Taking one for the team

Sports: Gold-medal hockey star couldn't be happier for the spotlight-stealing U.S. soccer unit. For women athletes, it's a shared goal.

July 24, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

No one whipped off her shirt after the U.S. Women's Hockey Team captured Olympic Gold in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. With all the equipment worn in hockey, it might have taken half an hour to peel down to a sports bra.

Still, so much that was exhilarating about the performance of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team during this summer's World Cup was also apparent in 1998, as the American women skated their way to the first gold medal ever awarded in women's hockey.

Then too, an immensely appealing and talented American women's team played with a tenacity and passion that attracted millions of fans overnight. Just like now, the nation was captivated by the spectacle of women playing with a toughness and physicality usually associated with male athletes, but also with a selflessness rarely seen in any top-tier sporting event.

And just like now, the media celebrated the notion that athletic young girls suddenly had champion role models of their own gender in a sport traditionally seen as a male preserve.

"One Giant Leap for Womankind," the Washington Post crowed in a representative headline after the hockey team beat the favored Canadians in a tense final.

Now, just a year and a half later, America is in love with another women's sports team. But if you think Cammi Granato is rueful, forget it. She couldn't be happier.

You remember Granato. She was the face of women's hockey, the same role Mia Hamm has performed in women's soccer for so long. Granato was captain of the U.S. women's hockey team in 1998 and its most potent offensive player. Like Hamm, she was also attractive and humble, the perfect antidote to any preconception about the sort of brute who would choose women's hockey.

America's short attention span has moved far away from her, but Granato says she was as thrilled as anyone about the soccer players and the adulation they received. "I followed it really, really closely," she said this week from her Manhattan Beach, Calif., home. "I was glued to the TV and made sure I was there for all the games."

She would have been at the Rose Bowl for the soccer final had it not conflicted with an Olympics-related event in Salt Lake City that same weekend. She watched the game on television with other Olympians. She was struck by how devoted the soccer players were to each other, exactly what had been noted about her hockey team.

"You have to have unity to get there, maybe more in women's sports. We had it, and it was written all over them."

If the World Cup team was a revelation about female athletics to many Americans, it wasn't for Granato. It was merely the latest and most emphatic evidence of the impact of Title IX, the 27-year-old federal mandate for equal funding for men and women in high school and college athletics. Granato knew that the momentum has been building from year to year and from sport to sport.

"We got to ride the success of the women who were in Atlanta in 1996 [at the Summer Olympics]," Granato says. "The softball team, the soccer team, the basketball team, gymnastics. When '98 came around, there was already a buzz going on, and that helped us."

Women athletes from all sports take special pride in each other because of their similar struggles, she says. Title IX aside, they get less financial support than their male counterparts, and less attention and encouragement. That's why women athletes exult over any breakthroughs, especially when the entire world happens to be paying attention, as it was during the World Cup, the most watched women's sporting event in history.

"When you walk into a newsstand and see [the women's soccer team] on the cover of every newspaper and every magazine, that's amazing, and that's what it should be like. When you get respect for your sport and people recognizing what you put into your sport, it's really rewarding. We had that. But they have it on a much huger scale."

When she won her gold medal, Granato, the all-time leading goal-scorer at Providence College, was halfway around the world. It wasn't until she returned home that she learned how celebrated she and her team were. "We had no idea the country was going to embrace our sport like it did," she says. "We had no idea people had been so psyched by it. They'd come to us and say, `You inspired us,' or `I cried when I watched.' That was so wonderful for us to hear."

For the hockey team, as the soccer team, there were appearances with David Letterman, at the White House and at ballparks, where they received standing ovations from an American audience that loves its winners.

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