s club soccer team. So, when Don Ryan, a local attorney, started a U9 girls’ team called the Auburn Devils a few years later, he found Kathy ready and waiting. She remembers watching the German men win the 1974 World Cup at 9 years old and having her first spark of the idea of a National Team — just for women.
THE REALITY CHECK — Playing with fellow future National Teamer Lori Bylin Sweeney on the Auburn Devils, their team won several consecutive state championships. The reign ended abruptly, however, when Michelle Akers’ team from Shoreline, Wa., moved up an age bracket to U16. “Michelle was a flat-out revelation,” said Kathy. “I mean, I thought we were pretty good until she came along. She just tore through our defense like we weren’t even there. Honestly, as aggravating as it was to lose, I think we all knew we were witnessing something really, really special. I suddenly knew there was so much more I could do to improve my game.”
THE COZARS CONNECTION — College was on her radar, but earning a degree from a high-profile school wasn’t a priority for Kathy when she graduated from Auburn High School. Only a handful of universities, the majority on the east coast, even funded soccer programs in 1983. At first, she migrated with a group of male soccer friends to the local Green River Community College — but again was only allowed to practice with, not compete, on the men’s team (no women’s team existed). Her life changed later that year when Booth Gardner, the soon to be governor of Washington, asked her to join his club team known as the Cozars, which he fully sponsored and coached. “That team was as close as you could get to being professional players at the time,” said Kathy. Traveling to tournaments that included trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, she scored 38 goals in the first half of 1984 and made such an impression when the Cozars landed in St. Louis for the national club finals that the University of North Carolina and several other schools offered full scholarships. Kathy turned them all down. “Honestly, at that point, Cozars were offering me a level of play I didn’t want to give up and I thought to myself, ‘Why would I leave this?’”
BOOTH WHO? — The Cozars’ camaraderie, including their team relationship with the team founder, is legendary in women’s soccer. “Booth was a really special human being and did so much for the team. He was so down to earth, but also a Weyerhaeuser family heir and, by 1985, the Governor of Washington.” To this day Kathy loves reminiscing with the Cozars alum. “Booth would literally drain the gas out of the cars for his security detail to get away from them and show up alone at our practices. Or he’d show up to McDonald’s with us after our games, not have any cash on him because he was Governor, and he’d steal our French fries. It was hilarious.” A year later, Kathy would attend nearby Western Washington University with her best friend, Diana Inch, and several Cozar players including National Teamer Cindy Gordon, helping them to a NAIA Regional Finals berth. “The Cozars evolved over several years to have some of the most amazing talent and coaches, including Berhane Andeberhane, in women’s soccer at the time. It was unique, like the soccer universe aligned to bring everyone together.”
THE MOMENT OF A LIFETIME — In July of 1985, Kathy traveled to Baton Rouge, La., after being chosen for the historic Olympic Sports Festival tournament, from which the 17 members of the first-ever National Team were selected. Picked for the starting lineup in the inaugural game, Aug. 18, 1985, against the host team, Italy, Kathy said standing on the field and singing the national anthem was forever embedded in her lifetime of memories. “It’s one of those pivotal moments you look back on and say you wouldn’t trade for anything. It was truly overwhelming. It was a ‘Wow! I achieved my dream. I did it!’ moment. It was an incredible experience and a rare bond that we share. But for me, as a woman playing soccer at that time, I didn’t know if or when there would be more. It was like, ‘That was amazing, but now what happens?’”
COMPARING GENERATIONS — When considering the remarkable total of 13 players from the Seattle area who played for the National Team from 1985-1990, Kathy balks at the suggestion that today’s soccer players are fundamentally better than those of her era. “It’s tough to compare. An elite athlete is an elite athlete regardless of when they were born,” she said. “Maybe our era didn’t play soccer year-round as kids or have private trainers at 9 years old, but we had something just as good: we played with boys and men. That made us quicker physically and mentally, and technically sound at faster speed of play. If you’re an elite player, you know it; you have a hyper-drive growth mindset, you want to be better than the player next to you, woman or man, and that’s going to be true in any generation. Not to mention we had a long list of players with soccer IQs off the charts including Sharon McMurtry, Lori Bylin Sweeney and Shannon Higgins Cirovski.” Kathy was one of the players born in the 1960s who were named Washington state’s 50 all-time greatest players. That 2016 list also included all of her National Team teammates including Michelle — who Kathy believes belongs at the top of any list of women players. “I have loved watching so many great players come through. I’m really proud to see these young women have this opportunity and just dominate on a world stage. And as the pioneers, I think we are all amazed at how far the program has come. But Michelle was on another level. It’s kind of like Pelé. How do you compare Pelé to Ronaldo, or Messi? You can’t. If you saw Pelé and Michelle play in their prime or had a chance to play with them, you just know they’re different.” (NOTE: Michelle's story is a major component of our critically acclaimed new book, Raising Tomorrow's Champions)
A SUDDEN END: A torn hip flexor kept Kathy on the sidelines in 1986, but after six months of rehab, she returned for the Cozars season before appearing in two more games with the National Team in the summer of 1987. Targeted to join Colorado College that fall, Kathy changed course and followed long-time University of Washington coach Lesle Gallimore and National Team legend Joy Fawcett to the University of California-Berkeley, where Kathy became a third-team All-American in her final year of college eligibility. After graduating with a political economies degree, and with the Cozars disbanded, Kathy spent 15 months working and traveling in China. On her way back to the states, she was recruited by former National Teamer Gretchen Gegg Zigante to play professionally in Japan. Fatefully, she said, she turned Gretchen down. Returning stateside and training with a new Seattle women’s club team, Diadora, Kathy’s soccer future was instantly truncated a few months later when a driver sped through a stop sign and devastated Kathy’s car and body. “It was all neck and back injuries and my competitive days of playing, heading a ball and winning a tackle, were over. Just like that. But even so, I still am so grateful for the time I had at that level.”
EVER THE COACH: Despite playing in an era with little financial return from the game, Kathy has cashed in by turning those experiences into a professional career of coaching and managing business teams. After owning a couple of sports bars with her husband, Tim, and starting their family, she moved on to serve as a corporate manager and coach for Walgreens to help turn around financially struggling stores. She worked for many years after that consulting and managing private education programs within public K-12 school districts. Her last few years have been spent at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services consulting as a certified diversity executive and coaching leadership development programs for an organization of more than 16,000 people. She’s remained an avid student of the game and also coached many youth teams along the way — and sees little distinction between managing the game and business. “It’s amazing how many people lack basic team management skills,” she said. “What I learned from those early days and being a bit of a nomad in my playing career is that we didn’t all have to agree all the time as long as we all had the same strategy in mind. The most successful teams I played for had people with diverse perspectives and different ideas that were willing to learn from each other then flex enough to get the win. As a leader, coach or manager in soccer and in business, build trust and relationships, allow freedom to innovate and fail; that’s what will bring you success. We learned how to experiment, fail and be more adaptable in those small-sided pickup games, right? ‘Winner Stays On! or Last Goal Wins!’ How many times do you let yourself look foolish and fall, literally, flat on your face before you pull off a Maradona in a game and everyone goes crazy? You have to trust each other to be that vulnerable. By removing the barriers that prevent people from being creative and taking risks, you’re creating an environment where they're going to get better, faster and stronger no matter what they’re doing.”
National Teamer: My Story of Sexual Abuse
Cindy Gordon, a Pioneer of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, Details a Lifetime of Suffering at the Hands of Her Youth Coach
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF ABUSE. ANY PERSON UNDER THE AGE OF 18 SHOULD ASK FOR THE PERMISSION OF THEIR PARENT OR GUARDIAN BEFORE READING FURTHER.
