Forget, for a moment, the overflowing stadiums, the frenzy, the patriotic-painted faces, the jammed practice sessions and the "U-S-A!" chants. Cut to a close-up of Kate Sobrero, one of the youngest players on a predominantly veteran team that stole America's heart last summer during the Women's World Cup.

Sobrero, the highest-strung U.S. team member with the highest-pitched voice, stood outside the locker room after the team's grueling semifinal victory over Brazil. In her theatrical way, Sobrero revealed the team's recipe for success. She told of being beset by leg cramps in the middle of a game, and screaming in agony to co-defender Joy Fawcett, a 31-year-old mother of two. "I don't want to hear about it!" Fawcett yelled across the field, according to Sobrero. "Suck it up! Just deal with it!"

Concluded Sobrero: "The veterans, they are sooo tough."

This team--which represented so much to so many little girls and boys, bigger girls and boys, and their parents--may best be described in those simple terms. Because even when the U.S. women's soccer team's memorable summer run is stripped of its historic and trail-blazing aspects, the fact that the players single-handedly elevated women's team sports to its highest level, something special still remains:

These were some of the toughest athletes I have ever met in my life.

From training camp in New Jersey through the last triumph over China in Pasadena, Calif., I watched these players walk confidently through the chaotic jungle that grew up around them, more strangling by the day. Their professionalism and sense of purpose never wavered, even when crowding fans pressed against the doors of the hotel elevator and the pressure swelled like a headache.

When they played soccer, their favorite thing, they didn't seem to notice anything else. I can still see Michelle Akers throwing her body recklessly around the field like a rag doll, then parking her smile and her bruises into a chair and looking as content as if she had just won the lottery. I can still see Fawcett's icy, resolute eyes as she proclaimed losing unacceptable--just unacceptable, that's all--sweat still running down her cheeks and her words carrying the absolute seriousness of a woman testifying under oath.

I remember the electric surge in energy the U.S. women displayed in the last overtime period of the finale, their exhausted legs fueled only, perhaps, by the palpable nervousness of more than 90,000 fans. The determination driving that team was like a beating heart, almost loud enough to hear. It was spooky, almost.

This demeanor was crafted, oh, about 11 or 12 years ago, when the team's foundation--Akers, Fawcett, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy and others--played in the earliest international women's soccer games ever staged.

They learned to win in hollowed-out stadiums in China and Portugal, where they could hear their own breathing and every thud of the soccer ball. They once had to break into locker rooms to have a place to change clothes.

Some European men laughed openly at these soccer-playing anomalies--my word, women!--when the U.S. team traveled overseas in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Of course, the U.S. players hungrily seized the exciting slice of history last summer provided, giving Americans a lasting snapshot of soccer and sisterhood, but it really was such a small piece for most of them. They so vividly recall more than a decade of climbing, digging and bare-hands construction.

They, last summer, were the beginning and end of women's soccer, its legends and new faces, its past and its present, its wisdom and youth, all brought together in one unique, imperturbable, unforgettable, unbelievably special package.

Amy Shipley has covered sports for The Washington Post since 1997.

CAPTION: Mia Hamm, right, led the way for the U.S. soccer team, which won the Women's World Cup championship in a penalty kick tiebreaker before more than 90,000 spectators at the Rose Bowl.