Gwendolyn Oxenham's latest work colorfully celebrates the inspiring USWNT: 'Pride of a Nation'

Did you hear about the time Abby Wambach broke her tibia and fibula, just before the 2008 Olympics? From the ambulance, the U.S women’s national team captain called Lauren Cheney and said, “Get ready, you’re going. We need you.”

How about when Carla Overbeck and her teammates bought a hog’s head at an open-air market in China, snuck into coach Anson Dorrance’s hotel room, and placed it in his toilet? “We were hoping to scare the crap out of him,” she explained.

Or the story about a long-ago tournament in Italy, when a pioneering women’s national squad thought the “Oosa!” roar from the crowd was meant to intimidate them? After realizing it was the fans’ way of screaming “USA!” they adopted it as their pregame cheer. Nearly 40 years later, it’s still part of their tradition.

Those details – and countless others, large and small – form the heart of “Pride of a Nation.” Subtitled “A Celebration of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team,” and filled with insightful essays, first-person narratives and stunning photographs (plus a foreword by Julie Foudy), it may be the most compelling book ever written about any American soccer program.

Author Gwendolyn Oxenham has great material to work with. From the threadbare beginnings of the U.S. women's national team, through their global successes in World Cups and Olympics, the American squad has inspired generations of girls and women (and boys and men). The players have become icons – in part because of their outsized personalities, but more importantly by their stupendous skill and indomitable spirit.

Oxenham (and the photos selected by editors David Hirshey, Roger Director and Rob Fleder) brings the groundbreaking athletes – and all those who followed the first championship teams – to life.

This book (an “official” publication of U.S. Soccer) is also a labor of love. And Oxenham is more than just a casual fan. Her story parallels some of the American heroes she describes so deftly and fully in her book.

After playing against boys in Slidell, Louisiana, and Pensacola, Florida, she headed to Duke University as a very young NCAA Division I athlete. (“I started school at 4 and skipped senior year,” she explains.)

Soccer and writing were her passions. Right after college, suddenly without a team, she got a job on a yacht. On the Mexican coast she saw men with machetes and machine guns – and a soccer field. She headed over, made “kicking motions,” and soon (despite a monsoon) was playing in a pickup game.

“It was a magical moment,” she recalls. “And I realized games like that were being played all over the world.”

Oxenham had studied documentary filmmaking at Duke. She earned an MFA in creative writing at Notre Dame (and, during a break, played professionally for Santos, Brazil – Pele’s club team).

Those experiences led to “Pelada,” a film about pickup soccer around the world. Oxenham and her crew traveled to 25 countries in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The documentary premiered in 2010 at South by Southwest, and won awards.

Two books followed. “Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries and the Search for Pickup” built upon stories that did not fit in the 90-minute film. The late soccer writer Grant Wahl was the first person to review it; he encouraged her to keep writing.

Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer” featured 12 players, including Allie Long, a U.S. pro who trained in an underground men’s league in New York, and Danish international Nadia Nadim, whose family fled from the Taliban. (Oxenham's podcast is "Hustle Rule: The Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer.)

Oxenham’s love for the game is infectious. “The most fun I ever had was playing pick-up in Brazil,” she says. “You have to win to stay on.” She continues to play in Southern California, where she lives, and relishes the “30 different nationalities” on the field at one time. She is thrilled that her 9- and 6-year-old sons play pickup every chance they get.  

“Pride of a Nation” is a chance for the author to “revisit the moments that shaped me as a 12-year-old girl – and an entire generation.”

Members of those first teams – including Overbeck, Oxenham’s assistant coach at Duke – were generous with their time and contacts. Working with Hirshey and his team, and U.S. Soccer staffers like press officer Aaron Heifetz, she made the project more than just a book of memories and photos.

The writing is lively; the details rich. There is Brandi Chastain’s embarrassment that her mother brings a megaphone to matches (with so few spectators, she hardly needs it). There are Chinese fans reaching to touch Carin Jennings’ ponytail (they’d never seen a blonde person), and the crushing disappointment when the WUSA folded in 2003 – just five days before the World Cup began.

With an eye on the upcoming World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, there are profiles of many of the women who hope to lead the USA to an unprecedented third straight title. Appropriately, the section is called “Guardians of the Crest.”
There are legendary photos (including Chastain’s 1999 sports bra celebration) and much rarer ones, like Alex Morgan, deep in her private mental state amid a chaotic locker room.

There are telling quotes too, like Michelle Akers: “We hated Norway. We always hated them. They were good. They were tough, they were bitchy, they talked smack. I hated them, but it was fun. I loved beating them. It was great. For me, the more I hate them, the harder I end up playing.”

And Megan Rapinoe, before the 2019 World Cup: “I’m not going to the f***ing White House.”

That’s the history of the U.S. women’s national team: Bold. Audacious. Inspiring. Fun.

Just like all 256 pages of “Pride of a Nation.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Pride of a Nation. A Celebration of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. (Penguin Random House) By Gwendolyn Oxenham. Foreword by Julie Foudy. Edited by David Hirshey, Rob Fleder and Roger Director (Hardcover, 256 pages, 250 photos).

3 comments about "Gwendolyn Oxenham's latest work colorfully celebrates the inspiring USWNT: 'Pride of a Nation'".
  1. Cap AFC, January 27, 2023 at 10:51 a.m.

    I appreciate this book being put on my radar. Looks like a great project. Will be purchasing!

  2. Mike Lynch, January 27, 2023 at 1:33 p.m.

    Author who brought us, "Pelada!" Look forward to reading!

  3. Santiago 1314, January 27, 2023 at 7:15 p.m.

    "And Megan Rapinoe, before the 2019 World Cup: “I’m not going to the f***ing White House.”" (Because of Trump)
    And I'm not Going to buy your Underwear from Victoria Secret.!!!
    Isn't that kind of a Body Shaming Company.???
    Took the Money and Ran, didn't she.!!!

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