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American idols

Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett bowed out as players on the United States women’s soccer team Wednesday night, ending careers that spanned three decades. Their position as pioneers in women’s athletics, though, remains unchanged.

Soccer coaches and players around the Inland Northwest reflected on what the three players have meant to their sport and for female participation in athletics as the trio stepped away from the field for the final time in an exhibition match against Mexico.

“They’ve given opportunities to girls to play,” said Jen Tissue, the head soccer coach at North Central and a former star at Shadle Park and Whitworth. “Just 20 years ago, when I was starting to play, there weren’t girls’ leagues. The last 10 years, it’s just been exploding, not only here in Spokane but across the country. I think they’ve been a huge part of that.”

In her 17 years playing for the U.S. national squad – she first played for the team at 15 – Hamm scored a world-record 158 goals in 275 games and in the process became the ultimate role model for the female athlete as the 20th century drew to a close.

Foudy, 33, has scored 45 goals in 271 games as a midfielder for the U.S. and has served as a longtime captain. Her vocal leadership earned her the nickname “Loudy Foudy.” Fawcett, 36, has also served as a role model, balancing family life – she gave birth to three daughters over the course of her playing career – with on-field athletic success as a premier defender in 239 games.

“I think we’ve left the game in a better place,” Foudy told the Associated Press. “One of the things I feel most good about, we’ve literally had a global impact and have seen it firsthand. Not just soccer, but it’s empowering young girls around the world.”

In addition to their on-field exploits, the trio played a visible role on the public stage as role models for girls who previously had few if any female athletes to look up to.

Tori Crain, a midfielder at Ferris, was in Los Angeles in 1999 for the World Cup semifinals and finals, a tournament that garnered unprecedented attention on a national level.

Then 12, Crain called the experience of seeing Hamm and the U.S. team play a defining moment.

“It was just amazing. For so long I’d idolized those players,” Crain said, describing how the play of that women’s team helped influence her own approach to the game. “You could really tell how great of athletes they were and how hard they were working. When the match (against China in the finals) went into overtime, you could see them going all out. It said something about work ethic and determination.”

As Foudy suggested, the irony of her career is that the overwhelming success enjoyed by the U.S. team in the last 15 years has made the competition better, as other countries are quickly closing the talent gap on the Americans as women’s sports grow stronger around the world.

In response, those on the grass-roots level of the game in the U.S. have accepted that the bar has been permanently raised because of players like Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett.

“They’ve set the standard for women’s sports, that’s for sure,” Tissue said. “I don’t think we truly know the extent of it yet. But I think it’s going to be a bigger effect than people think it will be.

“Now we’re going to have to push even higher.”