ATHENS - When she heard "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing before yesterday's game, Julie Foudy - chief loudmouth and cut-up for the U.S. women's soccer team - felt an uncharacteristic lump in her throat.
"This one, it got to me. I had to tell myself, 'Get yourself together.' But I was thinking, 'I don't want this to be my last anthem,'" said Foudy, 33.
The thing about winning the gold medal at the Olympics is that they play the winner's anthem after you step on the podium.
In a stroke of luck they might have earned over the past 13 years - a stroke of luck they definitely needed against a faster, more opportunistic team - the U.S. Olympic women's soccer team beat Brazil, 2-1, in overtime, to win the gold medal.
They also wrote a storybook ending to an unparalleled era in women's sports.
In 1991, U.S. soccer sent a team to China to compete in the first Women's World Cup. When Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain returned home, World Cup title in hand, they were interviewed by five journalists at the airport.
They came a long way - and they yearned to end their amazing run on a celebratory note.
"It just seemed right. Not that we deserve anything special, but it's nice that we are going out on top," Foudy said.
Last night, when they walked off the field at Karaiskaki Stadium, gold medals around their necks, the "original five" of U.S. women's soccer were mobbed by reporters from nearly every major market in the United States.
"There are only a few times in your life when you get to write a final chapter the way you want it," Hamm said. "We did that tonight."
In the 112th minute, Abby Wambach headed in the winning goal, leaping to connect with a corner kick from Lilly.
And now retirement is on the minds of these sports pioneers.
"If you only knew how my body feels right now," said Hamm, 32, who became a member of the national team at 15.
Hamm had to be sore. Last night, the Brazilians dished out the kind of physical medicine the Americans had laid on them in a match earlier in these Olympics. The Brazilians had accused them of dirty tricks, but last night the game was all about the flow and speed of Brazil.
In outplaying the United States, which benefited from two shots that Brazil banged off the goal posts, the Brazilians were showing the effect the U.S. women have had on women's soccer worldwide.
"Especially since 1999 [when the Women's World Cup was staged in the United States], a lot of federations have said, 'How can we get better?'" Foudy said.
It took more than an hour for the U.S. women to emerge from the locker room after the game. It was an emotional celebration, not just of the gold medal but of 13 years and the legacy the 30something veterans created - for themselves and women's soccer.
"There were tears, crying, a lot of 'I love yous,' jubilation. We wanted to bring the gold back to the U.S. It was a great way for the older players to end their careers," said goalkeeper Briana Scurry.
The American women have been a committed group of soccer advocates - eager and willing and generous role models for young players, particularly young girls.
It was a serious blow - financial but also psychic - when last year the American professional league, the Women's United Soccer Association, folded after only three seasons.
The league's demise was announced on the eve of the 2003 Women's World Cup. The U.S. third-place finish in the World Cup solidified their resolve for victory in these Games.
And with their gold medal yesterday, the U.S. women came full circle.
They won their first Olympic gold on a steamy field in Athens, Ga., eight years ago. In 1996, NBC did not bother to make sure the first women's Olympic soccer gold medal game was aired live. Yesterday, the network didn't let a seven-hour time difference prevent it from televising the game live during the afternoon in the United States.
Besides playing some of the most organized and dominating soccer for the past 13 years, the "original five" became successes in ways that stretched the definition of female athlete.
Fawcett became the role model for working mothers. The 36-year-old defender has three daughters and yet continued to anchor the U.S. squad.
Foudy, a Stanford graduate who used to study by candlelight on national team trips to places such as Haiti, was chosen to serve on a presidential panel on Title IX reform. It was a role she embraced, becoming an outspoken advocate against any measure that would weaken the federal legislation that created athletic opportunities for women.
Lilly, 33, has amassed the record for most appearances in international competition of any U.S. soccer player.
And then there's Chastain, 36. Who will forget her?
After the 1999 Women's World Cup, she become a household name. When the U.S. women won the title, it was Chastain who ripped off her shirt in celebration.
During that World Cup, the U.S. women set an attendance and TV ratings record. More people watched that soccer match than any other women's sporting event in history.
The Rose Bowl was sold out. Forty million saw it on television.
Imagine that? We don't have to. They did it.
And they did it again, winning the Olympic gold medal.