Achieving fame and a legendary status in sports usually comes because of a combination of two things: 1) you’re one of the best at your craft and, 2) you are the author of a moment (or moments) so mythical, that it remains etched in the minds of generations to come.
Think Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind relay swim against France in the 2008 Olympics, or Keri Strugg landing her vault despite a badly injured ankle in the 1996 Olympic Games. Think Abby Wambach’s last-minute header against Brazil at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, or Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup.
The reason these moments are unforgettable is because they happened when it mattered most. In a competition when everything was at stake, when you needed to call upon the preparation that every drop of sweat, every tear, and every hour of training had given you.
They happened in do-or-die situations when the number of people watching was massive and everyone was on the edge of their seat, waiting, hoping for the dream to come true and then… the dream does.
U.S. Soccer has had a few of these moments that brought a nation to its feet, moments that spurned thousands headlines and brought tears of joy to fans of all ages. Whether more recent moments, like the Donovan or Wambach goals, or Carli Lloyd’s epic hat-trick performance in the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final, or even years ago, when the 1950 World Cup men’s team defeated powerhouse England in one of the most shocking upsets in international soccer, these indelible marks were left on this organization, on this country and its people.
But even among these legendary moments there is one that stands out from the rest. A moment that changed women’s soccer in the United States and around the world: Brandi Chastain’s final penalty kick in shootout at the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final.
“You need a couple days to talk about Brandi as a player,” former WNT captain and teammate Julie Foudy said. “She had this passion that just oozed out of her for the game. It was contagious. She always wanted to learn and get better. When she stepped up to that penalty spot, I knew we had won it.”
Chastain’s left-footed blast into the upper left corner against China PR was the kick that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, but her celebration became as historic as her goal. Once the ball rippled the net, Chastain ripped her shirt off as she fell to her knees and screamed while pumping her arms in perhaps one of the most unbridled displays of joy ever witnessed in sports.
"Before the kick, the stadium was so incredibly quiet - it's amazing how 90,000-plus people could be silent - if I had to stop, I could hear my heart beating," Chastain said recalling the moment she stepped up to the penalty spot. “I had no idea that would be my reaction. It was truly genuine and it was insane and it was a relief and it was joy and it was gratitude all wrapped into one.”
Chastain had a highly successful 12-year career with the U.S. Women’s National Team. She played in 192 international matches and scored 30 goals from 1988-2004. A two-time Olympic gold medalist (1996 and 2004) and silver medalist (2000), she was the first U.S. player to score five goals in one match, accomplishing the feat in 1991 during World Cup Qualifying as a forward when she came off the bench to score the first five goals of her career.
While she debuted for the USA in 1988 as a forward (her college position), the vast majority of her international caps were earned after she converted to a defender from 1996-2004. She competed in three FIFA Women’s World Cups (1991, 1999 and 2003), winning world titles in 1991 and 1999 and enters the Hall of Fame as a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee.
Chastain may have gained world-wide fame – and the covers of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time – for that famous moment, and while it may be what people remember the most, it’s what the moment meant for the game that has made the biggest impact on women’s sports.
“Women's soccer was not anonymous anymore.” Chastain said.
A crowd of 90,185 witnessed history at the Rose Bowl on a sweltering day in Pasadena, California back on July 5, 1999. And more than 40 million people watched it on television in the U.S. alone. But it’s the millions of little girls and young women that were drawn to play sports or to reach for their dreams in anything they choose. It was the empowerment of that moment that was resonated 18 years later.
That’s the beauty of sports. They can be unpredictable and cruel yet glorious and life-changing.
“Yes, the sport is great and soccer is great and winning is great, but the bigger picture is that Brandi always inspired these girls to play and enjoy the gift of sport,” Foudy said. “That’s something she brought every day.”