THIS STORY WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a straight-forward celebration of the special career of one of soccer’s pioneers. Originally intended as an extension of our book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions: What the Women’s National Soccer Team Teaches Us About Grit, Authenticity and Winning,” the following words should have been about colleges attended, challenges overcome, and goals — the ones that gifted children attain through hard work and sacrifice on their fields of dreams. This story might have focused on the positive influences, coaches like Dan Swain, Booth Gardiner, Berhane Andeberhan and others who, collectively, made the state of Washington the unofficial birthplace of women’s soccer in America.
This narrative, instead, focuses on topics our book never contemplates: the coach as a predator, the influencer as a rapist, the mentor as an almost lifelong nightmare. National Teamer Cindy Gordon, who has kept this part of her life buried beneath the façade of a smiling face and successful professional life for nearly four decades, asked us to help her reveal her truth publicly for the first time. “Parents need to hear my story. My hope is that it will help parents and their daughters make better decisions about who to trust,” she told us. “If parents don’t think something like my story can happen to their children, they’re just wrong . . . Tragically wrong.” After much consideration, and weeks of conversation with Cindy, her friends and teammates, this is what we choose to share.
A LITTLE CITY BY THE SEA: Located on the eastern shore of Puget Sound, at the midpoint of the drive between Seattle to the north and Tacoma to the south, the enclave of Des Moines, Wa., is relatively new, even by American standards. Incorporated as recently as June 17, 1959 — about three years prior to the birth of its most accomplished female athlete — Des Moines seemed like the kind of place where you didn’t need to lock your cars and houses, where people knew each other’s business, or at least thought they did, and where neighbors looked out for each other’s children. The water was, and is, central to life in the area, especially the marina where everyone’s favorite soccer coach kept his sailboat moored.
The beautiful game, to be sure, was both king and queen to the residents. When the Highline Soccer Association launched a girls youth soccer team, the Demons, in 1972 in response to the landmark legislation known as Title IX, Cindy Gordon and her friends, Kim Milner and Robin Rowland, were three of the first to sign up at ages 9 or 10. When the original Seattle Sounders team played its first season in 1974, Des Moiners flooded north to the stadium; the Demons even got to scrimmage during halftime of one of the games at the Kingdome. “We just loved the game; my whole family did,” said Cindy, the second oldest of five siblings. Two of her younger brothers were allowed to play years before she was. “I remember standing on the sidelines of their games watching and secretly hoping somebody would get hurt and they’d look around and say, ‘Hey, girl, do you want to come play?’ This, of course, never happened. But then they started a girls’ team and, man, I loved it. It was just a really good fit for me because I was a pretty active kid and soccer was a good combination of just being able to run, and to be physical, in a way that was frowned upon for girls.”
Kim, who lived six blocks farther from the waterfront than Cindy, but right next to the soccer field at 16th Street, still sounds in awe of watching her friend blossom into one of the area’s first female soccer stars. “By middle school, it was really clear that Cindy was becoming someone really, really special with the ball at her feet,” said Kim. “You just knew. Plus, Cindy had some things going on at home, so I think she turned to soccer as her escape. I remember hours and hours of her juggling with the ball and being amazed at what she could do.”
DADDY’S GIRL: From the outside looking in, the Gordons were living the model Des Moines life. David, an aeronautical engineer, was beginning a long career at Boeing, which still employs more than half the town. He kept a boat in the harbor, took his children camping and fishing, and though he didn’t play a lot of soccer with his soon-to-be prodigy, he seemingly loved a good backyard touch football game with his two oldest sons and self-professed tomboy daughter. Not long after Cindy discovered soccer, however, David coincidentally began turning away from his family and moved progressively toward alcohol. He and his wife had married in their early 20s, when Patricia Gordon was two months pregnant with Cindy’s older sister, Valerie, and Cindy surmised that David had grown disillusioned with family life in his early 30s. When Cindy was 13, he sat his two oldest children down at the kitchen table and told them he was leaving the home for good. Cindy remembers crying uncontrollably.
“That was utterly devastating,” she said more than 40 years later. “Because I was so active, because I was that tomboy, I felt closer to my Dad in many ways than I did my Mom. I guess I knew he was drinking heavily, but that didn’t matter to me. I just didn’t want him to leave.”
To fill the void, Cindy relied more than ever on her friends on the Demons. A 1973 photo posted to Cindy’s Facebook page shows 13 girls in total, with Kim Milner in the front row, far left, and freckle-faced Cindy also in the front row, second from right. The girls would have been 10 years old, in fourth grade, and it’s noticeable that Robin, a fifth-grader standing next to an equally tall teammate in the back row second from left, was already nearly as tall as the coach, her mother Beverly. “Robin was a badass, and I mean that in a good way,” said Kim. Serving primarily as the team’s goaltender, Robin was often first to the practice field to help her mother set out the cones. Cindy would walk the six blocks to Kim’s house; then the two girls would walk briskly together in eager anticipation of practicing shots on their goalie. “The best memories in my life all involve Cindy,” said Kim, who now resides in Maryland. “Cindy and soccer. Soccer and Cindy. Practicing under the lights, getting to the field early and taking shots against Robin and just, you know, that whole feeling of being outside with the other girls from the school. To this day, I drive by soccer fields all the time and the lights are on and kids are there and it’s still the greatest feeling. I think to myself, ‘Yes!’ Those were great days.”
THE DIRTY SECRET: By the time the girls were in high school, graduating from the Demons to the Dirty Dozen was a Des Moines soccer rite of passage. Led by its charismatic coach — who some of Cindy’s teammates credited for their success in their interviews with us — the team was already used to winning frequently. “(His) British accent gives him an edge in drawing his young players’ wandering attention,” said a 1978 article in the Seattle Times that celebrated the team’s many victories. Cindy recalls going out of her way to earn the much older man’s praises; the coach was 53 and the player was 14 when she joined his team. “Yeah, I was totally into him, the accent, the charm, and his knowledge of the game,” she said. “I definitely took note when he would put his hand on my shoulder on the sideline when I was getting ready to go into the game, or he was giving me instructions. I think that’s where it all started . . .”
As the next year progressed, the coach began to give his newest star player more and more attention, staying late with Cindy after practice and, eventually, offering rides home in his cigarette-stained and smoke-filled blue Ranchero. Sometimes Kim and Robin would also cram, thigh-to-thigh with a man three times their age, into the modified coupe-style pickup truck with no back seat. By the spring of her freshman year, the coach began inviting Cindy out to his sailboat with his wife, the mother of his two teenage children.
Robin said the coach was a regular at The Yardarm Pub and Cindy and Kim said it was open town knowledge that the coach always kept a pint of rum close at hand, though they don’t agree on the brand. Cindy says it was Bacardi 151; Kim recalls it was Myers’s. “He was a maintenance drinker,” said Cindy. “I don’t think I ever recall seeing him drunk.” The night after the team won the Washington state championship in 1978, one of the players threw a party at her home — and the coach arrived with more than enough rum, champagne, cherry brandy and vodka for everyone. Cindy said it was the first time she had ever consumed alcohol, but the parties and her consumption of booze and marijuana would soon become a habit. Notably, she doesn’t think any of the players’ parents ever suspected anything nefarious and, even if they did, they just looked the other way. “It was a different time back then in the ’70s; I don’t think parents paid that much attention,” said Cindy. “I know my mother didn’t. She had to get a job and raise five children when my father left, so she had her own issues to worry about.”
By their sophomore year in high school, the alcohol, marijuana and the sailing began to mix. Cindy and other players joined impromptu cruises that launched from the marina, traveled past the town beach and then out into the open Sound. Sometimes the coach would just anchor off shore and pass his rum while the players fished and swam. One night, with the tide going out and Cindy and Robin on board, the coach ran the boat aground on a sandbar. The coach, sounding duly alarmed, called the Coast Guard and asked the dispatcher to alert the girls’ parents about what had happened. In retrospect, Kim now sees the whole escapade as a clear ruse. “I think he absolutely did it on purpose,” she said during a conversation in early April of this year. “He had sailed in that area hundreds of times and knew exactly where to be, or not.”
