Kelli Best Oliver (or K.B.O. if you are me) is a former Draft Day Suit writer and one of our very favorite people. She was also kind enough to let us cross post this piece on why she loves women’s soccer from her personal blog South City Confidential. Enjoy.
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I started playing soccer relatively late: a awkward nine-year old lured to the sport more by the promise of Little Debbies and Hi-C juice boxes after games than any real draw to running and kicking. But in the early 90’s, especially in Iowa, it didn’t take much for a girl playing with boys to eventually get immersed in the game through club soccer. As my skills improved and my exposure to women’s soccer increased, I slowly fell in love with the beautiful game. How could you not, as an adolescent back them, be enthralled by the story of the founding mothers of US Women’s Soccer? How could you not want to be like Mia Hamm, a star so dominating, so prodigious, that she made the US Women’s National Team before she was old enough to drive a car? How could you not look up to Michelle Akers, dominating the midfield in the air, despite looking like she could be my mom? How could you not be inspired by Tiffany Milbrett, who gave hope to 5’2″ girls everywhere that they could knock around the best defenders in the world?
By the time I was a gangly teenager, I was hooked. And I was also lucky. I came of age in a time when Title IX made women’s soccer the fastest growing collegiate sport at the time. If you had any amount of game, let alone decent grades to go with it, you could play soccer in college, and it could pay for your time there. So that’s what I did. I ended up playing Division II soccer at Truman State University, which ended up being the perfect place for a player like me to spend their career. I sat the bench for a year, all the while working my ass off to earn the right to start and learning what it mean to play at that level. In fact, it was the summer between my freshman and sophomore seasons, that summer I spent running and lifting and getting as many touches on the ball so that I could be in the starting 11 come fall, that the United States hosted the Women’s World Cup. And it was July 10th, one day before my 19th birthday, when Kristine Lilly cleared an almost-sure goal by China off the line with her head. When Briana Scurry saved one, just one, penalty shot during the shootout. When Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty shot and ripped off her jersey in jubilant celebration, revealing the muscled, finely-honed physique of an athlete. And those same founding mothers celebrated and hoisted the championship trophy, they did so with their children, because the founding mothers were, in fact, actual mothers with small children.
And so, 12 years later, I watched a different US Women’s National Team, one filled mostly with players younger than me, but still filled with the same heart and guts and hustle instilled by the women who created the legacy. They were playing Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. My heart sank as break after break seemed to go to Brazil. But even after a questionable call essentially gave a goal to the Brazilians and took a US player off the field, leaving them a woman short for much of the second half, these new stars, Solo and Wambach and Lloyd and O’Reilly, never, ever, ever gave up. When all hope for victory seemed lost, after over 120 minutes of pure hustle, in one last push, Megan Rapinoe-who came off the bench, the bench!-served a perfect ball across the mouth of the Brazillian goal and there was Wambach, through two defenders, heading the ball in for a truly last-minute goal to send the game into penalty kicks. And there was no way that Hope Solo, the keeper with ice in her veins, or the rest of these women, would not finish this game with victory. 12 years later, to the date, another shootout, another victory for the team that refuses to quit. I found myself, tears streaming down my face, goosebumps on my arms, remembered just why soccer was-is-so important.
I went on to start for the rest of my career at Truman. My experiences with that team were formative to the woman I became-the woman I am. I learned the power of drive, of heart, of hustle, of hard work and delayed gratification, of loyalty and pride and integrity and grit. I learned what can happen when women work together and lift each other up. I made friendships that are still with me today: I held two of my former teammates babies this weekend; I will stand up for another at her wedding in October. I have a forged bond with some of these women. They are my sisters.
What some people don’t understand-can’t ever understand-is how soccer, for women, is more than just a game. They don’t understand that thousands and thousands of girls and young women will remember Sunday’s game for the rest of their lives, and some part of that game-maybe Wambach’s goal, maybe one of Solo’s saves, maybe Ali Krieger’s final penalty kick-will forever remind them of what they can accomplish. What they can accomplish might be on the pitch, but it might not be. It might be becoming a doctor or starting a nonprofit or running for office or being a mother who empowers her own daughters for greatness. It can be really,