‘The 99ers’ and why it was great to be a girl athlete in the 1990s

Yesterday, when I found myself listening to a bunch of 90s ladycentric rock on YouTube – Veruca Salt, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Lush, etc. – I thought that maybe I was just having one of my semi-regular fits of nostalgia for the 1990s.  It wasn’t until I got home later that night and settled in to watch “The 99ers” on ESPN that I realized my brain was subconsciously preparing me to take a trip back in time to the decade that most shaped who I am today.

“The 99ers” is part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX,” a documentary series that looks at the stories of female athletes as told through the lenses of female filmmakers.  I’ve watched a few of these and enjoyed them for the most part – although really, how much can you enjoy a documentary about the avoidable death of one of the world’s most accomplished freedivers? – but “The 99ers” was the first one that inspired me to write, perhaps because the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup is etched in my mind as one of those huge cultural events that shifted both the way I thought about the world and the way I thought about myself within the world.

I was 19 years old when the U.S. team won the World Cup.  I hadn’t paid much attention to soccer since fifth grade, when I spent a few months embarrassing myself in a city recreational league, but that summer I found myself, along with much of the rest of the country, captivated by the team.  They played so hard, and they were so tough, and – to be perfectly honest – I also loved that these ponytailed warriors looked a lot like me (except with amazing quads).  It was a new kind of toughness we were seeing splashed all over the front page, one that was fierce and joyous and unabashedly, defiantly female.  The iconic photo of Brandi Chastain after she pulled off her shirt encapsulates it perfectly for me. The elation on her face of achieving the kind of moment athletes all over the world can only fantasize about, her oh-so-controversial sports bra, her muscular arms, that long blonde ponytail.  That moment was everything to me.

The World Cup victory is kind of a perfect capstone to a decade that, for me, was all about women and girls making their presence known in new and exciting ways.  I still remember the shock and delight I felt when I realized in the early part of the decade that I could watch women – specifically the UConn women’s basketball team – play sports on television, and how I spent more than a few Saturday afternoons lying on my white daybed, watching the game on my tiny little TV in my bedroom.   It was so novel and strange, and yet it also felt so right.

In between Rebecca Lobo and Brandi Chastain were about a million other athletes, each one of them playing a small part in helping me rewrite the cultural scripts in my head that said women could only be a specific way.  I knew instinctively that this was bullshit, knew it even when I was a little kid, but while I knew what I thought was wrong, I didn’t know how to conceive of what was going to feel right.  I consider myself lucky to have been a teenage girl in the 1990s, because it meant I had a whole smorgasbord of tough-girl icons to choose from when figuring out what kind of woman I wanted to be.

(If you want to know more about the kind of cultural soup I was immersed in, you just have to look at SPIN’s infamous “Girl Issue.”  Nowadays I would take huge issue with girl culture being relegated to a single issue like some kind of novelty, but back then it was beyond thrilling to see so many things I loved collected in one place and I treasured that issue for years until I lost it custody of in my divorce.  It’s definitely worth looking at, especially to see just how many of 90s girl-culture icons were athletes.)

As a big girl in the middle – and in fact, I have a newspaper clipping from my time as a high school volleyball player that describes me exactly as that – I was particularly drawn to Gabrielle Reece.  Seeing tall women like her, who were unafraid to be tough and fierce and for whom their height was a gift, not a curse, helped me to feel more at ease with my own height.  (I loved Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie for this reason, too.)  All of those female athletes helped me be okay with what I was coming to understand was my less-than-conventional femininity, where I embraced being a girl but I didn’t really feel all that comfortable with the high-heels-and-lipstick kind of femininity that seemed to be expected of me.  It was as if they were all saying to me, “Hey, it’s okay to be the way you are!  And not only is it okay, it’s actually pretty cool!”

One of the best things about growing up and getting older – besides feeling ever more comfortable with the parts of me that are less-than-conventional – has been the sense of perspective that comes along with having more experience stretched out over a longer period of time, like I didn’t just move forward in time but I also moved upward so I can look back and have a wider sense of what was going on.  I can see now how this explosion of lady athletes at all levels – from the city rec leagues on up to the pros – didn’t just materialize out of nowhere, but happened almost twenty years, or exactly one generation, after the passage of Title IX.

And I also see how a lot of the ladycentric sports culture that came out of the 1990s could be seen as kind of cloyingly earnest, with a lot of talk about being role models for little girls that could make the sports – particularly women’s soccer and basketball – seem more like self-esteem building exercises for the grade-school set and less like actual sports.  But I’m not inclined to be too critical of that, because those little girls who showed up at the World Cup in Mia Hamm jerseys and waited around courtside at New York Liberty games so they could get T-Spoon to sign their basketballs grew up to be the Alex Morgans and Britney Griners of the sports world, athletes whose broader appeal is based as much – if not more so – on their skills and abilities as it is on their gender.

