Two decades ago, she followed her mom to the soccer field. Two years ago, her goal won an Olympic gold medal for the United States. Now, Tiffeny Milbrett aims for World Cup stardom.
The U.S. women's national team ù and all the publicity this World Cup has brought it ù has been celebrated for providing girls with the female-athlete role models they've been lacking in the past. But U.S. forward Tiffeny Milbrett always had a sports-playing woman to emulate ù her mother.
Elsie Milbrett-Parham went to an Oregon high school that didn't even offer girls varsity sports, but she later joined a men's softball league. In 1979, when Tiffeny was 6, her mother joined a newly formed women's soccer league.
Tiffeny would serve as a "linesman" and watch her mother play forward ù the position that Tiffeny has now mastered well enough to make her second world championship appearance.
Elsie Milbrett-Parham, now 54, still plays on Hearts, an over-40 soccer team in Portland. Milbrett, 26, is on the world stage, 19 years after begging her mother to let her play soccer.
"She was about 5 years old, and she kept asking me, 'When will I be old enough to play?'" Elsie says.
Her mother held off two more years, then let Tiffeny play for the Soccer Boppers ù and Elsie served as the coach. She also raised Tiffeny and her older half-brother, Mark, as a working mom.
"My mom was the best ever," Tiffeny says. "I don't know what she did, how she did it, but she's just been the best ever. She did everything perfect."
Milbrett hasn't seen her father, who didn't marry Elsie, since she was 2.
"It was just a long-term relationship," Milbrett said. "My dad didn't want to believe that I was his daughter. So he therefore immediately assumed my mom wanted to marry him and I think got scared and couldn't accept it, and so then, not necessarily took off, but didn't accept responsibility of what was half his. Which was me.
"If my parents had lived together and then separated, that would have been tough. But since I didn't have a father, it wasn't tough at all."
And Tiffeny enjoyed being taken into the world of sports by her mother.
Clive Charles ù the mentor
After the Soccer Boppers, she moved on to Child's Foundation Football Club (CFFC) and FC Portland, where she played for club coaches Nyla Stuckey, Jeff Gadawski and Clive Charles.
Milbrett's childhood buddy, Cindy Griffith, joined the University of Portland, where Charles serves as head coach and Stuckey is an assistant, a year before Milbrett graduated from high school, and that's where Milbrett ended up.
Milbrett would score 103 goals and add 40 assists in 74 games ù but first Charles taught her some important lessons.
When she was a freshman, Milbrett's competitive nature sometimes got the best of her. In one game against the University of British Columbia, Portland was winning, 3-0, before allowing the game to get tied up. Milbrett yelled at Charles to take control of the team and yank some of her teammates out of the match.
Instead, he put Milbrett on the bench. As she cooled her heels on the sidelines, she realized she had to deal with her frustrations in a different way.
"In college, my nickname was 'No Tact Tiff,'" Milbrett said. "I've gotten better and realize when it is time to be tactful."
While Milbrett may be more refined than in her early college days, she's still known for her candor, and teammates wouldn't have it any other way.
"Millie is her own person and brings a lot of character and fun-spiritedness," teammate Michelle Akers said. "So she's unpredictable, and that's fun.
"You know how kids say things that are in front of them and sometimes we as adults, we edit some of our observations or thoughts and kids never do? Sometimes that's Millie. That always makes for a good laugh."
U.S. coach Tony DiCicco says, "She's so genuine. Tiffeny is a very, very well-liked person on this team because she has a great heart. She says things that are sometimes funny, but they come right from her heart."
And while Charles may have fine-tuned her attitude, he didn't stifle her creativity.
"She could always score goals," Charles said. "I just let her play more than anything else. I encouraged her to play, take people on, go to goal and do all of those things. And the rest she came to us with as a player. We didn't have to do too much with her. Players like that, if we're not careful we have a tendency to overcoach her."
Now Milbrett calls Charles her mentor and thanks him for letting her play "how nature intended."
"I want to go deeper than that," Milbrett said. "He was very important to the way I developed as a person and as a soccer player. Throughout those years, when you're in high school and going to college, you think you're so old. But you're so young, so impressionable. Things can taint you and corrupt you. He did a wonderful job on keeping me on an even keel and level-headed and going in the right direction."
No longer an underdog
The right direction, indeed. She's been a national team starter since the 1995 World Cup. She shredded opposing defenses in the U.S. team's series of friendlies before the 1999 World Cup and entered the tournament as her team's scoring leader in 1999, nabbing 12 goals and setting up 10 others in 16 games.
"She's such an exciting player to watch," DiCicco says. "We're hoping she has the type of World Cup she has earned with her hard work."
Milbrett debuted for the United States in 1991, but then-coach Anson Dorrance, and later DiCicco, made her bide her time behind four legends of the frontline: Akers, Carin (Jennings) Gabarra, April Heinrichs and Mia Hamm.
When she replaced an injured Akers at Sweden '95, Milbrett took a tight grasp of a starting spot.
"When I see her play now, it reminds me of how she played here in school," Charles said. "She never had to worry if she missed a chance because she still would play the next day. People with flair can't worry about what happens when it doesn't work. She forgot what it was like. Now she feels comfortable in that environment."
Milbrett scored three goals at Sweden '95, which ended with a disappointing third place for the United States. But a year later, the 5-foot-2 dynamo scored the winning goal in the Olympic gold-medal game.
She is the fourth all-time leading scorer for the United States, and though she still lives in the shadow of Hamm, whose goal in the 3-0 win over Denmark extended her world record to 110 goals, Milbrett has endorsement deals with Nike, Naya, Nutella and Burke Spencer, which produces a training device called the Training Partner.
Before the Olympic win, she had never won a major championship with any of her teams. The closest she got in college was in 1994 when she and U.S. teammate Shannon MacMillan led the University of Portland to the semifinals.
"I was never really on a winning team," Milbrett said. "I was on elite ODP and elite club teams, but we always struggled to win. We were always an underdog, doing what you can."
Now the underdog label no longer applies.
by Soccer America Associate Editor Dean Caparaz