Q&A with Brandi Chastain on the Olympics, her famous penalty kick and her son's Crohn's disease
We all know Brandi Chastain for her iconic moment in U.S. soccer history: scoring the final penalty kick of the 1999 World Cup, which led her team to victory over China and catapulted women's soccer to global fame. While she doesn't spend too much time dwelling on that day, she says she understands how important it was for people watching at the time and the growth of the women's game.
We talked about that moment with Chastain, who is now the assistant coach of the boys' soccer team at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, California, and the assistant coach of the women's team at Santa Clara University, her alma mater. We also discussed the U.S. squad heading to Rio for the Olympic Games, coaching and her 10-year-old son, who last year was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.
This interview has been edited for length.
espnW: What do you think about the U.S. roster heading to Rio this summer?
Brandi Chastain: I'm very confident that they have a team that can win the gold medal. Winning a championship like the Olympics or a World Cup takes a lot of attention to detail. There's timing, there's commitment to the overall goal, a lack of self-interest and good management at the same time, either game-by-game or in lineups and rosters.
There's a lot that goes into it, but I think there's a great combination of veteran leadership and experience, and youth and enthusiasm that exists on this team.
espnW: What do you like about some of the younger players, such as Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn?
Chastain: I think Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn share some unique qualities. They have speed and agility and quickness and explosiveness that is very difficult to deal with. When you look at the best teams in the world in men's or women's soccer -- to win a championship, there needs to be players that scare the other team. And they scare the other team because they're unpredictable in their own right and they can explode at any time.
Then when you have someone like Julie Johnston playing in the back, who can clean anything up, win anything in the air, track things down on the ground, that gives a lot of comfort to the midfield and allows the other players to feel a bit freer to express themselves in a creative way and take risks in that attacking half or final third. The complement of players is what really allows Pugh and Dunn and Christen Press to do what they do best.
espnW: And you were just inducted into the Hall of Fame -- how does that feel?
Chastain: Very humbling. There were many, many amazing players who came before me who started on this crusade or journey of sharing soccer with the masses in America. I'm very proud that I was on and a part of some amazing teams.
I'm super grateful to U.S. Soccer for the opportunities that I had, to wear the red white and blue and our country's flag. I'm incredibly grateful to my father and my mother for, from the very beginning, recognizing that they had a young girl who was super aggressive and loved to be competitive. They were unapologetic and allowed me to go out there and get dirty and to sweat and to think that I could conquer the world. To all my friends and family: none of this would be possible without every single person -- in the good times and the bad times-- because I learned something from every one of those moments.
espnW: Do you think about that famous moment back in July 1999?
Chastain: I can't say that I spend too much waking time on it. But I am in an environment constantly where there are young soccer players around me, boys and girls, or adults or people my age who were playing soccer at the time who remind me of how much that moment meant to them and how it changed, influenced or improved their life because they witnessed it; just as I think I felt when I watched and cheered and said to myself that I want to do that when I saw the 1980 men's hockey team win the Olympic medal. I didn't play hockey, I had no reason to watch it, but it was on the Olympics. Maybe I was just very patriotic from the get-go. When they won and celebrated and the American flags were waving, it was just such a thrill for me. I wanted to be in that environment.
I get that people want to talk about it, it feels good. It reminds them of a good moment.
espnW: Are there any other Olympic sports you're looking forward to watching?
Chastain: I'm excited about swimming. My son has taken up swimming, he really enjoys it. Of course me, I love watching the soccer, so I'll be keyed into that.
But the Olympics are special. I don't care what the sport is. I will watch and record probably every moment of it. I'm such a fan of the ideals of the Olympics: do your best, be your best. Competition is important. Of course we love to all celebrate the medals, but, can you personally take yourself to new heights? Can you go beyond what you thought was possible and reach new outcomes?
Right now I feel like I can go out and conquer the world just thinking about it. It's so special.