“The 99ers” gives a direct nod to that lineage, the way past and present, old guard and new, are deeply connected with one another. In one scene, the “old bags” of the 1999 team and the “young guns” of the 2011 team. Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach tell the members of the 1999 team just how much seeing them play inspired them to become the soccer players they are today.  In case the point was not made clearly enough, toward the end of the documentary, penalty kicks from each World Cup are intercut with each other in a beautiful, goosebump-raising montage.

That connection to past and future is something I have come to treasure the older I get, especially as my understanding of my role as a drop in the larger ocean of humanity becomes more profound.  I love knowing that everything I do is founded upon the efforts of people who came before me, and that my life will be part of a larger foundation upon which future generations will build theirs.  What will the next generation of female athletes look like?  They’ll have grown up watching female athletes on the Olympics and on ESPN.  They’ll know women who have run marathons and half-marathons, or who do roller derby, or who lift weights.  Will they be even less encumbered by archaic notions of what a woman should be like than my generation is?  Will they even think about these things?  Or will those debates have receded so far into the past as to be irrelevant?

It’s hard to say but the one thing I do know for certain is that things will continue to change, and that if the past is any indication of how things will go, they can only get better.

P.S. If you can watch “The 99ers” on demand, it’s worth it.  Not only is the documentary moving, but it is also hilarious thanks to Julie Foudy’s collection of home videos.  I don’t know about you, but I had no idea Mia Hamm was such a cut-up.  I recorded it on my DVR and I fully intend to watch it again.

34 responses to “‘The 99ers’ and why it was great to be a girl athlete in the 1990s

  1. I’ve been meaning to watch the 9 for IX docs, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m going to prioritize it this weekend. This one sounds great, but I really want to see the one on Katarina Witt. I don’t think my love for figure skating will ever fade. 🙂

    • Molly, you should watch it. I’ll warn you, though – you’ll probably come away from it wanting more. I know I did. I felt like it only scratched the surface of what is certainly a complicated and massively fascinating story.

  2. What a great post! I’m from the UK so while I don’t share the elation of winning the women’s World Cup I am a child of the nineties and remember it fondly! I sometimes fear in this country that celebrity pop culture is taking us backwards in time but having the Olympics last year was a great year for us, we had many female role models that I hope the next generation will look up to!

    • The Olympics last year were so excellent. You guys did a great job with them. (And also Jessica Ennis, omg.) I’m well beyond the years when I have role models and yet I found myself inspired by so many of the athletes we watched. In fact, I think a lot about all of the female cyclists and swimmers as I find myself getting more into both of those disciplines.

      I’d love to see a journalistic-style follow-up to last year’s games, to see if they had any sort of impact on girls’ sports participation around the world. I should go hunting around to see if anyone has done something like that…

      • We have definitely seen in an increase on women’s and Paralympic sport on TV which is a positive but I’m not sure how that compares with actual participation? Let’s hope so…..!

    • For real, right? I love a lot of music that’s come out in the past twenty years, but soooo much of my favorite music came out in the 1990s.

      • What are the odds…I was indulging in some Britpop nostalgia on YouTube yesterday myself.

        On a side note to your post, I was thinking how Britpop/grunge/alternative/whatever in the ’90s brought women in bands into the mainstream. They were both heavily male-dominated scenes, but on the more conventional side of things there were Echobelly and Sleeper and then there were all the terrific 4AD bands (Lush’s Split is still one of my favourite albums, almost 20 years on), which presented a whole range of what women in bands could look like, and where they weren’t just the token keyboardist or occasional bass player, but up front and centre with their guitars.

        Back to the topic…looks like I should check out The 99ers. Thanks for the semi-review!

      • Yes, it certainly seemed easier to find rock bands with a female presence back then. Nowadays there are still women in rock bands but you have to dig to find them. They aren’t on the radio as much.

        I remember being really frustrated earlier this year when a local radio station did this 1990s flashback thing where they played all of this stuff that never gets played anymore, and I only heard, like, one Hole song amid the Butthole Surfers and Presidents of the USA songs. I was really upset about that because it felt like this really important part of pop culture was just sort of being erased by the radio programmers.

  3. I was a child of the 1980s, so things were a bit different (well, I finished school in the 1980s!). I played A LOT of sport as a youngster and a lot of representational stuff. Athleticism was seen as a positive – however – there were no real athletes I looked up to.

    Rather it was the era of the supermodel (Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista etc) and early Madonna etc. The good thing is that none were super-thin.

    Of course not a lot of flesh was bared so you didn’t really see if anyone had amazing abs and the like. I can’t remember anyone talking about girls’ biceps or abs etc!

