PARIS — We talk a lot about how the U.S. women’s national team inspires millions of young girls (and boys), and that’s obviously a fantastic thing. But it’s only part of the story. The USWNT has a similar impact on American women (and men) who are a lot older than that, too, even people in their 80s.
One of them was my mother.
Helen Wahl grew up in the Midwest during the 1930s and ’40s. She loved sports—playing them, watching them—and one of her first jobs was as a physical education teacher at a school. But she grew frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women to compete in sports (both recreationally and professionally), to say nothing of the way men talked to her about sports, as if she couldn’t know anything because of her gender.
In 1957, she was in the stands at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium for perhaps the greatest game in college basketball history, North Carolina’s three-overtime defeat of her beloved Kansas Jayhawks in the NCAA championship game. And in the 1970s, as she and my dad, Dave, raised two young sons, Mom was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Billie Jean King during her Battle of the Sexes tennis triumph over Bobby Riggs.
Mom was a fiercely proud feminist. An active member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she gave me and my brother, Eric, copies of Ms. Magazine to read when we were kids. She explained to us the meaning of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and she told us the stories of Gloria Steinem and other activists. Years later, Mom couldn’t have been happier that my mentor was Gloria Emerson, the former New York Times Vietnam War correspondent, one of the few women who covered that conflict.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that Mom became a devoted fan of the U.S. women’s national team. It started in 1999, when she watched every game of the U.S.’s historic run to the World Cup title. I covered that tournament for Sports Illustrated, and she peppered me with questions about the players and their stories and the challenges they’d had to overcome as female athletes.
She loved everything about that U.S. team: The players’ skill, their band-of-sisters chemistry and the unabashed exuberance of Mia Hamm after scoring a goal and Brandi Chastain ripping her jersey off to celebrate the title-clinching penalty kick. My SI story that week—with Robert Beck’s classic image of Chastain on the cover—was always Mom’s favorite magazine story that I ever wrote.
Mom would religiously watch every USWNT game, even the friendlies, always calling the players by their first names, as if they were her friends, which is how she viewed them. And so she’d wonder aloud if Alex was getting her scoring form back, or why Carli wasn’t starting, or if Megan’s knee was going to get better. (It did.)
Both my parents fell in love with watching soccer late in life—the Premier League, the Champions League, the U.S. men’s national team—but Mom’s attachment to the USWNT was something deeper, something visceral, something that transcended sports and spoke to her about the life she had lived and the gains she had always wanted to see.
Mom’s favorite player? Easy: Megan Rapinoe. She was entranced by Rapinoe’s game: Her probing passes, her subtle technical mastery, her creative vision, even her occasional Technicolor hair. She admired Rapinoe for her fearlessness in taking stands for her beliefs, and when I told Mom that Rapinoe said her muse was the actress Tilda Swinton, one of Mom’s favorites, she got a giant smile on her face.
Two weeks ago, on May 29, my wife, Celine, who’s a doctor, called me and said we needed to visit Mom in Arizona immediately. She had been sick, and her weight and blood pressure had fallen extremely low. We flew across the country that day and spent all of a Thursday together with my dad and my brother, and thankfully Mom was able to speak. A lot of what she wanted to talk about with me was the USWNT and the World Cup.
“I love them so much,” she said. “They don’t even have to win it, and I’ll still love them.”
There are few things more difficult than saying goodbye to your mother when you know it’s the last time you’ll see her, but I was glad we got the opportunity. On Monday, the day before USA-Thailand, I got a call in Reims. My mother had passed away at age 87. I was having a coffee next to the beautiful cathedral there, and I spent the next hour sitting inside, thinking about Mom and my family, trying (and failing) to keep it together. The next night, inside the stadium, I thought about her the whole time, knowing how happy she was that I got to cover her favorite team.
I know that Helen Wahl wasn’t alone, that there are countless other American women who have become USWNT fans late in their lives, not just because they enjoy watching sports but because this team represents something they always wanted to see for decades. And so, as I wrote Mom’s obituary on Wednesday, I made sure to include this in the second paragraph, high up, where you put some of the most important stuff: “She enjoyed being a fan of Kansas basketball and the U.S. women’s national soccer team.”