Before heading to higher ground on the beach, while waiting for the tide to change, the coach retrieved his bottle of rum and a blanket from the cockpit of this boat. Positioning himself between the two girls, Cindy 15 and Robin 16, the 54-year-old man began passing the bottle back and forth with his right hand, while keeping his left hand hidden under the blanket. Quietly, he unzipped his pants. He then waited patiently until Cindy brought her right hand under the blanket next to his, then slowly pulled her hand toward his penis. “I had never touched one before,” she said. “It was kind of exciting if I’m being honest.”
FOREVER HAUNTED: Like so many of her teammates who stood on the field in Jesolo, Italy, in August of 1985 and listened to the Italian fans lustily chant “USA, USA, USA” — yet pronouncing it “Ooosa, Ooosa, Ooosa, Ah” — Cindy Gordon recalls the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team game as one of the proudest moments of her life. Hearing the National Anthem played on foreign land gave her goose bumps and brought tears of joy to her eyes. Sometimes that memory still does. “Cindy was a special, special player who I loved having in front of me,” said National Team goaltender Ruth Harker. “She was so cerebral; she knew the game as well as anyone.” Several members of Cindy’s soccer sisterhood from Washington state were on the field in Italy that day, too. “Cindy was so quick and so tough,” said Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, who grew up in Enumclaw, Wa., 40 miles to the east of Des Moines. “She was one of the people I had the most chemistry with. I mean, she was pit-bull tough, so tenacious on the field, and you always felt comfortable having her out there with you.”
Cindy played every minute of those first four games in Italy and, by some accounts, might have been considered a National Team fixture for years to come. It would be just a year later, however, when anxiety attacks — hidden from others — began to surface. Cindy played two more games for the U.S. in 1986, but was left home by new coach Anson Dorrance when the team headed to a tournament in China that year and was never invited back to try out ever again. “Looking back, I can see it now. For as good as she was, the self-confidence always seemed to be a little bit lacking, yet you never knew why,” said Ruth, who is the only National Team teammate with whom Cindy has shared her story until now. “When you begin to understand what she went through, and also understand the pressure of trying to make that team . . . it’s just so, so sad. Knowing what I know now, it just boils my blood.”
Cindy recalls driving through Bellingham, Wa., on her way back to Des Moines when her mental state began having physical implications. With the road blurring and seemingly starting to spin, sharp pains jabbed at her chest. Assuming she was having a heart attack, she managed to steer her Corona safely to the side of the road. “That was my first full panic attack, which I never had previously,” said Cindy. “I had started having those more often and I ended up going to a therapist. She gave me the book on how to handle panic attacks, which was totally useless, because they say, ‘Oh, just relax, breathe deeply.’ Well, that’s an impossible thing to do in that moment.”
As much as she had tried to suppress the memories from years earlier, they only seemed to come back stronger. The incident with the marooned boat had only been the beginning of a two-year pattern of manipulation that escalated the very next day when the coach invited Cindy back onto the boat, telling her his wife would be there. When Cindy discovered the coach was alone when she arrived at the dock, she knows now that she should have turned away then and never come back; the guilt for staying has been overwhelming her for decades. “The truth is I was a 15-year-old girl who thought I was older than I was,” she said. “He was an older man showing interest in me and it felt exciting. That’s what I probably struggled with the most, because it didn’t feel like abuse in the moment. My head was filled with fantasies and fairytales; he never said it to me, but I thought that, since he was paying all this attention to me, he must love me.”
IN PLAIN SIGHT: The rides home from soccer practice began to take on a predictable pattern in the weeks and months after the first physical encounter. Most times, the coach would bring Robin Rowland home first, even though she lived by far the farthest from the field and he could easily have dropped Kim and Cindy off along the way. Circling almost all the way back to the field, he would then bring Kim home before finding a side road, a church parking lot or a wooded area to stop the car. He asked Cindy for oral sex at first, and soon progressed to intercourse.
When the weather warmed, the coach would take Cindy to his boat instead. On one occasion, which she recalled from a diary entry she has kept for all these years, Cindy said an older soccer player came to the boat with her. The coach tried to entice Cindy to follow him to the berth area below deck; when she resisted, he brought the other girl instead. “I thought we were trying to keep a secret,” Cindy said. “When they came back up top, he said to me, ‘I would have taken you down there instead of her, but you didn’t want to go.’”
Further evidence that Cindy was not the coach’s only victim would come just last year when Cindy called Kim to reveal her experiences. According to Kim’s recollections conveyed to us, on more than one occasion she, too, was assaulted on the sailboat by the coach while Cindy waited on the deck above. Then, she said, Cindy would take her turn with the coach, or vice versa. “I don’t remember it that way, because I just don’t recall ever going below on the boat when someone else was on board,” Cindy told us. “It’s troubling to me that she has memories that I don’t have, because I wonder what else I might have repressed.”
As more time passed, with her consumption of alcohol and marijuana increasing, Cindy recalls moments of jealousy, yet also growing paranoia about having the relationship revealed. One night, at the church near her home, a passerby banged on the windows of the coach’s car during an assault. On another night, with adults and teenagers all drinking together on Blake Island during an overnight camping trip, Kim recalls the coach walking up to Cindy amidst a crowd of people, taking her by the hand, and leading her off into the dark woods. "Nobody said a word," said Kim. Cindy also vividly recalls having a conversation with the coach about his son, just two years older than Cindy, who had grown suspicious of his father’s extramarital activities. “He told me his son said, ‘Dad, you better not be doing anything with her,’” said Cindy. “I remember that actually felt good to me . . . that someone was actually looking out for my interests.”
By her junior year in high school, overwhelmed with guilt and shame, yet still occasionally succumbing to the coach’s advances, Cindy said she began cutting her upper thighs and arms with a razor blade — a common self-harm behavior among victims of sexual abuse, according to many experts. “I remember just feeling so many different emotions and confusion and pain,” she said. “I was just so tired of lying to my mother, even to my father, and it felt like that cutting myself was the only way to focus that pain somewhere physical.”
PAY TO PLAY — National statistics and various non-profit organizations state that between 2 and 8 percent of young athletes are sexually assaulted in the U.S. — though others say that number may be higher due to the lack of reporting by victims, especially boys. SafeSport is funded by the federal government to focus on these issues and an organization known as Safe4Athletes, founded by Olympic swimmer Kathleen Starr, works to educate American families about the risks that have always been there in the complex relationships between coaches and athletes of all sports and ages. Safe4Athletes offers educational programs about four differing types of sexual misconduct in sports: pedophilia, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and athlete domestic violence — the latter being the most complicated, because it involves an adult older than age 17 who can legally consent to intimate behavior.
“Sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem,” states the National Collegiate Athletic Association in its official policy manual on the subject of coaches and players in a romantic relationship titled “Staying in Bounds.” Coaches dating players is a common occurrence, even though highly discouraged by the NCAA, and banned by the policy guidance of many colleges and universities. When older adult coaches have sexual relationships with students under the age of 18, however, there is no gray area, legally or otherwise; it’s pedophilia, harassment and abuse all rolled into one illicit act.
“It’s horrific and it’s criminal, and I’ve come to believe it’s an epidemic,” said Cindy, who said she doesn't believe the problem only existed in her generation. A recent search of headlines across the nation indicates she's right. As recently as March of this year, two separate cases in New York involved male soccer coaches, one aged 29 and another aged 57, abusing girls aged 14 and 12. Last year, soccer-related cases in Missouri and New Jersey involved an 11-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man, as well as a 16-year-old girl and a 32-year-old man. Truly horrific soccer cases in Maryland in recent years involved children, a girl aged 7 and boy aged 8, once again indicating that young boys are in no way immune.
