Friday, April 20, 2018
Sports

Chastain has her head in the game

Brandi Chastain is confident the U.S. women's soccer team can win the gold medal again in Rio, is advocating for fewer headers in youth games and dealing with her son's diagnosis of Crohn's disease.

It's been 17 years since Chastain's winning kick in a penalty shootout against China in the Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl, and the celebratory photo of her overhead jersey twirl landed on magazine covers.

These days, she's coaching youth, high school and college soccer in California. Chastain is keeping an eye on the current women's national team — without retired star Abby Wambach — after helping the U.S. win two golds and a silver in the Olympics during her career.

"We have a very deep roster, a nice balance of young players and veterans," she said. "Those two components have always proved successful."

Chastain, who transitioned from forward to defense on the U.S. national team, calls it humbling to be selected for induction into the Soccer Hall of Fame later this year at its new location at FC Dallas stadium.

Here are a few things to know about Chastain, who plans to donate her brain for concussion research.

Safer soccer: Some think less heading in youth soccer games will lower the risk of concussions. Chastain works with the Safer Soccer initiative, which advocates for fewer headers. Since U.S. Soccer approved no headers for children younger than 11 last year, the whistle is blown for a foul if the ball is headed in a game.

Chastain would like the ban to extend to 14 and younger, but for now, it's about reducing headers in practice and "teaching kids spacial awareness, getting their head up and away from the ball. When the kids get fixated on the ball, their eyes never leave it, so they don't see any danger that potentially could be coming."

She tells her boys' youth team they're not quite ready for headers and cautions her boys' high school team. At the youth level, she says it's best to avoid them.

"I hope U.S. Soccer educates refs on the rules, so it's implemented at all levels and (teach) coaches about how to coach awareness skills for kids to protect themselves."

She's also a volunteer assistant coach at her alma mater, Santa Clara University, helping her husband Jerry Smith, who has been the head coach for 30 years.

Her brain: Chastain's experienced her share of concussions during a 24-year career spanning college, national teams and pro soccer. The 48-year-old says she's donating her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation because she wants to "leave soccer in a better place" and "if they can get some information out of looking at my brain, then I'm happy to contribute."

Crohn's challenge: Chastain's 10-year-old son Jaden was recently diagnosed with Crohn's disease, which causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms of the disease that affects about 700,000 people in the U.S. include cramping, diarrhea and fatigue. Jaden, who plays soccer, baseball and swims, has a supportive school and a treatment plan to manage his symptoms.

New attitude: Chastain acknowledges that helping her son deal with the emotional and social impact of the disease initially weren't her strengths.

"As a pro athlete, my philosophy was you kind of grind it out," she said. "Sometimes you won't feel good and you still have to do the work.

"I had to take a step back and know I'm not always in control, and Jaden will take the lead. He knows when he needs to rest or can't play. That was a great lesson for me."

Soccer equity: She's been watching the efforts by the U.S. women's team to receive better wages and benefits from U.S. Soccer.

Chastain says a lack of money is "absolutely not the reason" the federation offers different pay scales for the U.S. men's and women's teams. It's more about distribution, given the money the federation receives from TV revenue, sponsorships and FIFA.

"I'm a big advocate for equal reward for the work we do on the field," she said. "It's been a continual fight and a battle that, hopefully, we'll very soon win."

She says it's similar to the struggle for women's voting rights and Title IX, which opened opportunities for girls and women in education and sports. Chastain believes people will eventually look back at the wage issue and consider it archaic.

"Women — and not just women, there are a lot of male advocates out there — are saying, 'It's time. There's no logical reason for this to exist any longer.' "

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