Wendy Gebauer didn't get much sleep the night after she provided analysis for ABC and ESPN for the opening two games of the Women's World Cup last Saturday. It had been an exhilarating and emotional day for Gebauer, a Northern Virginia native and former national team player herself, but that's not why she was up at 4 a.m.
She had a plane to catch in Newark an hour later back to Raleigh, N.C., where she is a member of the semi-pro Raleigh Wings. She played later that day in a W League game against the Northern Virginia Majestics, and managed to score a goal in a 9-0 victory.
"I was still pumped after what I saw at the World Cup," she told the Raleigh News and Observer after her own game. "It was very emotional, and I cried at least two times."
She was not alone. Talk to many women who watched the ABC telecast of the U.S. national team's 3-0 victory over Denmark Saturday at sold-out Giants Stadium, and many said they, too, had been moved to tears.
A female friend and colleague who has covered a wide variety of men's and women's sports at the highest levels told me she got chills and goose bumps watching the game on television. She saw countless soccer moms and dads and their children reveling over an event that drew the largest crowd for a women's sports event in history. She, too, said she found herself pumping her fist when Mia Hamm scored a goal and actually wept for the sheer joy of it all.
Gebauer is also terribly proud to be part of the broadcast team for an event she believes, if enough people tune in, "will catapult women's soccer to a place it's never been before. If we achieve our goals, this could be the biggest single sporting event for women in the world.
"If it's going to be a success, we need brisk ticket sales, which we've already seen," Gebauer said. "The TV has to be good. We have a huge responsibility, because if people tune in, I truly believe they won't tune out. People will find out that it really is a beautiful game, and the American team is filled with great role models. The players are attractive and well spoken, and they've got great skills. You'd like to think the whole country will really get behind them."
That never really happened for Gebauer, now 32. She is among the pioneers in the women's game, having played on the 1991 U.S. team that won the World Cup in China, with little media coverage.
She grew up playing the game in Reston, starting at age 6 like so many children in the Washington area. Her parents spent hours on the road driving her to select-team games all across the region, and she was talented enough to be recruited off her club team and signed by North Carolina, always a major power in collegiate women's soccer. She became a three-time all-American, and played on three national championship teams between 1985 and 1988.
"When I got there as a freshman, they'd won four straight national championships," she said. "We lost in my freshman year, and we made a vow never to be in that position again. And then the people who came in my sophomore year never lost a game in four years of playing."
After playing on the national team and winning the World Cup in '91, Gebauer really had no place to go with soccer in terms of making a living on the field. She had tried coaching for a year at the University of Virginia in 1990 before beginning to train for the national team, and in '91 she took a job in marketing and promotions with adidas.
She stayed with the company for five years and also began doing some college soccer commentary for HTS, the Bethesda-based regional network that also reaches the women's soccer-crazy Carolina market.
Last fall, she was still doing regional cable work when ESPN called her. Amy Allmann, Gebauer's former college teammate who was supposed to do analysis for the U.S. World Cup tournament, had to undergo knee surgery and couldn't handle the TV work. Gebauer stepped in and did all the games leading up to the World Cup competition. She's teamed with Bob Ley and will handle a number of games on ESPN and ESPN2 over the next 2 1/2 weeks, as well as the final at the Rose Bowl July 10 on ABC.
Gebauer still has a day job, as a financial adviser for Wheat First Union. A number of her clients are on the U.S. team, including Hamm. Gebauer insists her business relationship with Hamm and other players won't compromise her objectivity.
"I'm completely professional about it," she said. "I try not to put that situation in jeopardy. I leave that at the office. I have no problem criticizing the players. Most of them are good friends of mine, but they haven't gotten where they are now without being criticized.
"You can make a point in television without burying a player. I've had players even come up to me and say, `Hey, you really made a good point there, I'm glad you brought that up.' They know I know what they're going through because I've been there myself. To me, that's a big advantage."