Brazil was history, a 2-1 victim in last Thursday's gold medal game, and now the U.S. women's soccer team's own one-name wonders--Mia, Brandi, Julie, Kristine and Joy--stood side by side like soccer's Mount Rushmore, screaming a heartfelt (if off-key) rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Their work, begun in 1987, was done: two World Cup titles, two Olympic golds. "It's perfect," said striker Mia Hamm after her last competitive match, an overtime victory in Athens' cozy Karaiskaki Stadium. "Absolutely perfect." ¬∂ International soccer is supposed to be a young person's game. Yet there was 33-year-old U.S. captain Julie Foudy, two days removed from crutches, taking a cortisone shot for her sprained right ankle and playing 120 minutes in the midfield. There was 33-year-old Kristine Lilly, the relentless left winger, bending an elegant corner kick onto forward Abby Wambach's head for the 112th-minute game-winner. And there were Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett, two (gulp) 36-year-olds, steeling the bend-but-don't-break back line against an onslaught of Brazilian teenagers (who may well own women's soccer for the next decade).
Most of all there was Hamm, the 32-year-old icon whose record 153 international goals--a testament to talent, durability and sheer quantity of matches (266)--may never be touched. After creating the game-winner in a 2-1 win over Germany in the semis, Hamm had less of an impact in the final, but her characteristic willingness to track back and defend stifled several Brazilian attacks. Now, after a 10game farewell exhibition tour, Hamm will be free to start the family she wants with husband Nomar Garciaparra. "Mia has carried the burden of soccer on her shoulders for nearly two decades," Foudy says. "And those shoulders are tired!"
Losses in the 2000 Olympics and the '03 World Cup had frustrated the U.S. women, but they had also humanized them, revealing a grace in defeat. The Games set the stage for a comeback that Hamm--the U.S. athletes' choice as flag bearer at the closing ceremonies--had long believed possible. "Our lives aren't just a series of successes," Hamm said. "There are a lot more failures than everyone sees. And the fact that these players responded in such a positive way says a lot about them." --Grant Wahl