As the 2023 Women’s World Cup—with all its scintillating intensity and rising interest—drew into its final stages, one story dominated worldwide press coverage. The US Women’s National Team, usually near-guaranteed finalists, had been knocked out by the slimmest of margins. It was a head-turning headline because of the team’s overwhelming success since one group of women laid the foundation 38 years ago.
Now, Jamie Mittelman and her platform Flame Bearers, known for championing female Olympians and Paralympians, is putting the spotlight back on those influential women who initiated this unassailable reputation. Joining her to interview members of the 1985 team is Michelle Akers, one of just two female players named by Pelé as one of the 125 greatest alive in 2004.
“Incredibly, this team and its 38-year legacy of unprecedented world domination all began with 17 badass women in 1985 as the first-ever USWNT,” Akers shares. “That first team set the stage for the greatness and warrior mentality of the American game today, and yet their story is largely unknown. This event is part of changing that. It’s always an honor to wear the USWNT jersey, but for this inaugural event and as the first-ever USWNT, it is truly special.”
Platforming the pioneers
As the Founder of Flame Bearers, Mittelman has long viewed her responsibility as not only spotlighting the achievements of women but also allowing them to tell their stories in their own words. She believes reclaiming the narrative and communicating their journeys encourage younger women to see more paths forward today.
Previously, the company has given a platform to elite athletes from around the world, equally covering athletes with disabilities and those from the Global South. For the first time, this special edition focuses on athletes in one sport, from one country and one time.
Forming a phenomenon
This latest Flame Bearers announcement marks the first time members of the 1985 US Women’s national soccer team revealed their stories. The Women’s World Cup didn’t exist until 1991, and women’s soccer didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1996, so the country’s original players had to build a team from the ground up. Without any example to follow, their efforts would set the stage for the most dominant national soccer team in history.
“We are part of this history, and we have a story that has never been told,” says Stacey Enos, a defender on the first USWNT to play international soccer. Only twenty years later, in 2006, was she recognized as a ‘Pioneer of the Game’ by the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame. Her legacy continues to grow as she became the first head coach of the Asheville City SC women’s team, winning a Coach of the Year award for her leadership.
Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, reflecting on her experience playing on the first USWNT, shared, “It meant accomplishing a dream goal I had set when I was 9 years old watching my first men’s World Cup in 1974 and thinking ‘how cool would it be to play with all the best girl players in the US?’ Watching Johan Cruyff and total football was my motivation, the rest was passion and a bit of luck being the right age at the right time, riding the front wave of Title 9.”
Documenting a destiny
Michelle Akers, who played alongside Enos and scored twice in their opening four matches, is widely regarded as one of the greatest female soccer players in history. Flame Bearers’ upcoming podcast series will bring an opportunity for her to share the microphone and memories with some of her former teammates in a highly–anticipated addition to the organization’s reputation for groundbreaking content.
Emily Pickering, now Harner, reminisces, “I was so happy that we finally had a women’s national team and was incredibly proud to represent the United States of America. The Italians were incredibly hospitable and appreciated the play of all teams. We learned so much in that first year and knew we could compete with the rest of the world. We are OOSA!”
‘Special Edition: US Women’s Soccer Originals’ will air in both video and audio form following the conclusion of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. It follows a series of landmark strides for Flame Bearers, having held a panel at Harvard Kennedy School’s Women in Power Conference in the same year and an event that ran alongside the Super Bowl. With the rapidly increasing popularity of women’s soccer and the sport in the US more broadly, Flame Bearers’ next podcast series looks like an open goal.