In the small town of Wilton, there’s a sign that marks the town line that reads, “Welcome to Wilton, Hometown of Olympic Gold Medalist Kristine Lilly.” Wilton High School students also enjoy playing sports on the Kristine Lilly field. It’s safe to say that Wilton is more than proud of one of its most well-known residents.
Lilly has quite the accomplished athletic career, and she’s left her mark on her hometown in more ways than one. She kicked her first ball through Wilton’s youth sports programs when she was in elementary school, something she tried because she wanted to be more like her big brother. As it turns out, she was a natural at soccer, and – how’s that old saying go? – the rest is history.
After making the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team at the age of 16, she played with them for 23 years. She was part of five FIFA World Cups and three Olympic games, and she also helped lead the women’s soccer team at The University of North Carolina to four national championships.
Even though she retired from professional soccer in 2010, Lilly shows no signs of slowing down. From the kids soccer camp she runs every summer in Wilton, The Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy; to the TeamFirst Soccer Academy, where she coaches kids along with her former teammates, Mia Hamm and Tisha Venturini Hoch; to her book, Powerhouse, which inspires businesses and organizations to operate as a team, she teaches and helps others both on and off the field.
She’s left a lasting legacy that will continue to empower and inspire people of all ages to work hard, keep pushing forward, and to follow their dreams – no matter how small their hometown might be on the map.
Q: What was it like growing up in Wilton, and how did you get started with soccer?
A: I wouldn’t trade where I grew up, and all of growing up in Wilton was incredible. I moved there when I was in kindergarten. So I’ve been through all the school systems, played on all the sports fields, and trained in every part of the town, I bet.
It was a great place to grow up, and our family was really sports-oriented. We played all different sports growing up, and Wilton parks and recreation provided all that. As I grew up, I wanted to be more and more like my big brother, and that’s how I got into soccer.
Before I knew it, I started to excel in the sport, and then in my junior year of high school, I made the U.S. national team, which was kind of a big deal!
Q: What was it like being part of the U.S. National Team while going through high school at the same time?
A: At first, I had no idea what it was all about, and then my life changed forever after joining the team. It was an amazing ride, and so much fun to be a part of all that growing up. Back then, the team wasn’t as busy as they are now, but I took two trips in high school. My junior year, I remember going to Taiwan and China. I remember not wanting to go, believe it or not, because I didn’t want to miss out on anything back home. But my friends said, “What? You’re going to China?! Go!”
I remember bringing my schoolwork with me on the trip and teachers working with me. It was a new experience for everybody, and the national team was just two years old at that point. I had such great support from my family, friends, and the town. It’s great going back there now to visit. Everyone there has really supported me, and I go back every summer to run my soccer camp.
Q: Can you tell us more about your summer soccer camp, the Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy?
A: I’ve been running my camp since 1995. We’re so happy to be back this year, after missing last year because of COVID. The camp will run July 12th to the 15th from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It’s for ages 7 to 13, and it’s almost sold out!
Q: What are some of your biggest career highlights, from the Olympics to the World Cup?
A: I was on the national team for 23 years, and I was able to play five World Cups and three Olympic Games. I was part of the first World Cup in 1991 and part of the first Olympics in 1996. Like I said, the national team was so new when I made it. People didn’t even know who we were, and I actually have a story about that.
I remember getting on a plane, but the team wasn’t traveling together. I had a USA team sweatshirt on, and someone asked me, “Would you play for them?” People didn’t realize that we had a women’s national team that was playing. And now, in current times, I’d never have to explain it to anyone.
It was so much fun to grow the game in the States by being part of this team and playing with these women that were so much like me. When I grew up in Wilton, there weren’t a lot of girls’ sports. So I played with the boys most of the time, and my brother. When I joined the national team, I met these women and thought, “Oh, my gosh, you’re like me! You want to compete. You want to work hard. You want to laugh, you want to cry, and maybe even swear a couple of times!”
It just really changed my life just because I found women just like me. I think a lot of kids are always searching for familiarity, and I’m so glad I found it and had such a great experience.
Another highlight for me was winning the 1999 World Cup in the United States, which changed minds and views about the game and companies investing in women players.
Q: Do you still play soccer now?
A: I retired in 2010, but now I coach kids, and I try to kick the ball around here and there. I do another camp with Mia Hamm and Tisha Venturini, who are former teammates on the national team. We run a camp called TeamFirst Soccer Academy. We travel around the country teaching, and we’ll play some pickup games together.
Q: Can you talk a little about your advocacy work around equal pay?
A: I think we’re in a state of our country where we need to be doing what’s right. For so long, women weren’t treated right, and now we’re starting to see that change.
The women are fighting for more as we keep growing. A lot of the time the pay becomes the main focus. But what people don’t realize is, it’s the field stuff, the travel, the food, etc. If the men are getting a filet mignon and we’re being given something else, that’s just not right.
So those are the kind of elements that I talk about and that I believe in. When I’m dealing with youth sports and high school sports and seeing girls not getting the primetime practice time, that’s part of it as well. There are certain things happening where girls don’t feel respected, and they don’t feel they’re worth something. If you show more respect and worth for boys’ teams than girls’ teams, that changes the dynamic a bit more. I think what we really fight for as women is just to be respected.
Q: Can you tell a little bit about the various charities you work with?
A: I work with Mia Hamm through her charity, the Mia Hamm Foundation, which we support through our Team First Soccer Academy. It helps families going through bone marrow transplants and empowers young girls to be better.
I’ve also always been busy with Children’s Hospital in Boston doing different fundraisers for them. I ran the [Boston] Marathon in 2012 for them and raised around $21,000.
There are other charities in Connecticut I’ve worked with as well, like Special Olympics Connecticut and also Kick for Nick, which is out of Wilton. Nick was a Wilton High School student, and he went to war in Afghanistan and lost his life, so Kick for Nick was started. I have a little raffle at my camp that we raise money for each year, and I give money to that charity and also give soccer balls to his mom and dad, who run it. I really try to help charities that are small and don’t have a voice like the larger ones do.
Q: What is one of your favorite Connecticut memories?
A: I loved growing up in Connecticut. I think one of my favorite memories is having the Fourth of July in Wilton. We always had these fireworks, and the night had such a small-town feel, which I love. I just love coming back to Connecticut, specifically, Wilton. It brings such a good feeling to me. I think when people are looking for places to live, you always want to find a place that feels good and connected, and Connecticut was always a state that did that. To this day, I still have the same two best friends from high school, and I think that’s really special.
Q: Can you tell us about your book?
A: Two years ago, I wrote a co-authored book called Powerhouse with two friends that I met when we lived in Austin, Texas, John and Lynette Gillis. It’s a book about teamwork, and it’s based on the success of our U.S. Women’s National Team. It has 13 chapters since my team number was 13. It talks about communication, leadership, setting goals, and doing what’s right. Each chapter is an interview with one of my former teammates, and it’s basically set to help organizations, teams, and businesses run better and be better.
It focuses on the things that worked for us as a team. I think a lot of times, sports can transfer over to businesses and organizations if they run similar to how sports teams do.
For more information about Lilly’s camps, book and other endeavors, visit kristinelilly13.com.