The parallel sports universe, Part 2

Late Monday night, actually just into Tuesday morning. It was 12:01 a.m., in fact, in Salina, Kan. A stop for gas.

The big headline on the paper in the Salina Journal rack was about how it had been a record-breaking 111 degrees the day before in this central Kansas town. The banner teasing to the sports section, though, caught my eye just as much. It was a photo from the Women’s World Cup after the victory over Brazil.

My parallel sports universe had intersected, at least for a while, with the standard sports universe. This happens sometimes. The WWC became a hot story nationwide with the Rapinoe-to-Wambach connection Sunday in Germany.

It was a last-gasp goal that struck me as sort of the athletic equivalent to the time my sister’s dog dug under the fence and ran away. We’d driven all over our little town looking for and asking neighbors about her, with no luck. She had been gone a full week, and the sad reality was setting in for me: We’d never see her again.

But then at 3 a.m. the next morning, my sister and parents and I all woke up and ran to the door when we heard the barking outside. There she was, standing at the front porch, wagging her tail as if to say, “Hey, it’s just me, back from my excursion.”

I had given up. But the dog hadn’t known that, nor did it matter to her. She completed her journey to get back home.

The U.S. soccer team couldn’t have been that blissfully unaware of potential failure of mission, of course. And yet despite the voice of panic that had to have been playing in their heads _ “We’re going to be eliminated from the World Cup!” _ the Americans continued to attempt to execute in order to score.

What they did was exactly described by the hackneyed cliche that actually, when lived out on a big stage in real time, doesn’t feel cliche at all: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

I was sitting in the media room at the U.S. Women’s Open in Colorado Springs watching the match on television. I felt pretty impartial. I admit when Brazil’s Erika briefly re-enacted the death scene from “Camille,” I had snarkily proclaimed to a fellow reporter that it couldn’t be a Brazilian soccer match unless at least two of them had been carried off on a stretcher.

“Now watch for the miraculous recovery,” I said, and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than Erika was on her feet again, and I had to laugh. Brazil had been through a lot of disappointment in the WWC and Olympics over the years, coming close but never quite being able to win it all. (Not unlike Duke women’s basketball, in fact.) Truth be told, I really didn’t want to watch Brazil get a knife in the heart again, regardless of their histrionics.

In fact, I already was thinking ahead to whether Brazil could win the World Cup, and what that would mean for the women’s game in that soccer-mad nation. But I also felt regret that with the Americans out, viewers in this country wouldn’t pay much attention to the rest of what had been a really interesting event.

And then, bam, Megan Rapinoe’s pass found Abby Wambach’s head, and vice versa. The ball hit the back of the net. Yells went up from all corners of the media room. I was too stunned to yell. I thought, “Did I really see that right? Did it actually happen?”

***

Seven years ago, Wambach had secured the Olympic gold with a header in overtime against Brazil in the Athens Games. Later that fall, she’d come to Kansas City with the national team, and I wanted to talk to her about a few things other than soccer. I wrote then:

Wambach’s hometown is Rochester, N.Y., a city at the heart of both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements in the 1800s that radically redefined American history. It was also the longtime home of Susan B. Anthony, another woman tireless in traveling for a cause.

Wambach is well aware of the history of her hometown, and it had its impact on her from childhood.

“That’s where it all started to seep in,” Wambach said. “And from being the baby of seven kids, as well. When you’re the youngest, you don’t have much choice in a lot of things. I think that shaped my life in realizing the importance of having choices.”

In the Athens Games’ final in August, Wambach scored the winning goal in overtime vs. Brazil, giving the United States the gold medal. She says it changed her life, but there was something else just as memorable for her from the Olympics.

She and her teammates were inspired by the sight of women from some Muslim countries finally being able to have the “choice” to compete as Olympic athletes.

“It didn’t matter how they finished. You just wanted to say, ‘My God, congratulations,’ ” Wambach said. “You could see on their faces how happy they were to be there, how uplifting it was. There’s nothing like that. As women, we should all still have that feeling. I find it so hard to believe that over time, that appreciation for how far women have come can be lost. Maybe the ability to forget, though, creates a sense of security.”

That was a remarkable insight from a then-24-year-old about the dichotomy of women’s struggle to attain anything. On one hand, it seems we should always be aware of how many barriers have been scaled and toppled. But on the other hand, should women always carry the baggage of thinking about when they weren’t allowed to do something? Isn’t it actually a great sign of progress if the girl born in 2000 completely takes for granted things that the girl born in 1900 never even imagined?

Now Wambach is 31, and this is possibly her last World Cup. She’d missed the 2008 Olympics with a broken leg. She seemed to me the kind of athlete/personality who was meant to get at least one really big moment _ when not just the standard sports universe but the American public at large recognized her as the folk-hero type that she is. Sunday, that happened.

A similar thing took place 12 years ago, too. On June 10, 1999, only soccer fans knew who Brandi Chastain was. On July 10, everybody in America knew her name. That was the most impacting intersection of the sports universes I had witnessed in team sports.

The “Magnificent 7″ U.S. women’s gymnastics squad’s gold in the 1996 Olympics technically was a team event, but not a “team” in the same way that soccer is, of course. The softball, soccer and basketball golds for the U.S. women’s team in those Atlanta Games had also been highly touted. And individual women’s sports’ performances – in figure skating, gymnastics, track and field, tennis, swimming, golf, etc., – had captured the eye of American spectators in my lifetime.