The patterns of behavior are almost always similar: the assaults follow often long periods of grooming to gain trust of the players, and usually their parents, and can often be accompanied by the quid pro quo of gaining favor with a coach in exchange for playing time. Cindy’s case was textbook. By the holiday season of her junior year in high school, Cindy said she finally found the strength to tell the coach she wanted to end the physical relationship. He, in turn, immediately put her on the bench. Though she was clearly one of the Dirty Dozen’s best players, a forward who would soon score 50 goals during her record-setting career at Western Washington University, she was suddenly an afterthought in most of the team’s games. “In my mind it was over and I just tried to wrap everything up and put it in a box and stick it in the corner of my head never have to think about it again — except that I still had to play for him,” said Cindy. “He made it very clear to me that if I wanted to play in the game, I needed to pay his price.”
Desperate to perform in the Coca Cola Skills Challenge in the spring of 1980 so she could showcase her talents for college coaches, Cindy turned one last time to the coach for a ride to and from Lake Washington near Seattle. As they approached her house on the way back from the event, he veered his car toward the church where they had stopped dozens of times before and popped the clutch, which abruptly stalled the car’s engine. “The car battery must be dead,” she recalls him telling her. She said she immediately gripped the door handle as tightly as her hand could squeeze while her long-time assailant stared in her direction. Just as she was preparing to jump out, he started the engine and drove her home.
Heading into her final year of high school that fall, after nine years of playing with virtually the same group of girls, Cindy made a decision that was just as hard as trying to stay away from the coach; she quit the Dirty Dozen and joined one of their arch rivals, Team Adidas, from Tacoma. “My lifelong friends were furious with me, and I couldn’t even tell them why I needed to do it,” she said. “I couldn’t tell them that (the coach) would show up at the seafood place, Moby Doug’s, where I worked and try to talk to me, then just sit there. I just had to get away. . .”
LIGHTING ONE CANDLE AT A TIME: “By any account, Cindy is a person who has her shit together. . . successful soccer career, her professional career, and friends who care about her,” said Amy Carnell, a fellow Washington state soccer star who served as the first general manager of the Seattle Reign, one of the 10 member teams of the National Women’s Soccer League. “Like many survivors, the corrosive aftermath of abuse is kept out of plain sight.” When Cindy was not invited back to the National Team after 1986, she continued to play soccer for the legendary Cozars team founded by Governor Booth Gardner and coached by Berhane Andeberhane, among others. She was a key player on the area’s over-30 national club championship team and left behind enough of a legacy and impression that, as recently as 2016, she was voted along with Hope Solo and Michelle Akers as one of the top 18 players in state history in a poll of regional experts commissioned by the Washington Youth Soccer Association.
Cindy has indeed enjoyed a significant and stable post-soccer profession. After receiving her biochemistry degree from Western Washington University, where she’s a member of the school’s Hall of Fame and still ranks as its third all-time leading scorer, she joined the staff at the biochemical genetics lab of Seattle Children’s Hospital. More than three decades later she’s a laboratory development scientist who helps create diagnostic testing for testosterone and estradiol levels in youth who are contemplating gender transitions. It has been a fulfilling life and work, she said, yet lonely at the same time. She has never married or had children; her last attempt at a romantic relationship with a man ended more than a decade ago.
Cindy’s assailant died in 2006 at the age of 82 — which is why we have opted not to use his name in this story out of respect for his family — but she said she has never really been able to shake the memories associated with her secret. She feels her low self-esteem led her to accept unreliable, even abusive, treatment from men and that the idea of another relationship seems like “too much work.” She has turned instead to her dog, Elsa, and, sometimes too often, to alcohol. “Am I an alcoholic? Well, I don’t call it that,” she said. “I call it a substance abuse disorder. But, yeah. In fact, I got a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) in 2009. I actually stopped drinking for five years because I was on a deferred prosecution plan. And then I started again because it was obvious to me if I could stop drinking for five years, then I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. The problem is that I was introduced to alcohol at such a young age, as an early teenager, that somehow it triggered something in my brain that if I drink at all it’s like it’s never enough. I just feel so good, so out of my own head, that I just want to keep it going.”
A cleaner, more clear pathway began to present itself in May of 2019 when Cindy came across an article shared on-line about Dr. Laura Anton, a pediatrician from Dallas, who had come forward with a story that sounded all-too familiar. Dr. Anton, once a national caliber soccer player who earned a scholarship at George Mason University in the mid 1980s, had been groomed by her youth team soccer coach into a long-term sexually abusive relationship. “Her story was my story,” said Cindy. Then, in 2020, Cindy also read Amy Carnell’s revelation. Lured into a soccer club by a coach who openly bragged about having coached National Team legend Michelle Akers during her Washington state youth career with a team known as the Shoreline Thunderbirds, the Carnell family never picked up on the clues that Amy was also being drawn into abuse. “I Needed to be Rescued,” read the headline in Cindy’s hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, that broke Amy’s story and brought forth a flood of others who reached out. For the last several months the three women, Cindy, Amy, Dr. Anton and others have formed an informal support group of “soccer survivors” who meet regularly on ZOOM calls. The other women in the group, excited about the progress Cindy is making, have encouraged her to come forward and share her story.
“She’s been left to suffer in silence, until now,” said Amy. “I’m so proud of Cindy’s courage.” Dr. Anton said Cindy’s recognition that she was, in fact, abused is the most significant step toward recovery. “It’s almost universal that victims of this kind of trauma try to put it away, to package it as a child would, then put it in the dark recesses of the brain,” she said. “It festers, creating shame and dysfunction and depression and anxiety. And so the only path to healing is to first recognize that you were a victim—and then trying to release yourself from this life of lies.” Dr. Anton said she won’t forget the first time Cindy contacted her. “She said something in my article had stuck with her when my therapist kept saying, ‘Laura, you can be one of those first candles. You light your candle in the darkness, and then your candle lights another girl’s candle in the night and then she lights another girl’s candle — so you start to spread light into the darkness.’ It’s monumentally important for Cindy to come out of the darkness for herself, to step out of the shame and start healing. Cindy’s candle will be a very, very powerful one, for herself and so many others who will hear her story and say, ‘Me too.’”
WE NEED TO DO MORE: Having made the decision to come forward, to try to leave behind the guilt and any notion that any aspect of her childhood story is her fault, Cindy still can’t help but wonder what might have been. What if, for example, her father had stayed connected to his family? “I can see now, as an adult, that my mother and father were not a well-matched pair,” she said. “But I do think that, when you make the conscious decision to bring children into the world, that also means you’re making a commitment to be there for them.” What if, she wonders, her coach “had simply been a decent human being?” Maybe she would never have helped the National Team win World Cups in 1991 and 1999 like Michelle Akers or Mia Hamm, but she dares to go there in her mind. “Sure, I do think about how far I could have taken soccer in my life,” she said. “Because I really, truly love the game with all my heart. And he took that from me, not the love of the game, but the ability to become the best version of myself within the game.”
Robin Rowland wonders too. She has been friends with Cindy her entire life and, until that night sitting under a blanket on that sandbar in the Puget Sound, the worst trouble they had ever been in together was sneaking onto the high school field and turning on the lights so they could practice more soccer after hours. “She was so funny, so smart, so much fun to be with,” said Robin, who was a mere two-feet away when her best friend’s life began to unravel. Robin, too, said she bears guilt for not doing something to stop their coach in his tracks. “You look back and say, ‘I should have seen the signs,’ but I had no clue,” she said. “I just had no clue. If I did, I would have decked him right then and there.”
Cindy said she would occasionally search on-line find out bits and pieces of information about her assailant’s whereabouts and she learned, for example, that his wife filed for divorce in 1980 while Cindy was still in high school. “I used to think about ways to confront him and inflict pain, like the pain he inflicted on me,” she said. “But now that he’s dead, and I’m meeting with these other women, I realize I’m luckier than some of the other survivors of abuse whose perpetrators are still walking around, in some cases still being allowed to coach young girls.”
