Filled with Olympians, World Cup titles and All-Americans, the Pac-12 Network recently revealed the Pac-12 All-Century Women’s Soccer roster. And to no one’s surprise, it was 3-medal Olympian, 2-time World Cup winner and National Soccer Hall of Fame member, Julie Foudy who was named Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Player of the Century.
A few months ago I had the great privilege of sitting down with arguably the best midfielder to ever play for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT). Julie Foudy, Orange County native and former Mission Viejo High School stand-out, is a pioneer among women athletes. Before Carli, Abby and Alex, there was Julie Foudy.
Patty La Bella: Whenever I interview a female soccer player, I always ask them, ‘Who were your influences growing up?’ And inevitably every one of them will say, “Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm.” When you were growing up in Orange County, who were your influences? Because there were no Julie Foudy’s or Mia Hamm’s.
Julie Foudy: No. We didn’t have women soccer players back then who we could watch on TV. We didn’t have much soccer at all on TV back in the day. Now, you can watch about 10 games a day.
But I was fond of the Lakers back then and we did have an NFL team, so I’d watch the Rams. I loved sports – I was such a tomboy. But the guys I emulated were like 8-feet tall and 300 pounds (laughs). Not really realistic for me to say, ‘Oh yes, I can be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic Johnson? Of course!’
So that was why (and we talked about this a lot with the national team back in the day), it was so important for us to be role models. And there were no women sports role models back in the day (especially in team sports).
So we were very cognizant of the fact that here we have a great opportunity to be the role models that we never had. So as often as we could just talk, chat, or share our story and always be really conscious of the bigger picture, we did.
And it wasn’t only about young girls, but we felt it important for young boys to see women in these roles as well and how that played out in society and how important that was to them.
PL: When you were at Stanford having that great college career there – at what point did it hit you that you could actually play soccer for a living?
JF: That’s a great question. I didn’t think I could make a living out of it. I was going to go to med school right after I graduated from Stanford. I took my MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and got into med school in the fall of 1996.
People think I didn’t go to med school (I deferred for two years) because I knew I could make a career in soccer. Well, that wasn’t actually the case. The reason I didn’t go to med school was I didn’t think I would make a great doctor. I’m far too distracted to be on one career path.
So I didn’t go to med school because of soccer reasons, it was because I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a doctor and go to school for 200 years. So even then in 1996-97, I had no idea that I could make a career at soccer. I just wanted to play. I loved playing. I was playing in the summers, trying to make ends meet. So, it was a totally different environment back then.
PL: What did your parents say about that?
JF: My parents have always been the kind who were supportive but never at all into being the crazy parents on the sideline, driving me to all the practices, screaming from the sidelines.
If my mom and dad came to the games, I’d be like ‘Wow, what are you guys doing here? Awesome, thanks for coming.’ So with them, it was always like “Honey whatever you want. Its your decision.” They gave me tons of independence.
Also, my mom was a nurse and knew how hard the medical profession was. I mean, I literally talked to every doctor out there and asked, ‘What should I do? Should I stay or should I go?’ Because I was deferring for another year at Stanford. And every doctor I talked to said, “Unless you’re sure its your life’s calling, I wouldn’t do it.”
PL: We’d be here all day if I started naming all the awards, records, accolades that you’ve collected over your career. So I’ll just ask you this – what is the one thing in your soccer career that you’re most proud of?
JF: Oh gosh… (pause). People always ask me which World Cup was the best or which Olympics, or which one is better – the World Cup or Olympics. But I always say the thing I actually miss the most with that group and I look back on so fondly, is the laughter. That to me was the key to us playing so long. We just had so much damn fun.
We were always joking around and taking over restaurants and bars and thank god there was no Twitter or social media back in the day. A band would be playing at the bar and we would be singing the national anthem up on stage. It was just a really cool group of women who loved to play and loved to have fun while we played. I think that’s the thing I look back on as the most memorable.
Its so hard to find those friendships in life and to have teammates like that for almost two decades. I look back and think, ‘I actually got paid to spend every day with my buddies laughing and screaming. what a great life!’ And you miss that – that camaraderie.
PL: Speaking of the 99er’s, that team still has such a mystique about them – iconic, I guess you could say. Has it surprised you how much that team still resonates with, not just soccer fans, but with so many fans and players outside of the sport?
JF: Well, I think it was the first time we as a team and as a sport for the women’s side had ever broken through into the mainstream. So, in that sense it doesn’t surprise me. You know, the 1996 Olympics happened and we won that but didn’t get much play at all on NBC. It was still kind of like ‘Who are these guys?’