I feel like the women's side of this U.S. team has great potential to make an impact like the 1996 Olympic team did -- softball, basketball, track and field, gymnastics, soccer, water polo. The list goes on and on about the success that was experienced. Again, it's not just the success of winning the games and winning the gold, it's the manner in which it is achieved that I think makes it the most special of outcomes.
I get that people want to talk about it, it feels good. It reminds them of a good moment.Brandi Chastain
espnW: You've coached both boys and girls in your career. Do you see a difference in how they approach the game?
Chastain: I enjoy coaching both of them equally as much, and what I found is that the information is not any different, the skills are not different. What is unique to each side is the way they receive and process information and communicate information. If you know your audience and you know their strengths and their weaknesses, you can be a successful and positive influence on them.
There is great confidence and physicality on the men's side that I think exists on the elite level for women. But for young girls, it's more about the communication and each other and togetherness and team. And on the girls' side, it's caring about your teammates.
I really had to instill in my boys program that, for us to be successful, we need to care about each other -- not just can the guy pass me the ball, or dribble through someone and score a goal. It's: can I help him be successful every day, and how do I do that and take great pride in knowing that I'm doing that, and that will help our team?
And on the girls' side, I had to say, take the baton, take the ball, run with it, be aggressive, be confident, know that you personally can make an impact and your team will always support you. This is not about being conceited or "look at me." This is about: what can I do to help my group? And if confidence is something that is necessary and needed, I have to show that to my teammates, because that will inspire them to also be confident and strong.
It's good for both sides to know there are different ways that you can look at a problem and find solutions.
espnW: Tell us about your family's battle with Crohn's disease and how your career as an athlete has changed the way you approach it or how you talk about it with your son.
Chastain: One year ago, he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. The pathway to that diagnosis was -- he wasn't feeling well for a while, he was struggling in the third grade, he just wasn't himself. And as parents, we were taking the precautions we thought we necessary. Most kids get some kind of cold or sickness being with other kids so much, and we didn't know anything about Crohn's disease, we didn't know anything about IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).
Then things persisted, and we ended up taking him to his pediatrician, where he had a physical system that was undeniable, and the doctor said, you need to have an appointment with a gastroenterologist. Again, that was a term I had never really thought about.
The next day, I was given the diagnosis. From that moment on, sort of similar to my soccer career, we had choices to make. You can attack something with a positive attitude, with the can-do spirit, with, how can we make this better and find positive results, find your resources?
I'm partnering with AbbVie right now on My IBD Game Plan, and we're sharing this story because we know that there are 1.6 million Americans out there who have some form of IBD, more specifically Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. Imagine 30 major-league ballparks full to capacity, plus 300,000 people sitting outside waiting -- that's how many people have been diagnosed.
And there's a population that hasn't been diagnosed yet. Because of the nature of the disease, it can be awkward for some people. It could potentially make them feel slightly isolated or alone. That's why I feel like sharing my son's story and our family's story is really important, to say, "You're not alone." Just like the athlete who has been hurt and is on the sideline, I understand that. I know the feeling that you're having, I was there too. I know what it's like to be cut from the team. I know what it's like to be nervous about what's going to happen to your child.
Ever since sharing my story publicly, I've found out I have friends I've played soccer with for more than a decade who have been dealing with these things. So now I'm even closer to them. I can say -- I've got your back, I understand what you're dealing with, let me help you, here's a resource at IBDgameplan.com where you can go to find a gastroenterologist that's close to you, or that suits your needs.
There are tools and tips out there that I didn't know existed for people. And now, because I have a little more education, I have a great opportunity to help.
Just like I had a responsibility to all the millions of young people, not just girls, who were playing soccer to be their advocate, to have a voice, to help them find their way, this is no different. My passion may be even deeper because it's my own son. Knowing what he has gone through initially, and now where he is, he's in a great place with a great treatment, a gastroenterologist he feels very comfortable with. He can move forward. He's on the swim team, and he's going to soccer camp and baseball camp -- he does all the things that 10-year-olds should do (and probably shouldn't do). We're living our life in a really positive way.