Brandi Chastain: I love a great walk. For me, a walk is allowing me to let my shoulders fall down, to take a deep breath, being open. There’s a freedom to a walk.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives.
As part of a series on World Class Athletes, this episode features soccer champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Brandi Chastain, who played for the U.S. Women’s National Team. She’s known for scoring the winning goal in the 1999 FIFA World Cup, then falling to her knees in celebration. On this walk, Brandi talks about why that moment almost didn’t happen and how support from her family and teammates made it possible.
Brandi Chastain: Things most people know about me is I’m a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Cup champion. I’m a mother. I’m a grandmother. And I’m a bit of organized chaos on a regular basis, which is to say that I coach three teams at one time, I’m running from this, that, and the other thing, and basically I’m… I’m embracing every moment’s opportunity to find happiness wherever I go in unexpected moments.
Right now, we’re walking through the campus at Santa Clara University, the place where I got my undergraduate degree, the place I actually call my saving grace. I, I was a transfer student to Santa Clara, and I was a bit lost. And so I feel at home here because it’s what grounded me. It… It’s what gave me purpose. The campus itself is beautiful. The Mission Church is a historical landmark, and it also happens to be the place where I got married. And so there’s a lot of good feelings here. I feel very calm and at ease. We’re walking to a place now that holds probably the most important, deepest, life-changing place on campus. And every time I step foot there, I feel uplifted, I feel encouraged, enthusiastic, and powerful.
If you don’t know soccer, you probably know the image of a celebration after the final penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, down on my knees, fists clenched, in joy and celebration of winning the World Cup. That is the quintessential image of victory.
The real victory for the World Cup came long before that championship penalty kick and that celebration. And that win was only possible after an incredibly devastating moment in the quarterfinal against Germany that changed everything for me.
If you can imagine the deafening sound of a 75,000-seat stadium, unlike the Rose Bowl, which kind of goes out and makes a bowl, wide, this stadium in Washington, D.C. goes straight up, and the fans are on top of the field. And it’s electric, and it’s amazing. You’re in your nation’s capital. Like, this is the home of America, and the weight of the World Cup is upon our team.
And I say that because, in every media outlet, every interview, inevitably the concept of the future of women’s soccer is in the balance if the U.S. Women’s National Team doesn’t win. And I believe they were saying that because women in sports, though accepted, were not really lifted and not really embraced the way men’s sports have been embraced in this country. And so there was a certain degree of: you have to win to show them it matters.
So, when we came into the stadium, and we saw the painted faces of the little girls…
[SOUND OF CHEERING]
…and their dads and their brothers and their mothers and the signs and the noise, it just was overwhelmingly surreal first, and then powerful.
And, basically, we’re six minutes into this game, and I see the ball come from the middle of the field, over my head and the head of Carla Overbeck playing center-back next to me. As I see that Germany has played this ball in the air between Carla and I, I take my eyes off the ball as it’s traveling over my head to look to see where the nearest German attacker is, and I realize that I’m in a very good position. I’ll get to the ball first. I’m just going to make one simple play. At that moment, I did the opposite of what I tell my players I coach, which is communicate.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING]
I didn’t communicate to Briana that I would be passing the ball back. And as I passed the ball back, she came out to get it, and it went past her and into the goal.
Announcer: Chastain back to Scurry! She came out! And it’s a goal for Germany on one of those miscommunication plays.
[END ESPN CLIP]
That’s the most egregious mistake that you can make in soccer, scoring own goal. And obviously the things that could have been going through my mind were, “I’m not good enough. Why did the coach put me in this position? I’m a forward by… by trade, really. I grew up being a forward. This was not my comfort zone. I’m not good enough. I’ve let the team down, and the future of women’s soccer disappears.” But that didn’t happen. And so the worst moment turns into the most amazing moment, which is what I love so much about sports.
As we turn around from the goal to go back to kick the ball off, Carla kind of gave me this clap that she does that, if I heard it anywhere in the world, I would know that Carla Overbeck were here. And I looked up, and she said, “Forget about it. We’re going to go on and win this game, and you’re going to help us do that.”
And the most amazing thing happened, which was I let it go. This relief and this… I just shed all the negative… potential negative things, and I said, “Okay. Let’s go.” And the trust and love and compassion that Carla showed in that moment really propelled me forward. That is what I feel I gained from that moment for the rest of my life, how individuals can truly be impact players in other people’s lives. Carla didn’t wake up that morning saying, “Oh, I’m going to change someone’s life,” but she was ready at the time when I needed her, and she gave freely to me. And, at the same time, I was open to that acceptance. I was open to her saying, “Don’t worry. Just be your best self, and we’re going to go on and win this game.” And who knew she was a… she was a prophet?