She sees the next phase of her life as a work in progress, with good days and bad. During the weeks of conversations in preparation for this story, Cindy asked for breaks at times when the reliving the memories was just too painful, or when having a drink seemed like a better idea in the moment. She went for a long walk with her father in late March and, for the first time in her adult life, asked him about his own drinking and how he found the strength to quit more than 20 years ago. “I told him, I admitted really, that I was still struggling,” she said. “He said, ‘I know it’s hard, because I just started drinking Diet Coke. I had Diet Coke everywhere.’ It was a simple answer, but it was really kind of nice to talk to him about it — being something I never felt comfortable telling him or anybody in my family. It was sort of my shameful secret, but I guess I’m trying to be more authentic with people.”
She said her biggest focus, nearly 36 years after hearing the National Anthem play in Italy, will be to use whatever platform the National Team has given her to spread the word that everyone in soccer needs to do more to stop a silent plague. “Parents need to be educated and children need to be warned,” she said. “That coach you think is being really nice to your daughter, or your son? Maybe they are just being nice. There are definitely some really great, amazing coaches in this world and I played for some of them. But for your children’s sake, you need to assume that no child is safe when left alone with a coach . . . as sad as that may sound, it’s advice that can literally make, or break, their lives.”
Pioneers: Gretchen Zigante, the First Full-Time Professional Women's Soccer Player
INTRODUCING: Gretchen Gegg Zigante
COLLEGES: Universities of Washington and North Carolina
LOVE AT FIRST SITE: Gretchen said she knew within a minute of stepping on the middle school soccer field practice for the Dash Point Dashers that soccer was the only sport she would ever take seriously. Though Gretchen would have preferred to remain a field player, one of the area’s many pioneering girls coaches, Dan Swain, quickly saw her potential as a goaltender and recruited her for his Team Adidas club that ruled the soccer landscape in Tacoma, Wa. “I’m not sure he thought I was that good, but he did think I was brave,” she said.
18-0 AND NOWHERE TO GO: Amidst the birthplace of American women’s soccer that the Tacoma-Seattle area of Washington state represented, Gretchen soon found herself playing with or against many of the 12 other women from that era who would join the National Team via her club team, the Cozars, which competed for national championships for several years. Her Hall of Fame teammate Michelle Akers was the legend in the making, but the area also produced Sandi Gordon Yotz, Cindy Gordon, Lori Henry, Denise Bender, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Denise Boyer Merdich, Amy Allmann Griffin and Sharon McMurtry. Gretchen even allowed her future National Team teammate Lorraine Figgins Fitzhugh to live for a year on her family's 25-foot sailboat in the Seattle harbor when Lorraine was attending the University of Washington and fighting with the school administration about adding a women’s varsity team. As Lorraine told us in her interview, the UW club team was beating all comers, including an 18-0 season in 1984, but were denied the opportunity to play for anything but pride.
MOM VS. MOM: Gretchen’s biggest rival might have been the other goalie, but instead the pair were each other’s biggest supporters and instigators of hijinks. “There’s not a human being in the world that doesn’t like Amy Griffin; she’s one of my greatest friends to this day and will be forever,” said Gretchen. “Our mothers, on the other hand? They were fiercely competitive with each other about who should be playing the most, Amy or me. That carried on for years.”
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Gretchen declined to attend the infamous tryout in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985 for what became the first National Team. “I honestly didn’t think I was that good,” she said. She changed her mind in 1986, however, and National Team head coach Anson Dorrance liked what he saw enough that he not only offered her a spot on the roster, he also offered her a scholarship to attend North Carolina that fall for her senior year. Though she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament after college and was sidelined for long periods — with no surgery to repair it — Gretchen managed to remain a regular attendee at National Team camps through 1990 and appeared in two games, one in 1986 and the other in 1990. “I think I was in the best shape of my life at that point and I gave it my all,” she said. “When I didn’t get picked for the World Cup roster in 1991, I was at peace with the decision. I was in the stands when they won in China in 1991 and I was in the Rose Bowl with my mother in 1999 and I still felt connected to the players and the team.”
THE CALL THAT OPENED A HUGE DOOR: The day after being cut from the National Team, Gretchen received a phone call from Hiro Watanabe, a professional men’s player from Japan who she had met while completing her college degree at Idaho State University. “He said, ‘Did you make the team?’ When I told him I had been cut, he said, ‘Great! That means you can come to Japan.’” Hiro, who was instrumental in developing Japan’s team that beat the United States in the 2011 women’s World Cup, helped Gretchen land what is believed to be the first-ever full-time professional contract for an American woman in soccer. The Fujita Tendai paid her six million yen annually, along with housing and other covered expenses — which was the equivalent of a $30,000 American salary with myriad other benefits from 1990-1995. With Gretchen serving as an unofficial ambassador for the only professional women’s league in the world at the time, several other Americans followed her to Japan, including Stanford standout Heather McIntyre and 1999 World Cup hero Brandi Chastain.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES: Sexism was rampant in the early 1990s in Japan, as evidenced by the marketing pieces for the women’s matches that Gretchen saved. Still, she said the experience was positive overall. “I was treated very, very well,” said Gretchen. “Once they trust you over there, that means everything.” The men of Japan, however, were not necessarily used to seeing women with muscular physiques. “I had a man in the supermarket walk up to me and say, ‘Your legs look really strong!’ He proceeded to grab my legs right there in the store to test how strong they were.”
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: While still under contract in Japan, Gretchen was back in the U.S. in 1993 recruiting players to come to the Orient when she met a man on an airplane who seemed unusually impressed with her status as a professional goalie. “He said, ‘If you’re a goalie, you need to come train with my friend.’ He kept going on and on and on about his friend, Ziggy.” When that same man called a day later, she agreed to drive to a soccer field outside of San Diego where she met Nenad “Ziggy” Zigante, a goalie for Dinamo, the top team in what was then Yugoslavia. At the end of their first encounter, Gretchen invited him to go sailing in her mother’s boat. “There he is in his thick Croatian accent trying to find the words to say ‘Yes’ . . . ‘I’m very sorry, but I would like to come.’” The couple’s daughter, Susana, was raised playing goaltender in the U.S., but due to her father’s heritage, she has become a member of the Croatian women’s national team.
THE LONG, WINDING ROAD: With teaching the art of goaltending as their calling cards and the only jobs they’ve known, the Zigantes have traveled the nation and world together in the past three decades. Gretchen has coached in Japan and for colleges in Colorado, California and New York, including a year as interim head coach at Cornell University. In more recent years she has focused on club soccer, but only on her terms. “There’s a lot of crazy people in this game right now,” she said. “I’ve been in situations where the club team’s parents think they know more than I do, so I tell them, ‘Then I guess you don’t need me,’ and I’ve moved on.” In 2018, they landed in Heber City, Utah. “It’s a small community and more mello,” said Gretchen, who works with a local soccer club and previously coached the high school team. “I see this as my retirement job.”
Pioneers: Stacey Enos, the National Team's First Tar Heel
INTRODUCING: Stacey Enos
COLLEGE: The University of North Carolina
PLAYGROUND PASSION: With no youth soccer or school teams to play for, Stacey started her athletic life on the softball field with girls and on the playgrounds with boys playing pickup soccer games. By age 14, Stacey found her way to Frisch’s, a soccer club team of mostly college-aged women. Though she has a twin sister, Romney, Stacey loved soccer so much she was prepared to move from Tampa to Miami to live with her aunt until Hillsborough County in Florida added girls soccer in to their school curriculum in 1980 in response to the landmark legislation known as Title IX.
THE TRYOUT THAT ALTERED HER COURSE: Stacey said she had her heart set on playing soccer at the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando, where she might have joined future National Teamers Linda Gancitano, Michelle Akers, Kim Wyant and Amy Griffin. When UCF coach Jim Rudy turned her down — “I think he probably figured he couldn’t tame me,” said Stacey — her high school coach pointed her toward Chapel Hill, where the new coach at North Carolina was holding an informal tryout. “Anson (Dorrance) wanted to kick the living shit out of everybody and I thrived in that environment,” said Stacy on Page 134 of Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “I did run into Jim Rudy about 20 years later and he told me he knew he made a huge mistake in not bringing me in.”