So, ’99 was kind of our coming out party. And I think that’s why we resonate so much because people saw that we loved to have fun and we were very normal. We didn’t have car services and personal chefs or big contracts. We just loved doing it.
I’m just so happy that we look back on that journey as the first generation – the pioneering group who had to go through all that, even though it wasn’t always easy (I wanted to strangle the U.S. Soccer Federation back then). But happy to be able to look back with such perspective and to know that we played such a part in building something really neat.
PL: You mentioned how you and your 1999 teammates would talk about being role models. As a fan, that ’99 Women’s World Cup final was a day I’ll never forget because you could actually feel the change in the air. Did you feel it at that time, that this was something big?
JF: Yeah. So much so, I hoped it didn’t become so emotional for all of us that we couldn’t play. Yeah, it did hit us, but I think we understood because we had fought so hard for it. And that’s the beauty of the fight when you then realize what it took to get here. But, the payoff is phenomenal.
And we really did – we spent so much time promoting that ’99 World Cup and doing clinics and getting out there. We were so much a part of pushing that grassroots pendulum and getting clubs, teams, and the local communities in the nation enthused about it, that when you get to that moment, you’re like, ‘See – I told you this was going to happen!! No one believed us!’ (Laughs). You start looking for all those people who doubted you. Where are you?!
PL: I think that’s why the ’99er’s still resonate because you guys were pioneers and I think that will never go away.
JF: The thing that almost makes me sad is that the next generation doesn’t get to live through that because there’s nothing like that first generation in having to build something. And that feeling when you get there. Its one of the great life lessons I carry with me.
In life, when you dream (and I’m always telling kids this), don’t listen when people tell you that you can’t do it, that its not going to happen, or you’re crazy. If we had listened to them (which we could have easily done), we would have no ’99 World Cup, we would have not of that.
PL: And now, you’ve re-invented yourself as a respected sports journalist and broadcaster. How did your gig at ESPN come about? It seems like you started right after you retired from the game.
JF: While I was playing and we were doing a lot of interviews, a producer came up to me and said, “You should consider TV, you’re really natural on camera.” I was like, ‘Eh… whatever.’
I ended up calling some college games while I was still playing in the early ’90’s and then I got asked to do the actual studio for ESPN for the ’98 World Cup. So while I was still playing, I did the men’s World Cup in ’98 with no TV experience. I look back and think, ‘Oh my god! Talk about jumping into the fire!’
I just kind of stayed with it towards the latter part of my playing career and then I jumped into it right after. I did the 2006 Winter Olympics and the 2008 Bejing Olympics. It’s been so much fun because I’m still connected to the game, of course having recently called the men’s World Cup in Brazil. It was a bummer ESPN lost the Women’s World Cup starting with Canada last summer.
But I’m still around the U.S. Women’s National Team and that keeps me close to the game which I love and it keeps me still advocating for growth in the sport, which I think we still need. And I get to go to these big events – the Olympics and World Cups and be a part of them from the other side. On the dark side of course! (laughs).
PL: So, as a former player, how hard is it for you to keep your commentary focused on what’s happening now rather than on your past experiences?
JF: Well, the network will always say that they want me to bring in my personal experience. That’s what makes it special, right? But there comes a point where people are like, “Seriously, she’s talking about herself again?” (laughs). So you have to balance it.
I try not to say, ‘When I was playing back in the 1800’s…” (laughs). And really, you should only really give it in terms of when it makes sense and when it adds color to what you’re saying.
I think the nice thing is, as a former player, I understand the draw and when you’re in a Group of Death and what that means and so you want to pull in those moments. But I don’t like to constantly refer back to when I was playing, but you have to sometimes bring in that experience, of course.
PL: What do you like about the current U.S. Women’s National Team?
JF: I think this team is as deep as they’ve ever been. For example, a position the U.S. has not been that deep in the past few years is at the outside-back position. Now you’re seeing a Meghan Klingenberg emerge. We saw Lori Chulupny back, you have Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn, you have Kelley O’Hara. So all over the field you have depth.
And also, what country can boast the embarrassment of riches that the U.S. have had on the front line? Abby – the best goal scorer in the world. Ever! Alex Morgan, who can just turn a game and loves big goals in big moments, Syd Leroux, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez. There’s so many options up front.
And the nice thing is Press and Leroux could pop out wide. There’s so much versatility there. And the thing that Amy Rodriguez brings, similar to Alex, and which is so important is just the ability to stretch defenses – she brings this pace that moves the defensive line back and then it opens up space in the midfield.