    • I was in elementary school for much of the 1980s, so my pop culture perspective was rather limited. Like, if you weren’t in the pages of Tiger Beat I probably didn’t know anything about you. I know there had to be some female athletes out there being awesome and high-profile, like pro tennis players and Olympians and such, but I just don’t have any memory of that.

      Also, is it weird that I feel wistful for the supermodel era? Those women were still outliers when it came to their bodies and appearances, and obviously they were part of a system that emphasized a woman’s youth and beauty over all else, but at least they didn’t seem so fragile.

  4. I’m the same age as you, and the UConn women’s basketball team completely inspired me during high school. Watching those women play like professionals and watching them be applauded and turned into stars (at least where I grew up deep in UConn country) was incredible. Everyone, men and women, wanted to watch them and to be like them. Suddenly, the popular girls in my high school were the athletes. It was cool to be in the weight training room after practice and to wear your jersey to school. And then, because so many female athletes were also motivated students, it actually became cool for girls to be smart and to be competitive in an academic environment.

    The confidence it gave all of us was tremendous and it definitely changed my life. I count myself lucky to have grown up with those women as role models, and I just hope that, in the future, we can have a resurgence of this type of positive attention. We need more Mia Hamms and less Miley Cyruses.

    • My mother-in-law is the biggest UConn women’s fan I have ever encountered. Like, we’re talking college-football-in-Oklahoma levels of fandom. My husband is also a big fan of theirs and it’s really rad to listen to him speak knowledgeably about the various players and teams. It definitely adds a pleasant dimension to watching the NCAA tournament each year. And as the talent pool deepens, that kind of fandom is spreading to more and more colleges.

      Also, while I don’t know if I was ever considered cool, I do know that I was very proud to be an athlete. You can tell by looking at my senior yearbook, because I’m wearing my varsity letter jacket in every. single. photo. In retrospect it’s kind of hilarious and maybe more than a little dorky, but I just loved the whole experience of playing high school sports and being on a team SO MUCH.

      Regarding the future – I do think that’s happening. For instance, there’s so much love out there for players like Britney Griner and Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne, and people got really excited about both the 2012 Olympics and the 2011 World Cup. There are more female sports stars out there now than I can remember at any other time since the 1990s. The pendulum kind of swung away from this in the 2000s but I think it’s coming back now.

  5. I must check these documentaries out!! Very well written piece, and I agree with all of it. I remember that day of the 99 world cup championship so vividly, and also the media storm that came after Brandi Chastain so awesomely ripped off her shirt. It’s truly awesome to look back on the female athletes who really did pave the way for females today, making it ok, and even heroic to be strong, fast, and powerful.

    • Definitely check them out! Even if they don’t go as in-depth as I’d like, they still are enjoyable to watch.

      And yeah, the media controversy that followed Brandi Chastain’s celebration was nuts! It seems so quaint now in our post-Britney, celebrity-sex tape world, doesn’t it?

  6. I love this post, thank you! You’re totally right about how eager the 90s were for girls in sports — remember those “girl power” tshirts everyone wore? My after school sport back then was horseback riding, and my icon was Alison Firestone, because the first time I saw her compete she was yelling and kicking and like, flapping her arms aggressively all the way up to a big jump, and I knew that was bad form and an unbecoming thing to do in a buttoned-up sport like showjumping, but it was exactly how I felt galloping up to a jump when I was 12-13, that rush of adrenaline that just takes over control of your body. I loved how free she was to display such aggression right there in front of everyone, how she wasn’t shy about declaring she was going for it.

  7. Loved this piece.

    In 1989, I arrived in NYC from my native Canada with no job or contacts. I decided to pursue a long-held dream and took up competitive fencing…then 32 years old. Within the first year of taking up saber, I and my fellow students (Steve Mormando, 2x Olympian was our coach) were nationally ranked, and were for the next four years, making history as among the first to fence that weapon at the national level in the U.S. No women saber fencers could then go to world or the Olympics as it was deemed (natch) too dangerous….when the American women took all THREE medals in saber at the last Olympics I cried with excitement, and pride, for having helped kick that door open.

    • I am so fascinated by your stories about being a competitive fencer. Did you write in depth about this on your blog or in one of your books? I want to know more. I love that you just decided that you wanted to pursue a dream and then found yourself as one of the top in the nation. That’s just crazy to me, in a really good way.

      • I never did write much about it — I was then mired in a really shitty marriage and not working…Now I have the audience and voice and am into a happier 2nd marriage. My last nationals was June 1994; the night I arrived home, my husband walked out. I haven’t touched my equipment since…Now I might be able to.

        Rising that far that fast was easy then because we were pioneers — I was competing against girls 20 years my junior as there were so few of us who even made it nationals then. Fencing forever changed how I see myself and how to interact off the strip. I may take it up again…now as a “Master” age competitor. Not sure if my artificial left hip can take it, but probably…:-)

      • Boo to your ex-husband. That is what I call some shitty timing on his part.

