For two members of the ’96 soccer team, two that turned out to be among the heroes, the journey to Olympic Gold began the previous year.
Tiffeny Milbrett was 22 years old and part of the USA team competing in the 1995 World Cup in Sweden. Her expectations for playing time, as a backup forward playing behind Michelle Akers, were low. But just six minutes into the USA’s first game, Akers was knocked unconscious and injured her knee.
“Usually, Michelle gets whacked and bounces right back up,” recalls Tiffeny. “But this time, she didn’t even move. I was worried for her, saying to myself, ‘C’mon Mish, get up!’ And then horror set in when I heard (head coach) Tony (DiCicco) say, “Milbrett, warm up.’ I was like ‘Holy crap! I’m going in!’”
She scored that day in a 3-3 draw with China and scored twice more in the tournament. Her performance signaled the beginning of a career in which she would score 100 times in 204 games.
Nine days later, Briana Scurry, the USA’s goalkeeper playing in her first major international event, got her first taste of what was the most intense women’s soccer rivalry of the 1990s.
What Bri Can’t Forget
For Briana Scurry, there are two games she will never forget. They came a year apart, one in Sweden and one in the United States. They both were semifinals. They were both against Norway. And combined, they sent Scurry through the entire emotional spectrum.
The first one was in the 1995 World Cup. The U.S. vs Norway, the arch-villain during the early years of U.S. women’s national team history, and the team the U.S. defeated in the first-ever Women’s World Cup, 2-1, in 1991.
Just 10 minutes into the 1995 semifinal Norwegian striker Kristin Aarones gave Norway a 1-0.
“I remember that game very well,” says Scurry who was in goal in her first major international event. “At no point in time during the game did I think we weren’t going to score. Up until the very last whistle, I was sure we were going to score. We were just swarming their net. Everybody was doing everything they could. (Norway goalkeeper Bente) Nordby was making saves with her toe. It was whack. We hit the crossbar and both posts and missed a couple others by inches. We threw the kitchen sink at them.
“We played incredibly well that day and were the better team. But they got that one goal off a corner kick where Aarones beat me by an inch to that ball. I will say that missing that ball by an inch really did not sit well with me. I thought I had a very good game otherwise, other than that one moment. And that one moment made all the difference.”
The loss, Scurry says, was “heartbreaking.” But what happened next was even worse. There is a traditional Norwegian celebration that involves the players getting down on all fours, grabbing the ankles of the player in front of them and moving in unison in a circle like a train. The train is not nearly as cool and Iceland’s Viking chant, but if it’s purpose was to anger the Americans, it certainly did its job very well.
“It’s been 21 years and I remember it well,” says Scurry. “Watching them do that crawl … I purposely made myself stand there and watch. I wanted to burn that image into my brain and onto my heart and use it to make sure it never happened again.”
So with the same intense glare that made her a frightening figure to opposing attackers, she stared. She didn’t look away, didn’t dismiss it as just an annoying celebration. She just stared.
“We were all pretty broken after that, and we got into a huddle after game with April (assistant coach April Heinrichs). “I remember her saying some powerful things – ‘remember how you feel right now and don’t let it happen again.’ A lot of coaches say that, but she meant it. She was fired up.
“We knew we might get another opportunity very, very soon,” Scurry says. “We knew we had the Olympics coming up right around the corner and we knew we would probably face them at some point. We were going to change how things went. And that was our saving grace.”
Scurry was serious when she said she wanted to use that image as motivation to make sure it never happened again. She didn’t just tuck it away to be pulled out at a later date.
“I took the image of their celebration and I took my memory of missing by an inch and sat with it for months and months,” she says, calling it a turning point in her career. “I used it as fodder for my training and motivation. And I used the heartbreak as an inspiration.”
A year later, at the first-ever Olympics that included women’s soccer, the U.S. advanced through group play to the semifinals. The semifinal opponent was Norway, and saying Scurry couldn’t wait would be a severe understatement. Sleep the night before the game was impossible.
“The night before that game, I was in such a state,” she recalls. “I was upset and angry but excited about the chance to right this wrong. I was grateful we could fix it. I was chomping at the bit to play that game.”
Less than seven minutes into the match, Brandi Chastain went down with a knee injury, the extent of which would not be known until halftime. Chastain went off the field on the sideline across from the bench where the U.S. medical staff worked on her. If she was subbed out, she could not come back. Eleven minutes later, with Chastain still off the field, Norway scored.