I went on to score another goal in that game, this time for our team. Whew.
Announcer: Chastain, goal!
[END ESPN CLIP]
When you see the celebration for that goal, what you’ll see is an incredible amount of relief, just the gratitude of having a moment and to contribute in a positive manner towards the outcome. That, that was an amazing gift.
Announcer: The USA goes on to the semifinals.
[END ESPN CLIP]
[SOUND OF WALKING]
When I was very young, I remember specifically my parents used to say to myself and to my brother, “Whose baby are you?” And they would expect us to say, “Oh, Mommy’s baby,” or, “Daddy’s baby.”
And one day, I said, “Gagi’s baby.” And my parents were like, “Who the hell is Gagi’s baby? Who is Gagi?” Nobody knew who this person was, and I think they were thinking, you know, “This is a random statement by a two-year-old.” And one day, in comes my grandfather, and I yelled his name, “Gagi!” And I ran over to him, and from that moment forward, he became Gagi. My parents called him Gagi, and that became his name.
My grandfather was always around, and he was a sports fan. He played basketball. He came from the Midwest. He was tall and slender. He wore those horn-rimmed glasses that everybody wore in the late ’50s, and he would wear a suit and a skinny tie.
His wingtip shoes were perfectly polished. But then he had his… He loved golf at the same time, and he’d have his light yellow pants because he was a fan of Jack Nicklaus. And I don’t know if I soaked up all of the lessons that he gave me about golf, but I just loved being with him. And so he was very close to me. Our hearts were connected.
One of my favorite memories of us together is the time when we would go to lunch. He would take me to lunch downtown. And downtown, we went to Original Joe’s, which has been a longtime establishment in San Jose. And it had this vibe where it was like Rat Pack, men only. You know, the cigarettes are in the ashtray, and they’re burning, and the smoke is going up. And it just, like, had this really cool environment, and he never thought twice about bringing me in and taking me. And I would sit down at the end of the bar, and all his friends would be there, and they’d welcome me. And I would order his drink, a gin marti over with a twist.
And I’m nine years old. And I’d sit in the corner, and I’d drink Shirley Temples. And, every now and again, his friends would come over, and we’d roll dice. And it was… At the time, I don’t think I understood how powerful it was to be there as a young girl. And I don’t… I’m sure I didn’t realize how important it was to see a man who was willing to kind of break this stereotype, this barrier of like, “Yeah, she’s a girl, but she can be here. And she belongs here.” And I think because he showed that to his cronies, as I guess that’s the word you would’ve used back then, they accepted me. And I felt empowered there, and I loved it. And I could hardly wait for the next week when we would go to lunch.
My grandfather, you know, I have such great, deep affection for him and my parents that, even in my missing them, I… I laugh, and I feel so full of joy when I think of them. My grandfather was unlike any other male in my life, and I think he really influenced my dad. All… You know, all of my… My dad and my two grandfathers were all in the military. And so there’s this hardness that goes along with being in the service, and yet my grandfather was the biggest crier I’ve ever known, and in a good way, right?
If he saw something that was sweet and tender, he would get emotionally invested in that moment. You know, he would cry when he would see… I remember this vividly. There was commercials when I was younger, Kodak Moments. Oh, my gosh. These tore him apart. He would just start weeping. But I think I’m so grateful to him for showing me that, you know, he was a very strong man, he was athletic, again, he had served our country, and yet, when he saw something that really touched him, he allowed himself to show those emotions.
If there’s anything I learned from my grandfather, it would be to love openly, to cry when something moves you, to be touched by moments that surprise you.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
I learned very similar lessons from my mother and my grandfather. They were just given to me through different pictures. I have so many fond pictures of my mom in my head, but Saturdays with my mom on a game day, they just overwhelm every other experience because this is when she was absolutely at her most loving and free-spirited self. And she was just a woman who was in her… in the right time, in terms of she was a mom, you know, quintessential like late ’60s.
She cooked the meals. She got the kids ready. You know, she did all these things, and she happened to be a high-powered vice president of a company, and she wore a suit to work, unlike any other mom that I saw in my very small life, which is, you know, six blocks of living.
My mom was not encouraged to play sports growing up. So she became a cheerleader. And what I remember very vividly in my head is this picture of my mom in her ’70s outfit, which is halter top, jean shorts, wedge shoes, and this massive megaphone, bright yellow with the stickers for our team name on the side, Horizon, and then all the stickers of the tournaments we went to. And she would stand on the sideline, and she would cheer for every player.
