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Remembering '99: Rock Star Reception

The USA’s last “open” training of the 1999 Women’s World Cup was held on July 8 at Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., about 30 miles east of the Rose Bowl, where two days later the Women’s World Cup Final would be staged. As the U.S. bus rolled down the 210 Freeway, no one had any idea what was awaiting them.

When the U.S. bus pulled up, it soon became clear that this was no ordinary training session. At least 2,000 people had arrived to watch the U.S. team practice. The throngs of screaming fans were so thick that the U.S. players had to be escorted down a dirt path to the field by cops on motorcycles. It is believed to be the only motorcycle police escort in U.S. history for players on foot.

“I remember it was a sign that this has gotten bigger than any of us realized,” said forward Mia Hamm. “We couldn’t wait to see how many people came out to the game, but who knew all these people were coming to watch us practice? We were all taken aback. Unless you were standing within 10 yards of Tony (DiCicco), you couldn’t hear what he was saying. There were plenty of days when just a few people would come out to observe a training session and suddenly there were all these people there to watch us run around. It was pretty overwhelming.”

How do you concentrate and focus when there is a bigger crowd at training than at some pre-1995 WNT matches? The U.S. players did their best, running through a sharp, energized session. But once again, it was no ordinary practice as it also included a photo shoot for A1 of USA Today in which several players held a huge painted globe aloft and a post-practice interview for several of the U.S. stars with none other than Tom Brokaw.

If you needed any other signposts that the U.S. team had arrived a crossroads of a cultural phenomenon there were still many to choose from, but that afternoon served as a welcome to mainstream America.

“By then, the whole event and everything that happened had taken on aura of its own,” said then U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco. “Walking into hotel, out to practices, it was rock star status for these players. It was like Brazil’s men’s team with thousands of fans at practice and everybody doing interviews after. At the same time, we were still trying to have a meaningful training and prepare for a very difficult China team.”

The next day the USA had its final practice of the tournament at the Rose Bowl, which was closed to the public, but where the media hordes created almost the same buzz as the fans had the day before. After training, the team filed into one of the huge Rose Bowl locker rooms to do interviews. Before the media session began, all the reporters were asked to turn off their recorders and cameras (some did, many didn’t) so that the U.S. team captains could address the assembled print and TV journalists. Carla Overbeck and Julie Foudy gave a heartfelt thanks to the reporters for their support over the course of the tournament and their role in helping it become such a massive success. Perhaps having never before been thanked to that extent by an athlete, the media was stunned but certainly appreciative, and it added to the legend and lore of the U.S. team.

“That day at Pomona I realized ‘oh my goodness, this has snowballed into something that’s just crazy,’” said Foudy. “There was a high-pitched yell as we were walking into training and just a frenzy that was just incredible energy surrounding the team and people so excited about what was going on. That was when I realized that it was something special in the way it was impacting people. I remember all the media too and how much fun we were having with it. It was no pressure, it was just so great, such a loose environment. We just wanted to have fun with it.”

At the Rose Bowl on July 10, they let more than 40 million Americans in on the fun, and it was a day few will ever forget.