SEATTLE -- With practice completed the day before the United States played Brazil in the first of a transcontinental twin bill this week, Shannon Boxx waited in the tunnel at one corner of CenturyLink Field. Her daughter Zoe, not yet 2 years old and the source of the delay, toddled a few steps toward mom and stopped. The young girl was transfixed by the cameras that clicked with each step she took. She stared at them for a moment, then a wide grin settled across her face.
It was clear she was going to leave when she was good and ready.
One day a mom who played more games than all but 10 women in the history of the United States women's national team will be able to explain how rarely life offers that opportunity.
"I don't know if I would be able to put it into words that well, but I think I would want to explain [to Zoe] how hard it was," Boxx said before the last of her 195 appearances with the national team. "How there's a lot of perseverance in it, how hard it is to stay at the top, but to follow your dreams and enjoy it and how fun it was to be a part of a team. I think if she starts to do sports, [I would tell her that] just to show her this is a fun environment to be in. It's competitive, but it's also your family. Your best friends come out of playing sports.
"Those are the kind of things I'm going to want to tell her and show her."
She could tell Zoe that few earn a first game with the national team. Fewer still choose the final game.
Even as the national team turns its attention toward next summer by playing the best opponent it has faced since the World Cup or will face before Olympic qualifying, it also pauses to celebrate three retiring players: Boxx, Lori Chalupny and Lauren Holiday. The headliner is Holiday. Her decision came first. She played the most important role in the World Cup. At 28 years old, she is the one whose exit is the biggest surprise.
Yet between them, Boxx and Chalupny (who alone among the trio has not also retired from the NWSL) made 300 international appearances. They won Olympic gold medals and hoisted the World Cup trophy. And for both, the most impressive accomplishment wasn't making the team at all or what either did in any game once there. In many ways, the most impressive feat was that they overcame enough to be able to walk way.
"As an athlete, I don't think many people get to do that," Chalupny said of her choice. "That's huge for me to be able to do, to walk away. I think you just leave the game with such a positive outlook. The game gave me so much, and now I'm going to step aside. I think going out on your own terms is something that is pretty special for an athlete to be able to do."
And if it is special for any athlete, it is for these two more than most.
When Jill Ellis was hired to coach the United States in 2014, the odds that her World Cup roster would include either veteran, let alone both, were best measured on the same scale as lottery tickets. Soon to turn 37, Boxx had just had Zoe. The pregnancy itself followed a major knee injury, in addition to lupus and Sjogren's Syndrome, two autoimmune diseases with which she had been diagnosed years earlier. Seven years younger than Boxx, Chalupny nevertheless hadn't played for the United States since 2009 because she couldn't get medical clearance as a result of concussions, even as her club career continued.
But there both stood on the medal stand in Vancouver this past summer.
"Both of their journeys have been remarkable in terms of their own perseverance," Ellis said. "I think at the outset I was hopeful [both would be available] because I valued their experience so much, in terms of being a part of the roster. Were they long shots? Yeah, they probably were.
"But at the end of the day, positionally they were needed, their experience was needed and they were a tremendous asset for us at the World Cup."
The beginning of the journey was no easy saunter for Boxx, either. She didn't make her first appearance for the United States until 2003, when she was 26 years old. That was the same year she almost quit the sport entirely to pursue a postgraduate degree in clinical psychology, frustrated by the faltering financial realities of the WUSA in what was that league's final season.
Boxx stuck around, of course, and became a mainstay in U.S. starting lineups. She certainly had the résumé in place to read the writing on the wall and retroactively retire with distinction once Zoe arrived. Instead she sacrificed hours, days, weeks and months knowing minutes on the field were unlikely even if she succeeded.
"I don't regret anything," Boxx said. "I love the fact that I came back. And it was harder than I thought it would be. And yeah, I didn't get to start, I didn't get to play as much, but I was still part of this team and I still helped them in other ways, and I feel like I was very helpful in that."
Chalupny had her own early challenges. Not because a prodigious talent went unnoticed -- she was barely 17 years old when she earned her first cap in 2001 -- but because she was as shy as she was competitive.
"I remember just basically being nervous 24/7, uncomfortable and nervous 24/7," Chalupny said only partly in jest. "I don't think I talked for the first two years I was on the team."
More serious, of course, was that five-year absence that found her caught between medical opinions, cleared to play by most except those who mattered for U.S. Soccer. She said she came to terms with the notion that she might not have a say in the end of her international career. It wasn't until six months before the World Cup that clearance finally came.
Now, just as Boxx became an advocate for those who suffer from lupus, Chalupny could, if she decides such a role is right for her, leave a legacy as a voice of informed experience on head injuries. It is a subject that, for obvious reasons, interests her as she consumes books and documentaries.
"I don't think youth players know really anything about concussions," Chalupny said. "I think for a lot of players and a lot of parents, it's only getting knocked unconscious -- 'Well, then I have a concussion.' But they really don't know much about the other symptoms that are probably more common than actually being unconscious. I think we definitely need to continue to educate and make sure that even coaches are educated on the symptoms and proper protocol. ...
"We have to keep researching, keep educating ourselves and, especially at the youth levels, be so cautious about it."
Others played more in the World Cup. None succeeded more by being there than Boxx and Chalupny.
As the camera clicked on the field in Seattle, Zoe finally turned and followed her mom up the tunnel and out of the stadium. It was, it seemed, the right time to leave.