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PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro native Tiffeny Milbrett inspires the next generation of female soccer players during her annual summer camp at Portland's Lincoln High.Some athletes are synonymous with change.

Joe Namath helped create the modern NFL. Billie Jean King created the women’s professional tennis tour.

And then there’s Hillsboro’s Tiffeny Milbrett.

Milbrett, an Olympic athlete who scored the gold medal-winning goal for the United States’ 1996 Olympic women’s soccer team, helped transform women’s soccer in America.

The 2016 Summer Olympics kick off this week in Rio de Janeiro, two decades after Milbrett won her gold medal in Atlanta.

But Hillsboro’s most famous Olympian is very nearly didn’t get the chance to play.

Milbrett laced up her first cleats as the 7-year-old wunderkind for the Hillsboro Soccer Club’s “Kamikazes” team. The W. Verne McKinney Elementary School girl was so unstoppable some opposing teams whispered the little blond dynamo had to be “Brazilian.”

The prodigy’s love for the sport didn’t stop after games or practices.

“I was always firing balls in our backyard or at Shute Park,” Milbrett says. “My dream was to play soccer in the Olympics."

Such dreams for little boys were fanciful, but for little girls were beyond the pale.

In high school, Milbrett shared her Olympic ambitions with her ninth-grade coach, Kathy Lavier, who gave her the bad news — the Olympics didn’t allow women’s teams.

“That’s OK,” Milbrett shot back, “I’ll just play for the men’s team.”

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were the first to include a women’s tournament.

Milbrett, 43, who now coaches in Denver, was back in the Portland area last week to spend time with her mom, former Hillsboro resident Elsie Milbrett-Parham, and to coach the annual summer Multnomah Athletic Club soccer camp.

Her mother, similarly, loved sports, but her rural, Mapleton, Oregon high school in the early 1960s lacked any girls’ teams. Elsie later channeled her passion by playing on men’s sports teams in Beaverton, with young Tiffeny in tow, watching.

Work ethic

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - An unstoppable offensive force for the University of Portland, Tiffeny Milbrett tied the all-time NCAA scoring record.Her daughter developed an early work ethic, spending middle school summers toiling in local strawberry fields to earn money for her clothes and make life easier for her mom and brother back at their apartment complex in Hillsboro.

Millbrett grew to become an all-stater in both basketball and track — and one of the top nation’s top prep soccer players at Hillsboro High in 1990. She won college scholarship offers in each sport.

“I knew early on that coming from a single-parent family, I couldn’t go to college without earning an athletic scholarship,” Millbrett says. Four stellar years at the University of Portland in the early 1990s cemented her fame as the best women’s player to ever come out of Oregon. She tied the then-national career scoring record at UP with 103 goals and was invited to join the U.S. Women’s National Team in 1995.

Compared to their male counterparts, women’s teams were second banana in staffing, travel expenses, equipment — everything, Milbrett says.

Since the late 1980s, the women’s national team was so meagerly funded that playing overseas often meant “... living on Snickers bars and Pop-Tarts, weight loss of up to 10 pounds per player, barren hotel rooms that were so grungy that some players slept in their clothes,” wrote The New York Times writer Jere Longman in his book “The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World.”

“The discrimination was everywhere,” Milbrett says. “Men got salaries. Women barely got a per diem for expenses. Men rode first class, sometimes even chartered jets, and we rode commercial coach.”

Bronze in Sweden, gold in Atlanta

Milbrett emerged as a standout on a U.S. team that shocked its European and Asian rivals, winning the bronze medal at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden. She went on to play an even bigger role in the 1996 Olympics, where she scored the winning goal in the gold medal game against China.

Mia Hamm, who was injured in the final moments of the gold-medal match, became a household name after the Games, but Milbrett was the most exciting player to watch, a 5-2 human pinball with nitroglycerin explosiveness and jitterbug moves who handled the ball as if it were tethered to her foot.

The 1996 Olympic gold-medal game was broadcast around the world, and American television audiences rewarded the women with record soccer ratings. Hamm, Michelle Akers, Milbrett and others would star in a series of TV commercials and become regular guests on “The Late Show” with David Letterman.

And, the barriers against women began to crack. The U.S. Soccer Association noticed that television ratings for the women’s national team exceeded those for the men’s team. They also noticed, Milbrett says, “that we hired a lawyer.”

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Tiffeny Milbrett studies her players during a summer soccer camp in Portland. Milbrett says she doesn't criticize players, but rather wants them to fell free to be creative.

Tenfold increase

Women’s soccer growth had been almost imperceptible since Title IX took effect in 1972, but that changed after that 1996 gold medal game.

The number of women’s college soccer teams exploded to more than 800, a tenfold increase over the preceding 15 years. More than a quarter million girls began playing youth soccer. By the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the United States, female players were getting salaries. “We even got a chartered plane — I was floored,” Milbrett says.

Milbrett is gratified today about the growth of women’s soccer, but says she is concerned about how girls are being taught and what that might bode for the future.

“Too many girls are over-structured and over-coached,” she says. “And too many coaches focus them — on just soccer — too early. Kids should absolutely not stop playing other middle school sports in order to concentrate on only soccer. Kids need to play basketball, softball [and] other sports while they still can before high school.”

She attributes her artistic, free-loving, scoring-machine style to the way she learned the game in her Hillsboro neighborhood, practicing spin moves in the driveway, kicking balls between Shute Park trees and bushes.

Milbrett praises her former University of Portland coach, the late Clive Charles, as a model for a holistic coaching approach. “Clive didn’t belittle players. He didn’t harshly criticize players. He let us make mistakes and let us learn,” she says.

Culture and creativity

Milbrett coaches the Colorado Storm of Denver, one of the top youth clubs in the country, where she sees some of America’s most talented young players.

“I fear our soccer culture might be losing some of its creativity,” she says, “I encourage my players to experiment, to feel free to make mistakes in order to be creative. That was one of the reasons I loved playing. It freed me.”

Milbrett traveled the world with the U.S. team for 10 years — until 2005 — and then played professionally before retiring as a player in 2010.

“I wasn’t fully conscious, until I retired as a player, of how much of my confidence as a person had come from being a soccer player,” she says. That makes her want to provide the opportunity for other girls.

The U.S. Soccer Committee has nominated her for induction into the soccer hall of fame this year.

Milbrett also hopes to get a coaching position in the near future on a national women’s team somewhere in the world where she has played -- Europe, China, Japan or Australia.

Yes, as Milbrett wrapped up her latest visit home to Portland, her thoughts turned to her first love, women’s Olympic soccer, and the 2016 Olympics.

Will the Hillsboro native watch the Rio games?

“Are you kidding?” she says with a laugh. “I can’t wait.”

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