THE PLAYER WHO CHANGED EVERYTHING: Among the most infamous stories in American women’s soccer history, thanks to nearly four decades of telling and re-telling by Anson, revolves around Stacey’s sophomore year when April Heinrichs — named the American player of the decade for the 1980s — arrived by way of Littleton, Colo. As detailed in our book and numerous other publications through the years, some of the older Tar Heel players visited Anson’s office to express objection to the new recruit’s brashly relentless style of play — but Stacey makes it clear she wasn’t one of them. She sees a life lesson for young players everywhere in her approach to her tougher-than-nails teammate. “I absolutely loved it, because April Heinrichs made me a better player,” said Stacey. “Anson always matched us up in practice and me training against April every day, in preparation for match day, was more physical, more demanding than anything I was going to face from any of the teams we played.”
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Between her junior and senior years of college, Stacey was among the approximately 70 women who traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to attend what unknowingly became the first-ever tryout for the National Team. With fellow Tar Heel Emily Pickering Harner injured for the first game in Italy that summer, Stacey carried home the distinction of being the first of more than 60 of Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina players to have played for the National Team in the past 36 years. She was also instrumental in another major team legacy that has endured from 1985 to now: the chanting of “Ooosa, Ooosa, Ooosa AH” prior to every game. As detailed in Chapter 13 of Raising Tomorrow’s Champions, Stacey was, as ever, the instigator. “I think if there was a role that I played, it was to keep things light hearted,” she said. “We focused on the job at hand, but it’s also important to have fun along the way.”
TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS: When leg injuries suffered in a car accident ended Stacey’s playing career after she had started 10 of the first 11 games in team history, she said her life was shattered in more ways than one. For a long while, she said, she felt shunned by the game as a gay woman attempting to enter what seemed like an exclusive coaching fraternity. Her National Team resume, however, helped her land her first coaching gig at Utah State University from 1996 to 2001, and then her longest-standing appointment of 16 years as the head coach at Warren Wilson College in Asheville in western North Carolina. In 2018 she became part owner and coach of the Asheville City Soccer Club, a member of the Women’s Premier Soccer League that boasts 130 amateur adult teams across the United States. Though North Carolina isn’t known nationally as the most enlightened place for two married women to raise their son, Stacey has found personal and professional fulfillment in the city formed around the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. “Asheville is the kind of small city where there’s no judgement; people here just don’t care about someone’s orientation,” she said. “People are just people, accepted for whomever they are and whatever choices they make as long as they’re kind.”
GRASS ROOTS SOCCER: With deep roots in the game, Asheville has become one of the Premier League’s true success stories, averaging 1,500 fans per game in a non-pandemic year and even selling out the municipal stadium for Pride Night with more than 2,200 people in attendance. Stacey was thrilled when one of her team’s star players from the 2018-2019 seasons, Jennifer Cudjoe, earned a spot on the New Jersey Sky Blue team of the National Women’s Soccer League. A native of Ghana, Jennifer had taken a circuitous route through the American educational system, with two small college teams in Oklahoma, another one in Ft. Kent, the northernmost town in Maine, before Stacey fielded a phone call from her coach Alex Smith, with whom Jennifer had just won a national Division III championship. “Without our team and our league, Jennifer probably would have had to leave the country to continue pursuing her dream,” said Stacey. “She developed into a better player here and look at her now. That’s what this is all about for me . . . growing the game I love.”
Pioneers: Ruth Harker, The Goaltender With a Heart of Gold
INTRODUCING: Ruth Harker
COLLEGE: University of Missouri-St. Louis
PAYING HER WAY: Though her brother was supported in his desire to play sports growing up in the Bridgeton Terrace neighborhood long since taken over by airport expansion in St. Louis, Ruth was encouraged to be a cheerleader. She wanted no part of it. “I was Forrest Gump as a kid, running everywhere I went,” said Ruth. “My body and mind just needed to be in motion. But my mother didn’t believe girls should play sports.” Finally, when Ruth entered high school, her mother agreed to let her join a local soccer team, as well as the track, cross country, volleyball and basketball teams at the high school — as long as Ruth earned the money for cab fare to get to and from games and practices.
AN UNLIKELY GOALIE: The running drew Ruth to soccer, but her lack of experience dribbling and shooting the ball led her coach, Marge Rosenthal, to give her a try as goaltender. Having been born blind in one eye, which she kept a secret from teammates and coaches, she struggled at first with depth perception. “I still remember the first goal I ever gave up,” said Ruth, who is featured prominently in the book “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” in the chapter focused on adversity. “The ball bounced in front of me, and then right over my head and into the back of the net. After that, I just tried to anticipate where the ball was going to be and made sure I got there first.” Within a year she was recognized for her fearlessness and talent and was invited to international competitions in Sweden.
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Between her junior and senior seasons as a starter at UMSL, where she was team captain and MVP, Ruth traveled to the Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La., in July of 1985 and earned one of the 17 spots on the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team from coach Mike Ryan. When she entered the game as a replacement for Kim Wyant in the third and fourth games in National Team history, Aug. 23rd and 24th against England and Denmark, Ruth earned her only two career appearances (known in National Team parlance as CAPs). “I’m guessing I had the shortest overall soccer career of any National Teamer in history,” said Ruth, an engineer who now serves as vice president of Swan Packaging, a food-service company. “Since I didn’t even start playing until I was 14, and retired at 22, my entire run only lasted eight years. After that, I needed to go get a job.”
AN AUTHENTIC LIFE: Just prior to her selection to the National Team, Ruth started coming to terms with aspects of herself she had never explored previously. “In hindsight, I look back at my childhood and think about those crushes on (female) camp counselors,” she said. “There were crushes on my friends. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. I was taught girls were supposed to be with guys so, of course, I dated a guy in college. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I acted my true feelings with a woman.” Still, living in a conservative midwestern community, she didn't feel truly accepted by her mother and hid her true identity from many people for many years thereafter. She shares a dramatic story on Pages 206-207 of the book in which she needed to defend herself from a man who objected to her appearance at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.
GIVING BACK: “When you grew up like I did . . . poor, gay, confused . . . it leads to a lot of thoughts of depression and even worse, suicide,” said Ruth. “To the degree that I can help others from sharing my story, my experiences and the gifts that life has given me, that’s my primary focus now.” Ruth has served on the board of Easter Seals and is well known among the generations of National Team teammates for her generosity and compassion. When Michelle Akers’ horse rescue farm was in dire financial condition and the legendary player was selling many of her trophies and gold medals to raise money, Ruth was among the players who bought the items from Michelle, gave her the money, and then returned the memorabilia. Heading out to the 2019 National Team reunion held in Los Angeles in honor of the 20th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup champions, Ruth stopped in Chicago to pick up Preston Klug, a 12-year-old goalie suffering from a brain tumor. “My teammates made him feel like king for the day,” said Ruth, who is happy to report that, two years later, Preston is doing well.
THE LEGACY: Ruth is a huge fan of the current iteration of the National Team, calling out Sam Mewis for her humor, Alex Morgan for her generosity and Megan Rapinoe for stating aloud what’s been true for the National Team since the beginning: “You can win without the gays, baby! That’s science right there.” Ruth also holds a kindred feeling of warmth toward fellow goaltender Adrianna Franch, a woman who has likewise had to endure gender-based taunting and discrimination based on her appearance. “I just really like her; she’s such a good human being,” said Ruth. “Adrianna is so personable and really seems to appreciate and understand the role that the pioneers played in opening the doors for the women who came afterward.”
MOMMY'S GIRL: With her step-father, Ezra Barton, having passed away on Jan. 17 of this year, Ruth's mother, Kathy, was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Ruth is thankful for the time they have been able to share together in recent weeks, including conversations that have helped heal old wounds. "My mother believed what she believed back in those days and I don't blame her for that," said Ruth, who was elected to the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 2019 and her college’s Hall of Fame last year. "My mom is tough, ferocious really. And, before she met my 'Pops,' she was a single mother who got four children through college. She clearly did something right."