Big deal, thought Scurry, absolutely sure the U.S. would win.
“We had all burned that ‘95 game into our brains,” says Scurry. “I didn’t feel for a second that we were going to let that happen again. There was just no way. I was completely confident that we were going to win. It didn’t matter what they did this time.”
The score at halftime was 1-0 Norway, the same as a year earlier. In the U.S. locker room, however, it would seem like the score was reversed.
“There were no heads down, no discouraging talk or negative body language,” Scurry recalls. “There was just no need to pick anyone up. We just knew we were going to win.
“I talk about often about thinking about something, then imagining it, dreaming it, then actually living it,” she says. “And when Michelle (Akers) scored on the penalty kick to tie it up, it was like all that was rolling out. The feeling was building like ‘here it comes.’ I was more fired up and inspired. I am not letting them score. I am not.”
Akers’ 76th-minute penalty kick sent the game into overtime. In 1996, ties were settled by sudden death, or as the USA referred to it, sudden victory. As soon as someone scores the Golden Goal, it’s over–suddenly.
“Golden Goal! I tell you what. I wish they still had it,” Scurry says. “What a fantastic way to win.”
In the 100th minute, Shannon MacMillan took a pass from Julie Foudy and ended the game. Scurry’s view of the MacMillan’s Golden Goal was partially blocked.
“I remember the ball going through, and I remember Shannon’s arms going up,” Scurry says. “I just ran.”
The U.S. players and the 65,000 fans in Athens. Ga., broke into a wild celebration, players piling on top of MacMillan who ran and toward the U.S. bench and slid on her stomach. Scurry, at the other end of the field, reached the pile before players from the bench.
“I don’t remember my feet touching the ground at all, I swear,” she says. “I just ran a 100 miles an hour.”
With the win over Norway, the U.S. advanced to play for the first-ever Olympic Gold Medal on their home soil in front of family and friends and a whole lot of other flag-waving Americans. A dream come true, right? Every player, at some point in their lives, envisioned themselves on an Olympic podium having a gold medal hung around their neck. And it certainly was a dream of Scurry’s. So you would assume that once she won the semifinals, her thoughts were immediately turn to opportunity to play for the gold.
“Obviously, you always have a goal of winning a gold medal, but we had to handle Norway first,” she says. “That was all that was on my mind. I didn’t think anything about China or anything like that. The months leading up to all that was all about Norway. We had to fix that Norway thing.
“People always want to talk about championship games,” she says. “But I tell you what, in the history of the women’s national team, we have had some amazing semifinals.”
The U.S., of course, won the gold, beating China 2-1 in front of 76,000 fans. Twenty years have passed and Scurry is 44 years old. She only lost 12 games in the 159 games she started, and that one in 1995 still stands out in her memory. She won 133, but none were more memorable than the one in 1996.
And she still gets fired up talking about them.
“Thanks for bringing it up,” she says at the end of the interview. “It was a fantastic day.”
What Tiffeny Doesn’t RememberTwenty years ago, Tiffeny Milbrett scored one of the most important goals in U.S. women’s national team history. If you see her, tell her about it. She doesn’t remember it.
With 22 minutes left in the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal match, the USA and China were deadlocked at 1-1 in Athens. Ga., in front of a then-record crowd of 76,491 fans, very few of them Chinese. That’s when Milbrett scored to give USA the first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in women’s soccer.
“To be honest, I don’t remember it at all,” the 43-year-old Milbrett says. “I only remember what I saw on video. I couldn’t even tell you unless I have the video,”
It’s a shame she doesn’t remember how Mia Hamm got the ball near the midfield line on the other side of the field and how Joy Fawcett, playing right back, took off down the sideline. It’s too bad Milbrett doesn’t remember how she started running toward China’s goal when Hamm put a pass right in Fawcett’s path, or how she accelerated when Fawcett began to leave the Chinese defender behind. It’s really too bad she can’t recall slotting the ball home from six yards out and celebrating with a somersault.
Milbrett, you see, is one of those rare athletes that was so entirely focused when she played, she blocked out everything else. She didn’t hear the crowd. She forgot about a play or a moment right after it happened. Some call it “The Zone,” but that doesn’t really explain much does it?