I would say, “Mom, come on, you’re… this is embarrassing.” And she would… her response to me, I will never forget because now I’m saying it. This is true. When you become a parent, you do pick up some of these things from your parents. “Oh, no, everybody loves it. It’s so fun. I’m cheering for everyone.” And it was true. Everybody loves it. They were so grateful that she shared herself openly and freely and enthusiastically.
She was the best at having a tailgate or a party and inviting anyone who happened to walk by. As I’m walking right now, the people that I’m crossing would become friends if my mom was with me. She’d be like, “Hey, we’re having a party in 15 minutes. Come and join us. Like, it’ll be so awesome.”
And what those Saturdays meant to me is comfort, support, the knowledge that I could do anything. She gave that to me. So, every Saturday, yes, she brought out the megaphone, and, yes, as a young girl, I was like, “Oh, this is the worst. Like, Mom, come on.”
But when I got to 1999, and we’re in a stadium of 90,000-plus people, I could hear her voice. And her voice allowed me to let go of any doubt or fear or nervousness and to be bold and to go for it. And finding her after the game was incredible. Her big smile and her twinkling eyes was the best. She was the best.
So, now, as a mother, I have had the opportunity to cheer for my sons from the sideline. And I laugh because I see myself doing the same thing my mother did and my sons saying, “Mom, that’s so embarrassing. Stop.” And I said, “It’s not embarrassing. I just love you so much, I, I have to cheer. And I… And I want everybody else to know that they’re supported, and I just love being here with you.” These are the moments that are the… It makes it hard to talk. These are the moments that will stay with you forever, not the score of the game, not how many minutes you played, but you’ll know how much you were loved.
Oh, I love walking. It makes me think of so many amazing things.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
We’ve now arrived at Buck Shaw Stadium, Stevens Field, and I slow down. I can see my grandfather sitting just to the right of me, three rows up in his light yellow golfing pants. And I look straight ahead, and I see the spot where my parents would sit, behind the goal, just waiting to celebrate our team and me scoring.
I, I sense the smell and the dampness of the dew on the grass, and as I move my feet, how the cut blades stick to my shoes. And I can feel myself running fast and scoring goals. And it makes my walk a little bit faster. And I feel alive, and I feel motivated and so blessed that I could run on this field. It’s my favorite field in the world.
Thank you so much for walking with me and allowing me to revisit some of these stories. And if you’re willing to stick with me and walk, you might hear the most interesting and eclectic and heartfelt playlist ever.
So I asked my teammates if we had to create a list of songs that are iconic for the time of that 1999 Women’s World Cup and what really encapsulated our feeling and our essence in the locker room, what would those songs be? And it was unanimous that “Let’s Get Loud” was on the list mainly because we liked to do a lot of bad dancing before a game started so we could play a lot of great soccer.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
This is “Let’s Get Loud” by Jennifer Lopez a.k.a. J.Lo.
[MUSIC - “LET’S GET LOUD” BY JENNIFER LOPEZ]
So the second song is much different than that but is connected to soccer, but more so in the pregame. This is going to sound funny because it’s not a warmup song with the jack-you-up, pump-up, rah, rah, rah. It’s more of this everybody knew all the… the words, everybody sang it together. Kristine Lilly, one of our teammates, she loved to make mixtapes when mixtapes were in. And so this song always had a place on every mixtape. And so we all got to know it, and the words are so powerful and so deep and thoughtful. And we would sing it in the locker room before we would play. And that guitar, that first strum of the guitar…
[MUSIC FADES IN]
…it was like everybody was up, and everybody could play the guitar, and we weren’t taking ourselves so seriously. And I think that fun nature of being able to look at yourself in, you know, the way that this song made me look at myself and think, “Let’s just have some fun. We’re here. We’re going through the process. You know, we’ve been evaluated. Let’s not take it so seriously.” “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls.
[MUSIC - “CLOSER TO FINE” BY THE INDIGO GIRLS]
So number three is less an… an anthem or a call to something that has happened in my past, but it’s really more right now. But this song, to me, is empowering a woman to be on her own two feet and to be absolutely okay with that. She’s doing it her way, which is probably different than a lot of people and society have been depicting women. And she’s brave, and I love it. “Good As Hell” by Lizzo.
[MUSIC - “GOOD AS HELL” BY LIZZO]
This walk was great. I loved sharing stories, thinking back about all these great times and wonderful people. Thank you so much for taking the time to walk with me today.