Pioneers: Denise Merdich, the Selfless Teammate
INTRODUCING: Denise Boyer Merdich
COLLEGE: University of Puget Sound
INTRODUCTION TO THE GAME: Denise never considered herself athletic until John Dunlap, the father of a fellow future National Teamer, Joan Dunlap-Seivold, invited her to play soccer shortly after the Boyer family moved from California to the Seattle area. “I wasn’t competitive and I might have even been considered slow,” said Denise. “But somehow, when there was a soccer ball to chase, suddenly no one could catch me and stop me.”
THE SALVATION: Denise’s father had served in the military during World War II, the Korean War and also in Vietnam and she said she believed he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by the time she was 10. When her father moved out of the home, Denise, her mother and brothers moved to Tacoma where, much to Denise’s surprise, a local soccer coach knocked on her door a week later. “Mr. Dunlap thought I should keep playing soccer, so he made a phone call and here was this man asking me to join his team,” she said. “I appreciated that. For those two hours on the field a few times each week, I was able to forget about everything at home.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME: In those days, the University of Puget Sound fielded a women’s team, but the part-time coach had never actually played the game and the competition was less than stellar. Fortunately, Denise had already caught the attention of the Dunlaps and the rest of the Washington area’s immense pool of other soccer talent that would form the cornerstone of America’s earliest women’s national teams: Lorraine Figgins Fitzhugh, Michelle Akers, Sandi Gordon Yotz, Cindy Gordon, Amy Allmann Griffin, Lori Henry, Denise Bender, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, Gretchen Gegg Zigante, Kathy Ridgewell-Williams and Sharon McMurtry. Denise also played for a bevy of renowned coaches through the years, including Greg Ryan, the first National Team coach, as well as Berhane Andeberhan, Clive Charles, Larry Feir and Booth Gardner, a two-term governor of Washington.
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Denise was first selected for the National Team in 1984 when it existed only on paper and made it again when the infamous selection occurred in July of 1985 at the Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La. She played in all four of the National Team’s games in Italy in 1985, then took 1986 off. She agreed to try out again in 1987 and appeared in three games — scoring the only goal of her National Team career on July 7 against Canada — before retiring from the team just prior to it leaving for an international tournament in Tianjin, China.
BETTER HER THAN ME: Denise said she always considered her soccer teammates sisters and found it difficult to watch players get cut from the team when Anson Dorrance began to make significant roster changes, including the addition of teenagers Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy in the summer of 1987. “I’d watch my teammates come out of a meeting with Anson and they’d be crying; it was just so sad,” said Denise. “I went in and told Anson, ‘They want this more than I do. Give one of them my spot.’ And that was that. It was the right thing for me to do, for me and for them.”
ENDURING MEMORIES: Denise said she cringes when she hears people say the first National Team in 1985, with its record of three losses and one tie, wasn’t very good. “We went over there to Italy after just three days of training together in New York, suffering from jet lag, and were competitive against every single team; we had a lot of moxie,” she said. Some of her favorite memories came off the field, including receiving what amounted to her first soccer paycheck — $10 a day in meal money. “I was so excited for that $10,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine why they were paying us after they already paid for the plane ticket and gave us uniforms. That was my mindset, honestly. I bought an Italian bathing suit and two pairs of sweat pants, and a bunch of us rented those paddle boats out on the Adriatic Sea. We had it in our minds that we were going to paddle to Yugoslavia!”
After the game against Denmark on Aug. 21 that featured the first two goals in American National Team history, by Michelle Akers and Emily Pickering, the two teams gathered for a celebration at a disco in Jesolo. “Our hosts played Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Born in the USA’ for us. The music was blaring and all of the U.S. team was on the dance floor jumping up and down and bumping into each other, laughing and worrying about nothing.” Later that evening, Denise was presented with a flowers and a plaque with an inscription that, when translated, reads: “To the best American athlete of Denmark vs. USA.” She has held onto it all these years.
HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED: When Denise called her father to tell him she had just made the National Team in 1985, his response was: “Why are you playing that stupid Mickey Mouse game?” When she gave her fiancé the news, he reacted similarly: “You’re not going to play, are you?” More than 35 years later, she’s proud of the legacy she helped build. “It allowed me to help be a part of laying the foundation for young girls to dream attainable, possible dreams — and for parents to have an idea of what that dream can look like for their daughters.”
LIFE LESSONS: A volunteer assistant coach for several teams through the years, Denise is perhaps most proud of the Washington Premier “B” team comprised of girls born in 1994. After losing a series of games by a lopsided score, the head coach asked Denise, who works in the physical therapy industry, to help out. Team administrators wanted to cut most of the players and rebuild the roster with new recruits, but she proudly protested: “Do you know how much talent we have on this team? They’re only 12 years old. They’re babies. Give them time!” Two years later, with virtually the same group of girls still considered a “B” team, they won Washington state championship and ultimately played for a national club championship. “I helped them stay positive the whole time,” said Denise, who played competitively well into her 50s. “I’d ask them to go ‘make a little magic for me,’ just like Berhane used to say to me. Be creative. Take risks. Make your teammates look good, and they’ll make you look good. Most of all, just have fun.”
Pioneers: Denise Bender, Never Say Quit
INTRODUCING: Denise Bender
COLLEGE: Washington State and the University of Washington
INTRODUCTION TO SOCCER: Growing up with a brother and twin sister on Mercer Island near Seattle, Denise competed in gymnastics and diving, as well as track and basketball, and didn’t start playing soccer until the Mercer Island Jockettes were formed in the early 1970s. Soon afterward, Denise was scouted by Mike Ryan and picked for his nationally recognized club team, FC Lowenbrau, that won three national women’s club championships from 1980-82.
NATIONAL TEAM: After playing at the University of Washington, where soccer was still only considered a club sport, Denise was one of approximately 70 players invited to the Olympic Festival in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985, where Mike Ryan picked her to join what would become the first physical assemblage of the U.S. Women’s National Team later that summer. Selected by Mike as the team’s first captain, she appeared in all four games as a defender — but was never asked to try out for the team again. “That pissed me off,” said Denise, who shared more pointed feelings about that topic, as well as her brief role as team leader, in our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “Back in those days, if you wanted to play on the most special teams, they were always coached by men and you had to put up with a lot of crap that wouldn’t be acceptable today.”
LIFELONG LOVE: Not making a team, having differences with a particular coach, or getting cut from your current team should never mean quitting the game altogether, according to Denise. She continued her involvement with soccer for decades after her National Team career, coaching and winning numerous championships — including an over-40 title with a Copa de Vida team that included her friend, Jan Smisek, who was the first woman in America ever to obtain an “A” level coaching license. At age 50, Denise appeared in the Senior Cup in Australia, making it to the semifinals. In more recent years, she’s been involved in Seattle’s “walking” soccer league, an all-ages game played with a futsal ball that’s smaller and heavier than a traditional soccer ball.
THEN VS. NOW: “The skill level is definitely better overall in today’s players,” said Denise. “But there were a few players from my era who would have been stars today. Michelle (Akers) is a given. Michelle was formidable, she had a presence about her that was undeniable. I think I’d probably have to agree with the people who say she’s the best of all-time, but I would have liked to have seen Sharon McMurtry (USWNT 1985-86) keep going. She had a stature just like Michelle, but was much more clever with the ball.”
THE LEGACY: Denise feels that playing sports is empowering, especially for girls who may find it initially difficult to express their leadership skills in other ways. “I’m proud to be associated with a group of women from the National Team who have put themselves out there as leaders,” said Denise, who earned a master’s degree in industrial hygiene and now serves as assistant director of occupational safety and health at the University of Washington. “Through the years, and especially in recent years, these women are making bold statements. They are advocating for minorities and other groups of marginalized people. I think Megan Rapinoe is great. I do. But I also feel good about the mostly forgotten women who, in 1976, started a club soccer team in an era when society said women shouldn’t be playing soccer. They were told they should be housewives. I feel good about being a part of that group, too.”
