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Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Welcome to the club, Lil

By Julie Foudy

If I knew how to clone someone, I would clone Kristine Lilly. But because my cloning technical abilities are a bit rusty, I will perform my other magic trick. Does anyone remember that cartoon (and I may be showing my age with this Super Friends reference, but I am willing to take that risk in the name of magic) in which two superheroes say, with great drama, "Wonder Twins ACTIVATE, in the form of..."? And then they would bump watches or knuckles (I just remember it was some kind of arm thing) and turn into whatever they wanted to be "in the form of"? For example, the Wonder Twins would say, "in the form of a lion," and -- WHAM -- they were two lions. Or, "in the form of a blizzard," and they would turn into blizzards. You get the idea. Well, had they known Kristine Lilly back then, I am certain they would have said, "in the form of ... LIL!" She is that remarkable.

Kristine publicly announced her retirement from soccer on Wednesday. I could hear the happiness and contentment in her voice. She sounds ready to tackle a retired pro athlete's greatest challenge: figuring out what the heck to do next.

I am not worried about how Lilly will handle the next phase of her life. She will excel in whatever she chooses to do. I am more worried about how I am going to handle not being able to watch her run all over the field in a red, white and blue uniform. It just doesn't seem right for her not to be out there for the USA. Kristine has made more international appearances (352) than any other player in the world, male or female. And by a ton.

Players are often celebrated for getting to the 100-game marks of their careers; many are ecstatic about reaching that milestone. With Lil, we started running out of gift ideas at each century mark. She has played for the U.S. in four different decades. Four. That is not a typo. She has scored 130 goals in international competition, second in the history of women's soccer behind Mia Hamm's 158. Lilly has won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals (plus one "white gold" from those darn 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where we lost to Norway in the final).

But it is not the accolades that make Lil remarkable in my eyes. The accolades, of course, are nice, and as athletes we all want them. But what set Lil apart all these years was how she set the standard. And most important, she set the standard every single day. It didn't matter where she was, or how many people were watching her train (often it was just her dog, Scribby) or whether she was running in snow or sunshine (often snow, as I couldn't convince her to move to California). Regardless of the circumstance, Lil was ready to go. She was always the fittest, sharpest, most-games-played player on the team. And since 1987. My goodness. I get fatigued just thinking about it.

Let me give you one example: At the age of 39 this past fall, Lil did the beep test during a fitness session with the national team. Well, she ran the beep test into the ground, and probably also outlasted the boom box emitting those dreaded beeps. At 39 (lest you need reminding), she had a better beep result than any other women's national team player in the program tested that year. That includes all the youth team players (who can run all day -- they are young!) and the full women's national team. When I asked Lil about it, she just smiled, shrugged and said, "You know me, Jules, I can run."

That right there is the beauty of Kristine Lilly. She is always understated and humble. She has played in more World Cups than anyone else in the world; has more international games than anyone else in the world; has won numerous player of the year awards; and set so many records. Yet she will never tell you about any of those accomplishments. How refreshing, given the way some other athletes want to shout out loud to tell you they are legends.

I cannot wait to watch her shine in this next phase of life, as well. Thank you, Kristine, for making us all better. Thank you for inspiring so many -- younger and older, girls and boys alike. Thank you for giving so much of yourself and never asking for anything in return. Thank you for 24 years of class and grace, both as a player and as a person.

Welcome to our old ladies' club! We are thrilled to have you (and Mia has been terrible at note-taking during our meetings, so thankfully you can resume your old position as secretary).