By Tim Nash
As the years go on and the memories from the early days of the U.S. women’s national team get dustier and dustier, the players from those days get drowned out by the incredible amount of information available to fans about today’s stars.
It’s a shame, really that there was no You Tube in 1991. Too bad, the 1991 World Cup was on the other side of the world, and the one or two American media members covering it in China couldn’t post their articles immediately on the internet, which barely existed then.
What we missed was not only Michelle Akers’ remarkable 10 goals in six games, but a chance to see Carin Jennings (Gabarra) display her dribbling talents in her prime.
“I remember trying out for a state team in California, and she was there,” said Julie Foudy in the new book It’s Not the Glory. “The first time I saw her, I was like, ‘Who the hell is that girl?’ She was just tearing through teams. She would literally tear through five defenders and score. I was in awe.”
Here’s a few things you should know about Carin Gabarra. The first time she ever stepped on a soccer field, she scored nine goals. Anson Dorrance, the coach of the 1991 world champs, called her “Incredibly creative with unbelievable one-v-one ability.” Tony DiCicco, the coach of the 1995 World Cup team, the 1996 Olympic champs and the ’99 World Cup winners, said she “Would kind of screw you into the ground with move after move after move, twisting back and forth.” And Mia Hamm learned by watching her.
“She could make the most athletic person look as if walking was something new to them,” said Hamm in “It’s Not the Glory”, which covers the U.S. women’s first 30 years. “She was amazing. The way she could cut the ball as dynamically as she could at full speed was unbelievable. Defenders would fall down a lot. They just couldn’t keep up with her. I learned so much from watching her. A lot of times when I cut the ball the way I do, it’s because I watched her for so long. You could just see how devastating it was to defenders.”
Her teammates called her Gumby after the overly bendy cartoon character of the time (use your Google machine to look it up.) And Gabarra credits her Gumby-like features, at least in part, for her dribbling ability. And training with the U.S. men’s national team member who would become husband, Jim Gabarra, now the coach of the Washington Spirit, certainly didn’t hurt.
“Part of it is that I am very pigeon-toed, so some of it comes naturally when your body structure is like that. And I trained a lot with Jim, and we played one-v-one all the time because there aren’t a lot of things you can do on your own. And it was what I enjoyed doing. I wasn’t good at other parts of the game so I wasn’t going to spend my time working on heading and things that were never going to be my forte. I worked on what I was good at. I did love do it. I enjoyed taking that responsibility.”
Gabarra scored six goals in the ’91 World Cup, including three in a semifinal win over Germany, and was named the Golden Ball winner in ’91 as the tournament’s best player. She was hampered by a back injury at the 1995 World Cup, but she came back to appear in all but one game of the 1996 Olympics. She retired 20 years ago after earning a Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics at age 31.
Despite her status as the greatest player people don’t talk about, Gabarra can look back at a career with pride and no regrets. Her career, like many of her former teammates was filled with “firsts,” groundbreaking events in women’s sports. And being able to play in the Olympics 20 years ago will always be a highlight.
The U.S. players first heard about women’s soccer being added to the Olympics in 1993. Gabarra’s initial reaction was not what you expect.
“First they told us ’91 was going to be ’90, but then they decided they didn’t want to have it the same year as the men’s World Cup. It was around 1994 when people started talking about the Olympics. It had to go before the International Olympic Committee to add a new sport, so it took a while. I remember us being very excited but at the same time not truly believing it yet. And we were focused on the ’95 World Cup first.”
“We had won a World Cup, which is the pinnacle in soccer, the biggest deal. But it wasn’t a big deal to the general public. But being in the Olympics was. Americans and the general public love the Olympics. People tune into the Olympics and watch everything, even sports they don’t understand. It was exciting for us.”
Gabarra never chased the spotlight, never courted public attention or approval, but in 1996 people were starting to notice. One instance in particular stands out as evidence she and her teammates were no longer playing in obscurity.
“At the Olympic Village, there were hundreds of busses,” she says. “At any time you could hop on a bus and go watch some events. I remember I was with Carla Overbeck, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy. We were sitting on a bus and a bunch of gymnasts got on. At that time, it was Keri Strugg and a bunch of famous gymnasts. I remember Mia walking by outside getting on a different bus, and one of the gymnasts said, ‘Hey, there’s that famous soccer player.’ That’s when I knew we had made it. Gymnastics is a huge Olympic sport. Everyone follows that. Everyone knew who they were, and they were pointing out Mia Hamm. That was not a normal thing at that time.”
A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Gabarra has served on the U.S. Soccer Technical Committee since 2006 and chairs the U.S. Soccer’s Girl’s Player Development Task Force.
“I’ve been pleased with the work we’ve been able to do,” she said. “I was able to put together tasks forces and look at a lot of things. A lot of changes were made on the women’s side that have helped give them resources to be the No. 1 team in the world continuously. I was very satisfied that we were able to add full-time coaches at the U17 and U20. A lot of big things have come out of it.”
She is entering her 24th season as head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, a job she took while still playing for the national team. After her first Navy team went 2-5, she strung together 22 straight winning seasons and owns a career record of 295-130-43.
“I think they wanted to give me a three-year contract, and I called my husband and said, “Three years? I haven’t been anywhere for three years,’” she recalled. “But I grew up on the water. I love the (Annapolis, Md.) area. I love where I am, and I love my job. I’m working with the best and the brightest. I’m working with kids who hold themselves accountable for everything they do, day-in and day-out. They want to do the work and want to get better.”
Carin and Jim Gabarra have three children. Tyler is a rising sophomore on the soccer team at NC State. Abigail will be a high school senior. Talia, a rising sophomore in high school, plays for Carin’s former teammate Shannon Higgins Cirovski on an ECNL team in Bethesda.
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, click here