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World champions. Best in the world. Setting the bar. Leading by example. Olympic gold medalists.

Ever since I was 6 years old and sitting on the basement of my childhood home in Springfield, Virginia, watching the famed ‘99ers seal a World Cup victory in penalty kicks, I’ve been inspired by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team.

We all know the names of those women:

Mia, Brandi, Brianna.

Joy, Julie, Kristine.

Michelle freaking Akers.

The USWNT left their mark on all of us on that special day in July 1999.

I’ve played soccer my entire life, thanks to those women. From elementary school to junior high to high school to club in college, to the occasional rec league as an adult—I carry what they taught me everywhere. Beyond a love of the sport, those women taught me how to be a leader. They taught me how important and fun physical activity is. They taught me how to be a teammate, how to be a friend, and how to stand up for what I believe in.

Fast forward to 2019: I’m sitting on a plane flying back to Los Angeles, watching the World Cup final, being inspired by a new group of women. Because not only is this team exceptionally talented, but they’re also leading by example: using their platform to take issues head-on, with the same intensity as Alyssa Naeher stopping a PK or Megan Rapinoe delivering a cross.

Pay disparity, sexism, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, systemic racism.

These players know how to use their voice, exposure, and presence to force real change.

I think it’s amazing that kids growing up in 2019 have the opportunity to look up to this USWNT. Hell, I look up to them as a young adult. On Sunday, as I watched this team celebrate, collect their medals and trophies, and hug each other, I felt the thrill of victory and the true meaning of teamwork.

The USWNT is full of rebels, patriots, activists, athletes, and—above all else—strong, badass women.

They are setting an example for the rest of the world, for kids and adults alike. This team is teaching me how to speak my mind, how to embrace my confidence, and how to have fun, even in the face of intense pressure.

In a time where it’s been harder and harder to feel proud to be an American, these World Champions taught me how to believe again, by showing me what it’s like to be the very best on every single level.

Erin Vail

Erin is the 2003 West Reading Elementary Geography Bee champion, a TV obsessive, and never not thinking about Buffalo sports.

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