Pioneers: Linda Gancitano, the Champion of Change
COLLEGE: University of Central Florida
YOUTH CAREER: Linda grew up near Mullins Park in Coral Springs, Fla., where she spent countless evenings scrimmaging with boys, including her brother, Nick, who would become the field goal kicker for Penn State University’s national championship team that beat Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl. Linda joined her brother on the Coral Springs High School team, becoming the first girl in Florida history to play boys’ varsity soccer.
NATIONAL TEAM: After selection as defensive MVP of the first-ever NCAA women’s soccer tournament in 1982 and appearing in the Olympic Festival in 1985, Linda was selected to join the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team for its four games in Italy that summer. She was the team’s first substitute, replacing captain Denise Bender in the opening game, and then appeared in one more game. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in 1986 ended her playing career.
COLLEGE FUN AND GAMES: With four future National Teamers — Linda, Michelle Akers, Kim Wyant and Amy Griffin — all with larger-than-life personalities attending the University of Central Florida at the same time, Linda said she had her hands full as captain. She recalled frequent “swatting” on campus whereby players would hide high in trees waiting to ambush their teammates with flying objects. One night, after being out late, Linda came back to her dorm room only to find it filled floor to ceiling with newspaper. “Oh, you can be sure I made them pay for that!” she said.
GOOSE BUMPS: Memories of the first official National Team game can still fill Linda with emotion. “Way back in the mid ’80s, we weren’t playing for the money. We weren’t playing for anything other than the joy of the game and for each other. But then you get out there in the middle of the field and they’re singing the United States national anthem. And it felt like ‘Oh, my God, this is real.’ You were playing and representing the United States. I’m still in awe of that moment.”
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: After college, Linda decided to follow her father, Nick Sr., into the classroom, but didn’t know if she could handle it at first. “These kids are off the wall!” she told her Dad after her first day. “He was a principal in Broward County and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Kids aren’t perfect in middle school and, at this age, they might not ever learn anything. But the biggest gift that you can give them is to love themselves.’ And I always remember that because that is that stage where they have to be able to start accepting who they are and loving who they are — no matter what. And I think that message is finally getting out there. A lot of things have stayed in the dark for so long: racism, inequality, sexual orientation. It’s finally becoming OK in school to talk about these things.” Linda offers further perspective on the subject of race on Page 35 of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.”
GOING GREEN: Linda said she was deeply impacted by Al Gore’s 2006 movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She brought that passion into Driftwood Middle School in Hollywood, Fla., by creating an environmental “Green Team,” and launching an energy-reduction challenge campaign “How Low Can You Go?” that ultimately expanded throughout her entire school district and led to a high-profile partnership with LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
OPENING DOORS: Linda said that having the phrase “National Team” near the top of her resume has meant more and more as the team has become more popular in recent years. Recognized as a “Champion of Change,” by the Obama Administration, Linda has been invited to the White House on several occasions in the past 13 years and authored an official White House blog: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/02/27/how-low-can-we-go-fun-challenge-us-schools-reduce-energy-consumption. “There’s an instant level of respect now when people hear you played on that team,” she said. “That’s a reflection of the amazing women who have been on the team through the years and, especially, the incredible team we have now.”
BETTER THAN EVER: An avid photographer and beach volleyball player, Linda said she still thrives in the middle school environment after more than three decades. Leading the school’s curriculum in a progressive direction — she teaches yoga, mindfulness, heart mapping and Rose Quartz meditation — keeps her job fresh. “The core of every child’s health is how they’re doing mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. You can’t have a healthy child without addressing all aspects of the whole being. You just can’t. You can have the smartest child in the world, but if they don’t know how to be social, to be able to connect emotionally, they’re not going to be very happy.”
CLUB TEAM: Emily told us it was as if the soccer gods came to find her in her own neighborhood, with Gordon Bradley, the British player-coach of the New York Cosmos moving in just two houses away on Orlando St. in Massapequa, N.Y. Bradley had been instrumental in founding the Massapequa Soccer Club for boys in the winter of 1970 and local women, Liza Gozley and Nellie Haire, along with Gordon’s wife, Vera, soon started the push to allow girls to play, too. Emily was among the first in line at age 9.
OTHER SPORTS: “You name the game, I played it and I played it well,” said Emily, who starred in basketball, volleyball and field hockey and laments the single-sport mentality that has taken over youth athletics in the past 20 years. Berner High School on Long Island didn’t even add girls soccer as a varsity sport until Emily’s senior year, yet won the New York state championship its first season.
NATIONAL TEAM: Emily appeared in 15 games from 1985 to 1992, including the second game all-time on Aug. 21, 1985 at a tournament known as the Mundialito in Jesolo, Italy. Emily assisted Michelle Akers on the National Team’s first-ever goal, and then scored the second goal, giving the American team a 2-2 tie against Denmark. She retired seven years later after appearing in the only two games that year for the U.S., in August of 1992, both of which were losses to Norway.
TRUE GRIT: “Nobody messed with Emily Pickering,” said Emily, the second all-time National Team captain, who is now an insurance executive in Potomac, Md. That was a sentiment shared by her teammates at North Carolina and the National Team, including Michelle Akers, who credits Emily with establishing toughness as a core team value. By her junior year, however, a freshman would challenge Emily’s supremacy as ringleader. “April Heinrichs came in cocky and arrogant, and the members of my class thought we were pretty good, too.” Emily still remembers the one and only tackle football — American football — scrimmage among teammates when April came barreling toward her carrying the pigskin. “I was bound and determined to stop her in her tracks, which I did, but not before she plowed me over and I just had to hold on for dear life. Wow, that hurt, but I didn’t let her know. That was the mentality that we established together, that you win at all costs without cheating.”
DIGGING DEEP: Emily shared some conflicted memories of North Carolina’s legendary coach Anson Dorrance on Page 133 of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” Even though Anson was just beginning his more than four-decade career when she arrived in the early 1980s, she said he already had an uncanny knack for motivating the players. “It was interesting. We could be practicing what we thought was pretty hard. And he could step out there and say, ‘Some of you aren’t giving 100 percent.’ You’d find yourself looking around. I’d think to myself, ‘Dammit, Stephanie, get moving.’ But then you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Well, maybe I could give a little bit more, too.’ The next thing you know, the practice has gone from mediocre to this incredible level. For some reason, you played to prove to Anson that you deserved to be there — probably because you knew there was always somebody who would come along and take your place if you didn’t.”
STAKING INDEPENDENCE: Emily said she hated wearing shin guards and preferred to play with her uniform sleeves tucked under her bra straps. By 1985, with the AIDS epidemic causing a global panic, shin guards became the rule. “They didn’t want blood being exchanged on the field. So I cut mine into the smallest shin guards imaginable — and I would start the game with my shirt sleeves down to keep the coach happy, but then I’d tuck them in again a few minutes later.”
LINGERING EFFECTS: Emily offers cautionary tales to parents and players, both from her own perspective and that of her daughter, Avery, a teenager who recently stopped playing club soccer due to chronic injuries related to concussions and iliotibial band syndrome from overuse of the knees. On one hand, Emily said, children who hope to progress to the highest levels of the game need to be practicing frequently with the ball in their own back yards or local parks to improve their skills. On the other hand, she said parents need to be sure the children are not being exposed to too much contact too young — and they’re allowing injuries to properly heal. Emily recently suffered health setbacks due to an autoimmune disorder and wonders if it could be related to frequent heading of the ball all those years earlier. She is among 20 National Teamers, including Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, who volunteered for a landmark study of female soccer players’ brains, known as SHINE, at Boston University. “There’s just so much we don’t know,” said Emily, who was inducted into the Long Island Soccer Hall of Fame in 2015. “It’s a great game. I’ll always love it. But I do know we need to be more careful.”