Sunday was a big day. A record-breaking 25.4 million people tuned in to see America claim a 5–2 victory over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final. This is exciting for many reasons. It’s a boost for the sport, as soccer gains popularity in this country. It felt particularly patriotic to celebrate a monumental victory right after Independence Day. It’s also exciting for women and for the idea that girls can look to athletes, such as the ones who played on Sunday, as role models rather than the reality TV stars and celebs who often take the spotlight.
Mia Hamm and Britney Spears. The way I remember it, which may not be exactly accurate, those were the two female choices for teen idolatry when I was young. In 1994 Nike signed soccer phenom Hamm as its first-ever female spokesperson. In 1999, the company named the largest building on its corporate campus after her. That same year, Spears’ first album, . . . Baby One More Time, had its debut with the singer sporting the now-infamous schoolgirl outfit.
It was a confusing time to be a teenage girl in America. There were women (and, in Spears’ case, girls) to emulate all around us. Title IX had been in effect our whole lives, and our dads had signed us all up for rec league soccer when we were 6. Baywatch was at the height of its popularity, and the boys we had crushes on had posters of Pamela Anderson above their beds. In both the best and worst way possible, we could aspire to be anything we wanted to be.
For reasons I can’t totally recall, I tore one of Nike’s early Mia Hamm ads out of a magazine and pinned it to my bulletin board. I was a soccer player but not a very good one. I didn’t have delusions of getting a college scholarship, much less having a shot at playing professionally like Hamm. In reality, I had a much better chance of getting attention for wearing a highly sexual schoolgirl outfit.
Nevertheless, the Nike ad resonated with me. It featured a poem that Hamm supposedly wrote herself, proclaiming: “. . . you are absolutely free/To be who you want./To go where you can./To be wild to be loud/to fly in the mud/and run in the rain./Strong enough./Sure enough/Like a dancer.” The ad stayed on my bulletin board for at least five years.
In that confusing teenage time, those words, that permission to be free, felt right to me. It felt more right than “hit me baby one more time,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. I had the poem memorized. I was absolutely free. And in that simple way, with a humble magazine ad shrine, I chose the way of Mia over the way of Britney.
As I watched the United States women’s national soccer team win the 2015 World Cup this past Sunday, my heart nearly exploded inside my chest seeing those women celebrate. They chose the way of Mia, too. Some of them, such as Christie Rampone at 40 years old, chose it before Mia was even Mia, before Nike ever dreamt of a female spokesperson. They dedicated their lives to flying in the mud and running in the rain, to the hard work and the teamwork that it takes to play at that level.
And in doing so, they are the next Mia. Maybe not in the impact they will have on the sport but by allowing the next generation of young girls looking for a poster to hang above their beds the option to choose them, like I chose Mia. With the dawn of reality TV and social media celebrities who are famous for being famous, the 1999 Britney Spears of my youth doesn’t seem like a half-bad role model. But Carli Lloyd is better. Abby and Alex and Megan and Tobin are better. And they are an option now. I hope every teenage girl in America catches a glimpse of them and senses that this fame is different. I hope that some of them choose the way of Mia. The way of Carli. The way of this team.
I could have never known it then, but as I look back now, I think that ad—that vote for Mia—just might have changed my life. Like all the people who chose to tune in for the game Sunday night instead of some tawdry episode of The Real Housewives, it was a vote for choosing what made me feel powerful over what made me feel pretty. A vote for recognizing hard work over manufactured appeal. A vote for myself, my real self. I’m forever grateful that it was an option for me, and I’m still choosing the way of Mia today.