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A TALK WITH / Soccer Player Sara Whalen / She Gets a Kick Out of Being the Best / Sara Whalen's had a year of highs since the World Cup victory

BEING ONE of the fastest players on the U.S. women's

national soccer team has its perks. Sara Whalen found that out when her image

was beamed around the globe following the United States' penalty-kick victory

over China in the final of last year's Women's World Cup. After Brandi Chastain

scored the winning goal, Whalen was the first to congratulate her.

The Greenlawn native won the celebratory footrace and was shown in numerous

photographs hugging Chastain. Time magazine ran the shot on its cover, and it

appeared in just about every newspaper in the nation. The final was watched by

more than 90,000 people live and another 40 million on television. Sports

Illustrated selected the team as its 1999 Sportwomen of the Year. The team also

was featured on the cover of Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated and People in

the same week.

"It was a whole big blur of emotions and feelings that went with that

game," Whalen said. "It's unfortunate that I have a short-term memory, so I

can't remember everything about every game, but I have a lot of photos to help

me." It's been a full year since Whalen and the rest of the national team

captured the World Cup-and the hearts of the country. A year that saw its lows

in a contract squabble that had the team on strike in January, and saw its

highs when plans were unveiled in February for a professional league to begin

next spring.

For Whalen, 24, the year has been filled with highs. Not long before the

World Cup began last summer, the defender was on the fringe of a list of

players to make the team. It wasn't until almost the very last minute that Tony

DiCicco, the coach of the team, decided to include her on the 20-person

roster. She played the entire overtime of the final against China and logged

the second most minutes of playing time among the reserves.

"I went through so much to make the World Cup team, and when I did and we

won it, I knew the time away from my family and friends was worth it," Whalen

said.

At Harborfields High School, Whalen played soccer and basketball and ran

track. She still holds the school records in the 100-meter and 200-meter

dashes, using the speed she inherited from her father, Jack, who ran track at

Boston College. She attended the University of Connecticut, where she starred

on the soccer team as a sweeper for three years before moving to midfield as a

senior. She scored 21 goals and had 22 assists at the new position and was

named 1997 Soccer America Player of the Year. UConn retired her No. 8 jersey.

Last week Whalen made a trip home to play in an international game against

Italy at EAB Park in Central Islip. On a team composed mostly of younger

players, Whalen found herself in the role of veteran leader and scored a goal

in a 4-1 win. It was her fourth goal of the year and the seventh of her

international career.

"This is really a break for a lot of us," she said before leaving for a

three-game tournament in Germany this week and two games in Norway later this

month. "To get the chance to come out and play in my hometown was awesome."

She'll get that chance a lot more often next spring. Whalen has already been

allocated to the yet-unnamed New York franchise of the Women's United Soccer

Association (WUSA), which will begin play in April. Before that, however, there

are other concerns.

"The fact that the WUSA is coming together is just a tremendous thing to be

happening," Whalen said. "We're thinking about it, but right now our immediate

goal is to win the Olympics, which is not an easy thing to do." Especially

with a tough group that includes China, Norway and Nigeria in what is being

called "the group of death." "With so many teams improving and coming up, every

draw is going to be tough," Whalen said, downplaying the obstacles the team

will have to overcome just to advance to the medal round. But after so much

success, could anything less than a gold medal be construed as failure? "The

pressure is what we put on ourselves," Whalen said. "The World Cup was a

different kind of pressure. It was in the U.S., and we were trying to get the

Cup back." And this time? "This time the pressure is to remain the best."

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