Lauren Hazlett has a blond ponytail and green-and-blue-tinted braces, and a new hero. Her name is Mia Hamm. Hamm wears her hair in a ponytail, too, and also has a perfect smile and two of the most gifted feet women's sports has ever seen. Hamm is the star of the U.S. Women's World Cup soccer team. Lauren is a 12-year-old girl spending this week at a coed soccer camp in Potomac. There is a connection.
"Sometimes, the boys are like, 'Women aren't so good as men,' " Lauren says. "But the women are winning."
"They're great," agrees her fellow camper Ellie Taylor, who proceeds to mimic one of the commercials in a recent series starring several players from the women's team. Lindsey Salcetti breaks in with a version of her own favored U.S. team commercial. Lauren smiles a lopsided, dimpled grin.
"All my friends," she says, "are talking about, 'Are you going to watch the game? Are you going to watch the game?' Even the ones who don't play soccer."
Last week, more than 50,000 fans--Lauren and her family among them--went to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to watch the United States beat Germany in the World Cup quarterfinal. Today in Pasadena, Calif., the U.S. women play China's team in the championship game. Officials expect 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl for the event.
And in living rooms across the country, preteen and teenage girls will be gathered in front of their televisions, eager to watch their new heroes contend for the biggest of prizes against an incredibly strong team from China. These girls are psyched.
These are girls who tape Mia Hamm's picture to the ceiling so they can see her before they fall asleep at night. Who ask for the sports section at the breakfast table. Who drag their naysaying brothers--older and younger--in front of the television on game nights, intent on educating them to the quality and excitement of the women's game. These are girls who want to change their first names to Mia.
And theirs is a large, and important, subset of the following that Hamm and the women's team have attracted during their amazing run through the World Cup draw. Long inundated by images of women athletes as gymnasts or figure skaters or tennis stars--athletes in individual sports--young girls now find themselves with an amazing new array of role models drawing from the world of highly competitive, highly physical team sports like hockey, basketball and soccer.
Ellen Sherman, 14, another soccer-camper, can't even remember whether she saw the U.S. women win the gold medal in soccer in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But she went to the July 2 game at JKC Stadium between the United States and Germany. She begged her mom for a ticket.
"I went to a men's game," Ellen says, dismissively. "I wasn't that interested. It's more interesting to see girls do it. Girls never did anything before. This is so big. Girls do everything now!"
Ellen is munching on pizza during lunch break at camp, which is run by Pete Mehlert at St. Andrew's Episcopal School. At her table, Andra Cowen is handing out postcards of Britney Spears that she was lucky enough to score at a recent concert. The girls are hot, their hair pulled back, sweat still resting on the backs of their necks from their morning workout. There were only two boys in their group this morning--two boys and seven girls, all 14 years old--running up and down the field in the searing heat, jostling a little here, shoving a little there.
"Since third grade I've played, and I had to play with boys," says Dana Broder, another 14-year-old.
"I've played since I was 6," volunteers Emily Mayer, who invited some of her non-soccer-loving friends to watch one of the World Cup games at her house. They erupted when a goal was scored. Then she broke the plays down for them, explaining the techniques.
Andra watched the game with her older brother.
"He's like, 'Women's sports, boring!' " she says, imitating his disdainful tone. "Then Mia Hamm scored a goal and he's like, 'Wow! That was awesome.' " Andra smiles at the memory.
One table over, Lauren blushes as her camp counselor, Nino Marcantonio, teases that she could grow up to be just like Hamm. Her fingernails are painted red, white and blue--for the Fourth of July, and for the women's team. She has a poster of the team--Tisha Venturini, Carla Overbeck, Michelle Akers and all--on the wall in her room. She can tell you how many goals Hamm has scored. She is asked if she watches any other "women's" sports--if she likes, say, gymnastics or figure skating. She makes a face.
"My mom watches them, so sometimes I watch them," she says. She shrugs. They don't seem to be high on her list of interests.
"I think it's the 'anything you can do I can do better' aspect of it more than the soccer itself," says Erin Benedict, a former Smith College soccer player who's had a chance to observe girl's soccer up close as the coach of The Streaks, a league team of 10-to-12-year-old girls mostly from Capitol Hill.
"It's more like: 'Look, these are chicks, and they're GOOD.' "
Benedict was not surprised by what she saw the first time she met with her team. The girls apologized for every little thing. They hesitated to be aggressive. They felt guilty if they had the slightest physical contact with an opponent. It is something, she points out, that you never see from 12-year-old boys.
"I really try to instill that confidence in them," Benedict says. "At first they were apologizing for everything. Now, they're like, 'Run them over!' It's good--especially good for adolescent girls, 12-year-old girls--to believe in themselves and to have that outlet and to know that you can do something physical and do it well."
And it is about, as Benedict so succinctly puts it, "girl power." For Celia Rhoads, 12, one of Benedict's players, the women's team gives the girls something to brag about. Something to point to when the boys at her school--Capitol Hill Day School--say that girls can't possibly compete.
"I think that it's probably because it's showing that women can do just as well as men," Celia says. "In my school, especially, it's really competitive between the boys and the girls. . . . We're going to challenge the boys to a game, and try to beat them."
She is asked if she has teased the boys about the fact that the U.S. women are in the finals and the U.S. men were first-round losers in the men's World Cup last summer.
"I never really thought about rubbing it in," she says. The wheels are spinning. She is plotting. Great idea! "I think I should now!"
CAPTION: Serious about soccer: Ellie Taylor, 11, and Lindsey Salcetti, 12.
CAPTION: Dana Broder, left, and Lauren Hazlett, battling for the ball at soccer camp.