PL: Is there any player in today’s game who reminds you of a young Julie Foudy?
JF: Oh goodness… (In a mocking voice) Alex Morgan I would say – fast, young, can finish from anywhere (laughs). No! I could not finish unless I was within six inches of the goal. I didn’t like to get on the ground… so I would say maybe Shannon Boxx. But she’s much more grittier than I was.
PL: You were pretty gritty!
JF: I mean I was a feisty, competitive little player. I wasn’t on the ground tackling players though. But that’s a good question. I haven’t thought about that actually. I’ll have to think about that.
PL: So many of the ’99ers, yourself included waited until after they retired from soccer to start a family. And now it’s very common for players to get married and have babies in the middle of their careers. What do you think about that and could you ever imagine raising a family during your playing days?
JF: Well, its funny because before Joy Fawcett had her kids, there were so many players like Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, who said, “I want a family. So, I have to retire.” Back in the early 90’s that was the norm.
Joy was the one who shifted the culture and changed it. Because she really wanted to have about 10 kids. Her husband cut her off at three. But Joy said, “Well, I want to have kids but I’m going to keep playing.”
And literally after having her first kid, Joy was back training within a couple of weeks. She would just bounce right back. And so she was the one who gave other players the courage – you know Carla Overbeck, Danielle Fotopoulos – they all started to follow. And that was the really neat thing because we could say, “Okay, I can do this.”
With me, even after watching Joy, I never thought I would want to do both. But now that I have kids, I wish I had started earlier. I should have popped one out in my 20’s! Because I didn’t start having kids until my mid to late 30’s. Now I have two awesome little monsters. But I think it’s great to see the change. And that all started with Joy.
PL: I just recently talked to Amy Rodriguez about it and she said she didn’t know how she would come back. But she had that opportunity and she knew it was possible. But she didn’t know how her own body was going to come back. Then, she came back better than ever.
JF: And actually one of the really cool things is, again going back to some of the things that were put in place back in the day – because of Joy and Carla, we fought like crazy for money for nannies, money for daycare, money for travel for nannies.
All these things that companies offer employees, we didn’t have in place. Now all these things are in place thanks to Joy and Carla and living that. So that’s neat because now Amy will be able to reap the benefits of that. As she should! As any mom coming into the National Team should.
PL: You’ve always been a very positive role model on and off the field and to further that you created the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy. Can you tell us a little bit about the academy and what makes it different than other soccer camps?
JF: Oh gosh, it’s so not a soccer camp. I had been doing soccer camps forever – my little soccer camp in Mission Viejo which I still do, we just passed our 20-year mark. But I remember saying to my husband and to friends, that the beauty of sports to me is all that you learn about yourself – finding your voice, self-esteem, learning how to work with a team and deal with setback and adversity and how to work as a group together and come to some common goal. And nothing out there really talked to that.
What I also noticed when I was doing youth soccer camps for years is how young girls seemed so hesitant to raise their hand, even if they were the most popular kid or the captain or the kid you would think would be okay with raising her hand. But with girls, there was always this hesitancy. They’d look around like “What does Sally think, what does Jane think?” And that was driving me nuts.
So our friends, Kerri and Edson McClellan and Todd Smith, who are now the co-founders with me and my husband Ian (Sawyers), came to this idea of doing a camp where sports is used as a vehicle to talk about all these great lessons.
You don’t need Olympic gold medals to learn these lessons. You don’t need to be a captain, a president, CEO or in a position of power to be a leader. We should be talking to young girls about leadership being personal, not positional. That’s what we do. We started these leadership academies 10 years ago with just soccer. Now, we have lacrosse and softball.
We bring them in with sports of course – thats’s kind of the hook. But what they leave with is this really transformational experience about finding their voice, being okay with loving the skin they’re in. I get so much out of it, personally. Its been really my little third child – my little baby. I go to every single one, when I’m not at the World Cup or Olympics.
We do them all over the country – in New Jersey, Chicago, Northern California. I bring my kids with me. We hunker in for a week. It’s so much fun. And the thing I love about it is, its not serious – it brings back the fun and joy of what we do. Sports is so serious these days. Let’s have fun! But woven through it all, is this great leadership messaging of empowerment and strength.
PL: That’s just one of the many great things about you – you’re still making an impact on young girls’ lives through sport. Thank you for continuing to do that and for taking the time to visit with us today.
JF: Thank you for covering this great game we love so much. We need more people talking about it and the great women who play it. Thank you.
This interview first aired on Women’s World Football Show. Listen to the unedited version.
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