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2018 Silver Anniversary Award: Julie Foudy

U.S. women’s soccer icon serves as role model for young women

Julie Foudy addresses the crowd during the espnW: Women + Sports event on April 20, 2016, in Chicago. Dylan Buell / Getty Images

Foudy will receive an NCAA Silver Anniversary Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 17, in Indianapolis. The annual award recognizes six distinguished former student-athletes on the 25th anniversary of the end of their intercollegiate athletics eligibility.

Julie Foudy grew up a Southern California sports fanatic in the 1970s. The Mission Viejo, California, native watched the Los Angeles Lakers and Rams, but her favorite sport wasn’t on television. Worse, she had so few female athletes to emulate — the U.S. women’s national soccer team didn’t exist.

Schoolmates called her “Jimmy” because of her short hair, so Foudy wore large earrings in hopes her peers wouldn’t mistake her for a boy. Her parents, though, never defined sports by gender, and greeted her with smiles when she returned home covered in mud after another game of tackle football.

That encouragement paid off: Foudy went on to become a four-year All-American for Stanford’s soccer team, and captained the U.S. women’s national team en route to the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. All told, Foudy played on the U.S. team from 1987 to 2004, a period during which it won two FIFA World Cup titles and two Olympic golds.

Foudy became the female icon she never had.

Eager for a challenge

After turning down a tempting offer to join North Carolina’s long-dominant program, Foudy enrolled at Stanford in 1989, juggling her biological sciences studies with college soccer and a role on the national team. Many national team members in the early 1990s were active college stars like Foudy, which meant routinely loading textbooks into checked bags when hopping around the globe. Before the 1991 World Cup qualifiers, the national team studied by candlelight during Haiti’s rolling blackouts. 

“We’d laugh about how we’d find candlewax in our textbooks from the trip,” said national team peer Mia Hamm. “Julie set an example for all of us. You saw her dedication and sense of commitment at such a young age.”

The United States went on to win the 1991 World Cup in China — the same year Foudy led Stanford to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time. In 1994, those hours of cramming under candlelight paid off when she was accepted into the Stanford University School of Medicine, although she eventually chose not to attend.

“I debated (medical school) for two years,” Foudy said. “The irony is I wouldn’t have gone through the 1999 World Cup and the back half of my career where we were really able to make some sustainable change off the field.”

A generational impact

While the multiyear captain on the U.S. team used a camcorder — and some impromptu singing — to keep her teammates laughing on long bus trips, Foudy didn’t shy away from serious issues off the pitch.

In the mid-1990s, players walked away from the game because they couldn’t sustain a living through soccer. Shortly after capturing its second World Cup title in 1999, the national team boycotted a tournament during a contract dispute with U.S. Soccer.

Foudy and co-captain Carla Overbeck, among others, united the team in efforts to secure better benefits.

“We weren’t really fighting for ourselves; we were fighting for the future so that future teams and players didn’t have to go through these things,” Overbeck said. “We were asking for what we thought was right.”

Ultimately, the players and U.S. Soccer agreed on a five-year contract that significantly increased players’ earning potential and provided some long-term assurances for younger members of the team.

Live in 3, 2, 1 …

Foudy, now a National Soccer Hall of Famer, has committed her life to helping young women push past insecurities. She co-founded the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy, which is dedicated to helping teenage women use sports to develop leadership skills. Foudy also joined ESPN fulltime in 2005 and is a leading voice for espnW — the network’s arm devoted to female fans and athletes.

During her first morning co-hosting an ESPN show, Foudy transferred skills from the pitch to the airwaves. As the producer counted down the final seconds before going live, the teleprompter went out. Beads of sweat forming, Foudy had two options: panic or square up to the stress.

Thankfully, she had taken longtime ESPN anchor Sage Steele’s advice to print off her notes. As the camera blinked red, Foudy began the show with a laugh, saying, “Well, I could’ve done without this on my first day — we have no prompter.”

“That was totally a skillset from playing,” Foudy said. “You can succumb to the pressure or just deal with it. That skillset serves you so well for life.”