Letter to My Younger Self

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Brandi Chastain, Retired / USWNT - The Players' Tribune

Dear 19-year-old Brandi,

You’re coming off a breakout season at University of California-Berkley, winning the Soccer America Freshman Player of the Year award. You feel important and in charge of your team even though your age belies you. You’re the goal scorer. Your focus is inward — on what you can do on the field and the level at which you can do it. You’re talented and competitive, but don’t yet have much perspective.

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You’re going to be humbled by injuries. Two ACL tears and a meniscus tear will keep you from the game you love for almost two-and-a-half years. Be patient. Listen to your body. This time away will give you a chance to pause — to experience what it’s like to not be a starter, to not be the one who scored a goal or who made an impact. You will learn to appreciate your teammates. They will carry on while you cheer from the sideline. They, in turn, will grow to appreciate you more. They will cheer you on as you work your way back into the lineup.

The mental and physical challenges of rehabbing your body will test your patience. Have faith in those moments — they will define your future perseverance. No athlete knows what’s on the other side of significant injuries. Live all of your questions and trust the process. You’ll return a better player, a better teammate, a better person. Learn. Learn more about the details — training, nutrition, sleep. Learn more about yourself. You will learn to appreciate these times of introspection. You’ll be in better tune to your body and mind, how you’re feeling or not feeling — tired, energized, sore. Communicate those things. Ask questions and then listen thoughtfully to the answers. You’re just getting started. You’ll need this foundation.

The journey rarely begins the way you script it.

Brandi Chastain portrait outside Spartan Stadium

The excitement going into the 1991 World Cup will be something special. You’ll return from injury reinvigorated and will make the national team. But beneath that, you’re going to feel some frustration. You won’t be a starter, and you won’t get much time on the field. That will be tough to navigate. You still find your worth in your contributions — every athlete does. Your competitive personality will drive you to dissect how exactly to get some playing time but remember to balance that with support for your teammates and appreciation for where you are.

You’re there for a reason, and it may not be the reason you had in mind. You can still contribute to the team. They need you, but they are just as important as you. Embrace a different kind of role. Your mother will remind you that good things come to those who wait. Don’t roll your eyes. Heed her advice. Your time will come. You and your team will win the final game against Norway, 2-1. It won’t be your last Cup title but don’t take this one for granted.

Your mother will remind you that good things come to those who wait. Don’t roll your eyes. Heed her advice.

You’re going to be devastated when you don’t make the ’95 World Cup team. Those women will have become your sisters, your support system. Being with them in ’91 and the years following — competing with them against the world — energized you and pushed you to the edge of your own comfort. It built you up. Being away from the team will break you down. Worse than not making the team will be the way in which you find out — you simply won’t be on the list. No conversation — just your name absent on a 23-player roster. That will hurt you the most. You’ll learn how silence can be suffocating.

Feel your hurt. Crawl inside of it, live with it, acknowledge it. Lean on your parents, who’ve always supported you, and your loved ones. They’ll help you through it. Watch your hurt take shape into determination. Use your stubbornness for good and make your way back to the national team. Really look at yourself and ask hard questions. Try to understand what about you as a player may have contributed to being cut but don’t get lost in that inward spiral.

You’ve got history to make.

At the start of the next chapter in your playing career, you’ll be faced with a tough choice. The USWNT will go on strike to dispute the contract offered by U.S. Soccer. Still, you’ll be invited to the national team camp under Tony DiCicco. You’ll have to decide whether to stand in solidarity with your teammates as they strike, because you believe in them and what they’re doing, or seize your chance. It will be a sensitive point: you acting with your team or acting selfishly. The thing is, you’ll be grateful for an opportunity to return to the team. The hurt from ’95 will still be a source of motivation. Talk to someone. Get some perspective. Your teammate Julie Foudy will encourage you to go into camp. She wants the best for the team but she always wants the best for individual people. Her support will stay with you for the rest of your life. And when you make the choice to join the camp, don’t think about what would’ve happened had you not. U.S. Soccer will be better for it.