But there had never been that one huge game in a women’s team sport when everybody across the United States was tuning in, (even George Brett’s mom). That July 1999 afternoon in the Rose Bowl was the closest thing to the Super Bowl that a group of women athletes had ever had.

The subsequent pro league, WUSA, wasn’t managed financially as well as it should have been. The enthusiasm for Team USA didn’t translate into great numbers of spectators for a women’s soccer league. Before the 2003 Women’s World Cup, the sport’s stars like Mia Hamm had to go through the painful process of explaining that the league was folding and would try to come back in some form.

Eight years later, Women’s Professional Soccer has six teams and exists only in the parallel sports universe, and even somewhat marginally here. Whether Team USA’s attention-grabbing run to the WWC final boosts the pro league into a higher status in the parallel sports universe (I’m not counting on it really denting the standard sports universe, at least not significantly), remains to be seen.

But at least for a week or so, the universes intersected. Sometimes that’s happened at other events, like the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, when two 20-year-olds – South Korea’s Se Ri Pak and American amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn – battled in a Monday playoff that went 20 holes.

The intersection of the universes doesn’t mean integration, at least not yet. There was another playoff in this year’s Women’s Open, but the standard sports universe in the United States wasn’t paying attention. It was between two South Korean women who were among the thousands of young girls in that country inspired by Pak. The playoff and So Yeon Ryu’s victory were largely ignored here in the United States … but, of course, there are other “sports universes” in other countries. Rest assured that in Seoul, it was a big deal.

Often, timing is everything in regard to the parallel sports universe really getting into the limelight. Pak and Chuasiriporn had their playoff during the day on a Monday in 1998 when no other live sports were on television. Big as Chastain’s winning penalty kick was 12 years ago, would it have been overshadowed had it happened the following weekend, when John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash?

What about “miracle finish” over Brazil last Sunday? What if Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit and 5-for-5 performance on Saturday had come a day later than it did? Team USA would have had to compete with the Yankee captain for headlines in the standard sports universe. It wouldn’t have been totally overshadowed, but Rapinoe-to-Wambach-to-PKs (starring Hope Solo) would not have been the story of the day.

***

The harsh lessons of WUSA in the aftermath of the 1999 WWC success taught even the biggest women’s sports optimists to temper their expectations about how the standard sports universe really accepts the parallel one. It can burn white-hot and feel like a real embrace, but it’s usually a passing fancy.

How much attention was paid to the actual matches in the 2007 WWC? All the focus from most of American sports media went to the flap involving Solo calling out then-coach Greg Ryan for his bad move of benching her for Briana Scurry against Brazil, and then Solo getting frozen out by her teammates.

Still … the parallel sports universe is always here, and those of us who live in it are daily keeping tabs on its ebbs and flows, its triumphs and dramas, its history-makers and is disappointments.

We accept that those who only visit here periodically rarely know about those things. When they want to put in perspective something epic that happens here and catches their notice, they inevitably compare it to that which they do know: men’s sports. (More on that coming in Part 3.)

But all this isn’t to complain, or chastise them, or rail against the way things are. Instead, it’s a chance to smile knowingly at each other as occupants of the parallel sports universe. We are very familiar with every comparison to the standard sports universe that they make. We know their universe as well as they do.

However, we also know ours. We know Abby Wambach’s history. She didn’t just appear from nowhere for us last Sunday. She won’t disappear for us when the WWC is over. This December, we’ll watch the Women’s College Cup and wonder who among the participants might be future WWC heroes.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what I was doing in Salina, Kan., at midnight on Monday/Tuesday … driving back from Colorado Springs to Kansas City, I stopped off at a speck on the map in the middle of the Sunflower State. I wanted to chat with the parents of the most famous resident of that town for a book I am working on.

As I drove away in the clear moonlight from Claflin, Kan., that evening, I was chuckling to myself thinking of how in the fall of 1996, several of the nation’s best women’s basketball coaches had found their way to this little town. Its largest structures – acting as its mini-skyscrapers – are the grain elevators alongside the railroad track that forms the southern border of the town.

Those coaches visited Claflin in hopes that Jackie Stiles would come pour in points for them. Her parents acknowledged that when she chose Southwest Missouri State, a lot of folks were disappointed. Why not UConn? Why not Georgia? Why not someplace … bigger?

Stiles would break the NCAA Division I scoring record (fellow Kansas Lynette Woodard still holds the overall points mark for D-I women’s college hoops) in her senior season. Stiles also would take SMS (now called Missouri State) to the Women’s Final Four. A devastating series of injuries unfortunately made Stiles a basketball comet, as her pro career didn’t last even two full seasons.

But Stiles had her intersecting period with the standard sports universe that March of 2001. And in the parallel sports universe, she remains as one of the legends.

We safeguard them here. Their feats may be on newspapers headlines everywhere from San Francisco to Salina to Schenectady for a brief time when the sports universes intersect. In this universe, though, we carve their triumphs into stone.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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3 Responses to The parallel sports universe, Part 2

  1. Julia says:

    Nice work, MV.

  2. Hy says:

    All minorities – or those treated as such in spite of their numbers – live in parallel universes. Just ask American Blacks. The thing that’s changed for women in the past couple of decades is that an element of their universe has become visible, and given a new vehicle for women to connect with each other. Still, tenuous it is. Some of those who will be cheering Sunday – and cheered when the show was in the Rose Bowl – are the same ones who opposed or actually voted against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1980 – and still would.

  3. Queenie says:

    You had me at “a book I am working on”.