Lilly, Kristine Marie

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LILLY, Kristine Marie

(b. 27 July 1971 in Wilton, Connecticut), soccer player who became a member of the Women's U.S. National soccer team at the age of sixteen and has since appeared in more international matches than any player in the history of the sport, male or female.

Lilly was born and raised in Wilton, an upper-middle-class suburb northeast of New York City. She was by all accounts a natural athlete, playing not only soccer, but every other sport available, including the usually all-male tackle football games in her neighborhood. Lilly's older brother Scott recalls that none of the boys held back on her because she could catch a football on the run as well as any of them and was capable of giving as good as she got. Lilly refused to accept the sexual barriers of organized sport, playing second base in Little League and joining a boys' soccer team in the absence of a girls' league. As evidence of the respect she commanded from teammates, her father, Steven Lilly, points out that when a regional soccer tournament in Niagara Falls, New York, banned her, the entire team walked off the field rather than play without her.

Unperturbed by the hostility often directed against her by opposing players—and by their coaches and parents—Lilly thrived in an atmosphere that might have broken the spirit of others her age. She described her childhood experiences as an athlete this way: "I was surrounded by guys. It made me tough. It made me know there was nothing I couldn't do. My parents never said I couldn't do anything because I was a girl. My brother used to bring me along. I was a girl, but I was one of the guys."

In the summer of 1987, not yet a high school junior, the fifteen-year-old Lilly traveled to Chicago to try out for the U.S. Women's National soccer team. She became the national team's youngest player ever, and at five feet, four inches, she was also its shortest. Less than a month after her sixteenth birthday the left-footed Lilly started at left forward and scored a goal in a milestone 2–0 victory over the Chinese team in Tianjin. Back home, she captained her high school team, leading Wilton to three state titles in four years.

While Lilly was achieving these spectacular early successes, her family was breaking apart. Her parents divorced shortly before she left home in 1989 to accept an athletic scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. There, rather than let personal adversity distract her, she turned emotional distress into an opportunity to intensify her focus on the game. "The only place I expressed my feelings was in the game," she told writer Marla Miller. "I had this pain inside that spilled out on the field."

Lilly, along with another soccer great, Mia Hamm, led the UNC Tar Heels to four straight National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles under Coach Tony DeCicco. Lilly's tenacious play earned her virtually every accolade that women's college soccer had to offer: the Hermann Trophy (1991); UNC's Athlete of the Year award (1993); and the designation as All-America, All-South, and All-Atlantic Coast Conference each of her four years at UNC. She finished her NCAA career with seventy-eight goals and forty-one assists, and her jersey number 15 was retired. Despite the extracurricular time and travel, she received her bachelor's degree in communication right on schedule in 1993.

Lilly is best known to the public as a member of the U.S. National team. Dubbed by Soccer Times the "iron woman" of the sport, she has been a member of the team every year since her teenage debut in 1987, appearing in over 215 international matches, the most by far of any player in the world. In a 1999 review of her career to date, Soccer Times found that she had played in 88 percent of the matches in the history of the U.S. National team, started in 186 of her 191 appearances, and, most remarkable of all, played a full 90 minutes in 157 games. Some of the memorable victories of the team during these years include the winning of the very first Women's World Cup competition in 1991, the 1996 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, the 1998 gold medal at the Goodwill Games, and a second World Cup in 1999. Although known for her passing and defensive play, Lilly is the team's third all-time scoring leader.

Women ' s Sports and Fitness called Lilly one of the "fore-mothers of women's soccer" in the United States. In a country where soccer has always taken a backseat to other major sports and where women's sports have taken a back-seat to men's, the achievement of these athletes in gaining nationwide and worldwide respect for their team is among the remarkable stories of U.S. sports. "With no professional league of their own," David Hirshey writes, "these women are forced for the most part to train alone in weight rooms, racquetball courts and empty stadiums … until they are summoned to international matches."

Lilly's role in all of this has been crucial, and her teammates on the foremothers' list are quick to acknowledge it. "Lilly is my favorite player," Michelle Ayers told an interviewer, "because she does the grunt work." Julie Foudy, in a characteristically blunt remark, called her "a total stud who has never had a bad game." Mia Hamm, who has been playing alongside Lilly since college, and whose movie-star good looks have gained her a disproportionate share of media attention, said that when people tell her they think she is the best player in the world, she replies that Lilly is. Lilly's tough, consistent, and unselfish play, as well as her team leadership, have helped make the United States a credible force in world competition.

Lilly has participated in sporadic attempts over the years to establish a professional women's soccer league, including a season spent with the Washington Warthogs of the ill-fated Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1995. However, with the general rise in acceptance and popularity of female athletes, she has gained a number of product endorsements. She teaches soccer and runs the Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy each summer in her hometown of Wilton, where pride in her achievements is in no short supply. High school students play their soccer matches at Kristine Lilly Field and a sign at the town line trumpets, "Welcome to Wilton, Hometown of Olympic Gold Medalist Kristine Lilly."

Almost any book written about U.S. women's soccer includes material on Lilly. Recommended are Jonathan Littman, The Beautiful Game (1999), Marla Miller, All-American Girls (1999), and Jere Longman, The Girls of Summer (2000). A profile of Lilly's career, including a complete statistical rundown, is available at <>.

David Marc