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The 1999 World Cup run will be an unequivocal lesson in both humility and gratitude. It will be hosted in your own backyard — your own country — and on a scale unseen before. Huge stadiums. Huge crowds. Huge pressure. When you drive up to Giants Stadium in New Jersey for that first game against Denmark, and see the bus lined by enormous crowds of fans, remember it. Remember the faces of the young girls, painted in red, white and blue, with their little bodies draped in Mia Hamm jerseys, Julie Foudy jerseys, and yes, Brandi Chastain jerseys. Remember their brothers. And mothers. And fathers. All those hopeful and inspired people there to cheer you on — to give you life when your legs have lost it.

The 1999 World Cup run will be an unequivocal lesson in both humility and gratitude.

Remember them first.

In the quarterfinal match against Germany, you’ll score an own goal. Germany’s Bettina Weigmann will score as well, leaving the U.S. down 2-1 at halftime. You’ll feel like you’ve disappointed your team, the fans, the country. A simple mistake at a critical time. You’ll feel the nerves of the fans and the weight of the next 45 minutes. Rinse your mind of it and let your body take over. In the 48th minute, you’ll score again — this time for the right team. Joy Fawcett will knock another one in with her head and the USWNT will advance to the semifinal, where you’ll beat Brazil 2-0.

You’ll remember that own goal but when people tell the story of the ’99ers, this is what they’ll remember most: The Rose Bowl. Pasadena, California. July 10th. The World Cup final between the U.S. and China. 90,000-plus in attendance.

Brandi Chastain

Remember that number. It will set a record for women’s soccer, and go down as one of the largest-ever audiences for a women’s sporting event.

China will beat you in the ’99 Algarve Cup during the lead up to this tournament. They’ll be seeking revenge after losing the ’91 cup to the U.S. on their home soil, as well as the ’96 Olympic gold medal match.

Coach DiCicco will have you practice your PKs with your opposite foot. Do it. Trust his intuition.

Respect their determination, for it’s equal to yours. Both teams will battle it out under a scorching sun into a scoreless draw after 90 minutes and extra time. Penalty kicks will decide the game.

Your practices throughout the World Cup will be open to the public. Coach DiCicco will have you practice your PKs with your opposite foot. Do it. Trust his intuition that China may be smart enough to scout your practices.

All four of your teammates — Mia, Carla Overbeck, Kristine Lily and Joy Fawcett — will make their PKs. China will make only four of their five PKs. You can win this World Cup with your kick. For yourself. For your team. For the fans. For the country. For women’s sports.

Julie Foudy Mia Hamm Brandi Chastain Kristine Lilly Joy Fawce

When you line up for that kick, you’ll have spent the last decade looking inward, challenging yourself to be better outward. A penalty kick rests solely between the kicker and goalie. Your team, meanwhile, literally has your back. The metaphor there will be too much to process or even register in the moment. You’ll have come full circle from that young college freshman suffering from an inflated sense of self. This moment — your moment — will stand as the lasting image of the team’s glory.

When you step up to the ball, and the stadium of 90,000 seems to dissipate, let it all go. You’ll score the winning goal. But you knew you would. Don’t think of anything when the ball hits the back of the net — only feel the eruption of the crowd, the pure joy and elation of that moment. Take your shirt off. Scream. Embrace your teammates. That goal will change your life.

You’ll make history. And headlines.

You can’t prepare for the media onslaught that will befall you but embrace it. Don’t listen to the sexist remarks about removing your shirt. When you do interview after interview, where everyone asks why, be yourself. Own it. That image will become one of the most iconic in all of sports history. It will stand for glory. For so long, female soccer players lived in an anonymous world with the desperate desire for the sport to be mainstream. Women wanted young girls to have something to aspire to — to see it. So do every interview you have to. Drive the conversation. Give soccer a voice. You’ve already given it an image.

Brandi Chastain

For all of your successes on the field, the ones you’re most proud of will come off of it: your husband. Your kids. They will teach you lessons no game ever could and bring you joy World Cup titles never will. This will be your greatest of all tasks. Be patient with them, too. Your legacy will not only live on through one photo, but through your children. And theirs.

People will remind you to never look back — always look forward, in positivity and hopefulness. But let yourself look over your shoulder at that 19-year-old girl, who would one day change the world.

And then, look ahead, at the next 19-year-old girl who may, one day, do it again.

-Brandi

Real Fan Life: Brandi Chastain

This week on the #RealFanLife podcast, I spoke with former USWNT star Brandi Chastain. Oh, and at some point, she confirmed my masculinity. Just listen. There’s something for everyone here.​

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