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Tar Heel Olympians: Seven Heels win women’s soccer gold at Atlanta 1996

The US brought home the first ever women’s soccer Gold Medal thanks to a roster that contained several Tar Heels.

Oly Soccer

This summer, athletes from all over the world will compete in the Olympic games. (Hopefully. Please chill, COVID.) We already know that two a couple Tar Heels will be there on the US and other women’s soccer teams, and there’s sure to be others to officially make it by the games kick off.

In honor of the games, throughout the whole of the summer leading up to them, we’ll be digging into the history books to profile some Tar Heels of the past who competed at the Olympics.

Where as the men’s World Cup began in 1930 and had been played ever four years except for a period during World War II, FIFA was pretty slow to add a women’s version. Unofficial tournaments dated back to the 1970s, and several notable soccer-playing countries had banned women’s soccer at points. It wasn’t until 1991 that FIFA staged a women’s World Cup, but even then they called it the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup,” rather than a World Cup.

Likewise, the Olympics took a while before adding a women’s soccer event. A men’s soccer event at the Olympics dates as far back the second ever games in 1900. The fact that the Olympics only allowed amateurs and therefore wasn’t the true best of best probably led to the creation of the World Cup. Yet, no women’s tournament was held until the 1996 games in Atlanta.

By the time a women’s soccer tournament was added to the Olympics, North Carolina had already long become a powerhouse in the college ranks. Anson Dorrance had led UNC to 12 of the first 14 NCAA championships, and the US women’s team to a win at aforementioned first World Cup in 1991. Dorrance was no longer in charge of the USWNT by the time the 1996 Olympics came around, but the team still had quite the Tar Heel bent to it.

Of the 16 person roster, seven, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck, Cindy Parlow, Tiffany Roberts, Tisha Venturini, and Staci Wilson, had played at UNC. An eighth, Tracy Noonan, was included amongst the four alternates.

In the tournament opener against Denmark, four Heels were in the starting lineup while two others came on later in the game as the US won 3-0. Hamm and Venturini each netted goals in the win. Venturini added another in a 2-1 win over Sweden before the US wrapped up group play with a 0-0 draw with China. After getting over the line with a 2-1 extra time win over Norway, the US were set to face off against China again for the Gold Medal.

Four Tar Heels, Hamm, Lilly, Overbeck, and Venturini, were in the starting lineup for the Gold Medal match. After a 1-1 first half, a 68th minute Tiffany Mibrett goal gave the US the 2-1 win and the first ever women’s soccer Gold Medal.

Since then, the USWNT had gone on to three of the next five Gold Medals awarded in the sport. Of the two they haven’t won, they got silver in one of the others. Only once has the USWNT failed to medal at all at the Olympics. Every single US roster, including this year’s, has had at least two Tar Heels.