ATHENS, Ga. -- In what surely will be cast as a watershed event for women's team sports, the United States won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's soccer before what was announced as the largest crowd ever to see a women's athletic contest.
The crowd of 76,481 that packed Georgia University's Sanford Stadium last night watched the Americans defeat China, 2-1, and complete a yearlong quest to re-establish themselves as the world's dominant women's soccer program.
"We trained all year for this," said midfielder Shannon MacMillan, who scored the first U.S. goal. "We knew this day was going to come and not one person was going to let this team down. Every one out there fought with their heart and soul."
They had been waiting for this day to come since the defending champion U.S. team came up short in the 1995 World Cup, losing in the semifinals to the Norwegian national team that went on to win the title.
The Americans avenged that defeat in the semifinals here and then played an inspired 90 minutes to defeat a very efficient, well-coached team from China.
Most of them have been waiting for this day -- for another reason -- all their lives. They have grown up in a world in which men's athletics have gotten all the money and all the attention, but last night they found themselves in a Super Bowl setting.
"I don't think it will change women's soccer," said defender Brandi Chastain, "but I think it will enhance women's soccer. I just want to see more kids get involved. I want everybody to be able to play."
The game was deadlocked until forward Tiffeny Milbrett scored off a pass from defender Joy Fawcett in the 68th minute to put the United States in control. The lead held up for a tense 22 more minutes as the Chinese team scrambled to get even.
Fawcett was standing outside the locker room with her 2-year-old Katelyn, wondering just what this might mean for her daughter when she is old enough to follow in her mother's footsteps.
"I think maybe she'll have an easier time getting there than we did," Fawcett said. "She has traveled with the team to every stop. She's been here the whole time. I just hope there will be more opportunity for her."
The U.S. team already had played China once in this competition and the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Both teams came out of the same preliminary group with 2-0-1 records, but China received the top seeding in the medal round by virtue of the larger goal differential in the three preliminary games.
The semifinal seeding turned out to be very important, because it pitted the U.S. team against World Cup rival Norway in the semifinal, a game that the American team won in overtime. China got the softer draw, but had to come from behind to beat Brazil to advance to the gold-medal game.
There would be no scoreless tie this time. MacMillan put the United States on top in the 18th minute when a shot by Mia Hamm glanced off the hands of Chinese goalie Hong Gao and caromed off the left goal post to set up an easy shot in front of the net. MacMillan kicked it home for her third goal of the Olympic competition.
MacMillan was the hero of Sunday's tense victory over Norway, coming on as a substitute and kicking the winning goal in sudden-death. She was moved into the starting lineup for last night's game and made a major impact, even though the early lead did not hold up.
Chinese midfielder Wen Sun broke away in the 32nd minute of the first period and chipped the ball over U.S. goalie Briana Scurry. The shot bounced well short of the goal and Chastain streaked toward the net in an attempt to cut it off, but slid into the goal along with the ball.
Norway, the only team other than the United States to win a World Cup championship in women's soccer, had little trouble with the Brazilians in yesterday's bronze-medal game, scoring a 2-0 victory that was not nearly as close as the score might indicate. The Norwegians scored twice in a three-minute span in the first half and wasted several other opportunities to pad that lead.
Midfielder Ann Aarones scored the first goal in the 21st minute off an assist by Linda Medalen, then scored three minutes later on a precise 18-yard kick that sailed over the outstretched hands of Brazilian goalie Meg.
The Brazilians had one goal disallowed because of an offside in the second period, but did not pose a threat to come back.
Pub Date: 8/02/96