        I really hope you do take it up again, or at least try to see how it works with your hip. Maybe as a masters competitor it might be okay? And I definitely think you should write about this. It’s a rare experience to be at the vanguard of a sport – and at a high level like that, no less. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to read more about this.

    • Wow! I had no idea it was so recently that women’s sabre fencing was an Olympic sport! I guess I had assumed that any fencing event that exists for men would have a women’s version too … silly thing to assume, given what all I’ve read about the Olympics.

      Anyway, I also wanted to thank you for helping kick that door open! My entire college fencing club watched the fencing events in the 2004 Olympics — I thought I remembered seeing women’s sabre then, and now going to Wikipedia I see that that was the first time they had women’s sabre!

      (I competed in a couple tournaments with my club, but 1) only in foil and 2) didn’t do super well. I don’t think I’m rated at all. One of the tournaments had both mixed and women’s events, so I entered both.)

      Anyway, Mariel Zagunis rocks.

      • Yes she does.

        I started out fencing foil when I took up the sport, but was really bad at it…and did not find epee appealing. I hope to maybe take up saber again. Oy! 🙂

  8. I still have Summer Sanders’ autograph from when she came to a grocery store in my hometown promoting WAVE: Women Athletes’ Voice of Encouragement. That was in 1996.

    • Summer Sanders! Whoa, that’s another one of those names I’ve not thought of in a while, but she was everywhere back then. Very, very cool.

  9. loved, loved, loved Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm back in the day. I can proudly say that the hottest girls in my late 1990s high school (as regarded by guys, girls, and the staff) were the ones playing soccer and basketball and kicking some ass at that AND academics. (I still hated high school, but at least it was a gender non-conforming high school!) And Veruca Salt! You are describing my music-cultural inspirations! Please also check out Letters to Cleo from that era…

    • Right after reading your comment on Friday – which I did not respond to because I was swamped with work – I got on YouTube and started listening to a ton of Letters to Cleo, among other bands. So much good music came out during that time. I love it!

  10. As I was only a nipper in the 90’s and haven’t ever really been a major sports fan, I don’t really know any of the women in your article but they all sound amazing.
    The 90’s certainly seemed to be a very Girl Power decade!
    It’s good to hear women’s soccer (football is the correct term *ahem*) is so big in the States, over here I think the majority think women’s football isn’t a “real” sport and that it’s not worth watching. Even though, in the 2012 Olympics, our Women’s football team were absolutely spanking it compared to our mens! I suppose most women’s team sports are viewed in the same way sadly, especially those sports that are “traditionally male”.
    Most of our female sporting role models all seem to be soloists rather than part of a team too, which is weird.
    Nice little shout out to us Roller Girls in there too :):)
    Always really enjoy reading your posts and they have inspired me to think more about what being a woman and a feminist means.

    • Thank you! And I love derby girls and roller derby, even though I do not play. I think what you all are doing is pretty amazing, and I am in awe of all of you.

      LOL, I know “football” is the term everyone else in the world uses, but we are the U.S. and so we have to do everything backwards and act like you all are the ones who are wrong. Because that is how we roll. 🙂 I like that other countries refer to U.S. football as “gridiron.” I think we should adopt that instead of “football.” But then I’d also be down with adopting the metric system so I’m clearly an outlier when it comes to my fellow countrypeople.

      The difference in reception between female individual sports stars and female team sports stars is something I’ve thought about too. I generally think it’s because women’s individual sports have been accepted as legitimate for much longer than women’s team sports have been, and so there’s more of a history there to build upon. I’m sure that someone with more of a background in feminist sociology might be able to look at this more in a context that incorporates gender analysis. (It might also be that it’s Monday morning and I’m still waking up.)

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  12. I was thirteen in 1999 — I remember that victory, too. I’m sure that growing up at that time was what made it such a no-brainer to me that I could pursue any sport I wanted to.

  13. Thank you for triggering a nostalgia moment– I can vividly remember where I was at and who I was with watching the game and it was such a great time! I still remember how scandalous Chastain’s sports bra was. 🙂

    It might be because it was ‘my decade’ but I feel like the 90s was a special time. Youth culture was so outwardly focused and activist and expressive.

    • I do too, and I have to try hard to keep that disentangled from the fact that I grew up then. I don’t want to be like the Boomers who can’t shut up about how amazing the 1960s were, you know? (And how everyone, in the process of patting themselves on the back over the 1960s, fails to recognize that the 1970s were very special and revolutionary in a different way.) But at the same time, I do think there is something to the sense that the decade was a special one. Maybe because we were the children of the women’s lib movements? I wonder sometimes.

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