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Wednesday, December 25, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Agony Of Victory -- After U.S. Soccer Triumph, Women Fight To Keep Sport In Public Eye

A wintry frost had already begun to light upon lawns throughout the area, but the conditions in a meeting room at the Mercer Island Community Center were becoming tropical.

The hundreds who jammed the room stripped off their jackets and sweaters, and started thrusting open windows, in an effort to beat the heat. A party organizer advised the crowd to "just pretend it's Mexico for a while." So the celebration became a fiesta, and the sweaty glad-handing and autograph hounding began in earnest.

They had come to pay homage to four members of the 1991 women's World Cup champions - Michelle Akers-Stahl, Amy Allman, Lori Henry and Shannon Higgins, all of whom played their high-school soccer in the Seattle area. They were mostly family and friends, colleagues and former coaches, the young and old who form the core of the local soccer cognoscenti. People who knew.

Gov. Booth Gardner, who has long ties to the sport, made an appearance. But conspicuous by their absence were the local media. A single television cameraman and a lone newspaper reporter were all that showed.

This was not totally unexpected. "We did it for ourselves," was the operative phrase. All four women uttered it at one time or another during the Sunday evening gathering.

If not for themselves - and their family and friends - then whom? Certainly not for their country. It had greeted their historic accomplishment with a collective yawn.

Three weeks ago, on the plane ride to New York, an elderly woman asked Akers-Stahl where she had been. China, Akers-Stahl responded. "What were you doing in China?" the women asked.

"Playing soccer," Akers-Stahl said. "We just won the world championship."

"Oh," the woman commented, "that's nice."

Nice?

The U.S. women, after vanquishing five opponents by a collective 49-0 during a qualifying round, steamrolled through six foes in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) by a 25-5 margin. Theirs had been an incredible run. The U.S. beat Sweden and Taiwan, for the first time ever, during the tournament, and Norway in the final.

When they disembarked at New York's JFK airport, they were greeted by a handful of well-wishers. A couple of reporters, from England and Italy, no less. Two U.S. soccer officials. A friend or two.

"I was being realistic," said Akers-Stahl, who prepped at Shorecrest High School. "After we won the World Cup, I didn't expect America to realize what we had done. The people who were closest to me, the ones who knew how hard I'd worked and how much I'd sacrificed, were the ones who were really disappointed. All I was hoping for was a bigger glimmer in the eyes of Americans when they looked at soccer."

Actually, it should be more than a glimmer. After all, the U.S., in spite of its status as host country of the 1994 men's World Cup tournament, is still a neophyte power in the world's most popular sport. A victory the magnitude of the U.S. women's would have inspired wild, gunshot-ringing celebrations in the streets of any other country.

But here, all it may have fostered is expectations.

Which is the tragedy of this triumph.

They had grown up with a secret, elusive wish. For most of their lives, a World Cup for women hadn't even been seriously contemplated. When it finally was, it was then twice postponed.

"All we wanted to do was play the perfect game," said Henry, a Shorewood High grad who, along with Akers-Stahl, are the only holdovers from the original U.S. national team, assembled in 1985. "We wanted to be the best in the world, even though there was no way to prove it."

The fact that they finally have has provided little solace.

"I feel a little sad," said Allman, the Decatur High grad who had been forced to quit her job as assistant coach at Santa Clara and seriously considered quitting the sport as well.

"We've just been recognized as the best in the world, but women's soccer is not in the Olympic Games. We don't even know what the next scheduled event is. We went and proved ourselves. Now what? It's kind of an empty feeling."

But not a new one. For years, they had put their lives on hold, trained on their own, lived out of suitcases and scraped to pay the rent. It was only this year that the U.S. Soccer Federation granted a meager, $1,000-per-month subsidy to its women players.

Eager to get on with life, three of them will hang up their cleats.

Allman will return to San Diego State, where she is the women's assistant coach, and pursue a master's degree in communications. Henry will return to North Carolina-Greensboro, where she also is an assistant, and pursue a graduate degree in coaching/physical education. Shannon Higgins, a Mount Rainier High grad, is the head women's coach at George Washington University, where she will study for a master's in communications.

"I feel relieved, more than anything," said Higgins, a two-time national player of the year during her career at North Carolina. "I've been kind of waiting for this to end. I've been so focused for so long on just one goal. A lot of the spontaneity has been cut out of my life."

Only Akers-Stahl will continue - perhaps because only she can. She is supported by her husband, Roby Stahl, who operates the well-regarded Post-to-Post soccer clinics. Stahl, a former college coach and professional player, also trains her. He will coach a professional team in Sweden, whose star player happens to be his wife.

Akers-Stahl's unique status was underscored during the Sunday night celebration. While her teammates mingled freely among the crowd, she was trapped in a corner, seated at a table, where she applied her autograph to her own posters until the supply was exhausted, mugged for cameras and exchanged small talk.

At 25, she is widely regarded as the best women's soccer player in the world. It is a status she confirmed by leading the U.S. team with 10 goals during the World Cup. She collected five of them in a quarterfinal game against Taiwan and had both of the U.S. goals, including the game-winning score with three minutes left, in the championship against Norway.

Akers-Stahl was the first U.S. female soccer player to sign an endorsement contract, with the international sporting goods company Umbro. Since the U.S. victory Nov. 30, she already has been back to New York twice for interviews, speaking engagements and the 1994 men's World Cup draw, and to Miami for a photo shoot.

People magazine recently hailed Akers-Stahl as the "Michael Jordan of women's soccer." Since the World Cup, her phone has hardly been ringing off the hook with Jordan-like endorsement offers. Still, her relatively high visibility confers upon her a larger burden.

Akers-Stahl has taken on the cause of getting women's soccer into the Summer Olympic Games. It was only a demonstration sport at the 1988 Games in Seoul, won't be played at the 1992 Games in Barcelona and is considered a longshot for the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She has concluded that her best lobbying tactic is "to just keep on playing."

"Now, there's not only the pressure of playing well for my teammates," Akers-Stahl said, "but of playing well for the future of women's soccer."

She once conducted a fierce, two-year fight with her own federation to regain her position on the U.S. national team. But, for Akers-Stahl, the Olympic quest will be an even more uphill battle. The forces marshaled against it are formidable because they are rooted in hypocrisy and ignorance.

"It doesn't make sense," she said. "We should've gotten women's soccer when the men came in. The hierarchy in the International Olympic Committee, and maybe FIFA (soccer's international governing body), is male-dominated. It's going to take some time before they want to believe that women can play in what has been a male-only sport. So you have to change some views, and that takes a long time."

So the waiting continues. Not only for Akers-Stahl and the Olympics, but for Allman, Henry and Higgins as well. It may well be only much later that their own country finally recognizes what they've accomplished.

For them, it has been the thrill and the agony of victory - the price of being pioneers.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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