“Everyone is a little different,” she says. “There are people who can tell you what happened moment to moment, every play, every minute. That’s just not how I operated.
“Looking at pictures, helps me remember some,” she adds. “You are so in the moment, it’s almost like you have disassociated yourself from reality. In order to gear up, you have to be in such a different place.
The “zone”, experts say, is a state of being fully absorbed in the present. The key word would seem to be “fully.” And understanding Milbrett’s state of preparedness gives some insight into her as a player.
There are, the same experts say, reasons why players are unable to become fully absorbed in the here and now. They include fear of failure, self-doubt or low confidence, worrying about what others think, intimidation, or lack of intensity. That means when Milbrett is at peak performance, she has none of those qualities. She would, however, have to fight them off from time to time.
“I would sometimes think, ‘What if I get injured, what if I am just terrible, what if I can’t run,’” she says. “You just have to talk yourself down. I had to be mentally strong to put those things aside, and it really would just subside once the game kicks off.”
Ask her about her goal four years later against Norway in the 2000 Olympics Gold Medal match, scored literally at the last second or regulation to tie a game the USA eventually lost in overtime. Does she remember Mia Hamm chasing a ball down in the corner and launching a cross into the box? Nope. Does she remember jumping higher than she ever had in her life to head it over the Norwegian goalkeeper to force overtime? Not without a video.
“I remember Kristine Lilly was in front of me and it missed her head by about an inch,” she said. “Then I remember they kicked off, the ref blew the whistle right away, and then we were on the sideline and someone was shaking out my legs, getting the blood flowing. They said, ‘Do you know what you just did? I said, ‘No, I’m tired. Keep shaking my legs.’
“I’ve thought about this a lot since I retired. In order to perform at a high level, you have to put yourself in such a different place. It’s just a little different for me. It’s mostly being in the zone where your mind is in charge but your body is just doing it.”
On the day of the ’96 Olympic final, she remembers coming out before the game, telling the TV camera, “You are going to see an amazing game,” and then she remembers being on the podium being handed a bouquet of flowers and having a Gold medal hung around her neck. Anything else in between, you know, the important stuff? Nope. She didn’t, however, block out the whole 1996 Olympic experience. Of her 14 years with the national team, that summer of ’96 is by far her favorite.
“The biggest thing I remember about that journey in ‘96, is we were all just so naïve about the Olympics because there had never been one before,” she says. “We didn’t know what it was like to play in the Olympics, we didn’t know what it was like to win a gold medal.
“It really was just a special, pure, naïve time for all of us,” she adds. “That was really our first experience of living our dreams and doing it in front of the biggest crowds. The whole journey – being in residency in Orlando, and the whole thing – was really a wonderful time. The biggest thing to me was just having the opportunity to play. I keep going back to that. All the accolades and medals, that’s your goal, of course. But the journey is that you actually get a chance to play and compete and be a part of the sport that you love.”
Milbrett made her debut in 1991 and became a regular in ’95. She scored 100 goals in 204 career games and is one of just five U.S. players to reach the century mark. She scored 12 times in the Olympics or World Cup, and 71 of her goals came in a 123-game span between 1996 and 2000. She retired in 2006 with the Olympic Gold from ’96 and a World Cup championship from ’99, a year when she led the team in goals with 21.
“Looking back on the early years, trying to earn a place on the team was just fantastic,” she says. “Look at the players I got to be around and play with and against every day. To me, anything else would have been boring.”
After retirement, Milbrett started coaching kids and loved it. Her former coach at the University of Portland and mentor, the late Clive Charles, once told her that it was important for coaches to experience everything they can. So when she started coaching, she started with eight and nine year olds at Mountain View Los Altos Soccer Club in California.
“I stayed with that group for the next six years,” she says. “That was an amazing experience. It got me immersed full-time into coaching.”
Now she is working with 14 and 15 year-olds with the Colorado Storm. She is not teaching them how to get in the zone, but she certainly is insisting they use their instincts.
“I had thought that players were over-coached, a little too robotic,” she says. “That stemmed from the youth game where too many coaches were coaching for results instead of coaching so the players grow and develop at players.
“I want to be able to make the environment right for the players,” she says. “I want to create an environment for the players to grow and develop. When you see improvements, it really does make the job worthwhile.”
The players improving, their successes, seeing kids learn – those things she remembers.
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, go to the56thMinue.com
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