Going for gold: Legendary goalkeeper Briana Scurry reflects on peaks and valleys of storied career

Going for gold: Legendary goalkeeper Briana Scurry reflects on peaks and valleys of storied career
Photo/John Todd Briana Scurry saves a goal during the U.S. Women's National Team's 1999 Women's World Cup Finals against China. The U.S. women's team ultimately won the finals in a penalty kickoff after Scurry made a clutch save.

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Briana Scurry first felt the weight settle on her shoulders when she stepped into the goal as a teenager.

The eventual Olympic and World Cup winning U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper started playing soccer at the age of 12. At the time, without any girls’ teams in Dayton, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, Scurry was the only girl on an all-boys team. Her coach, in an inspired piece of positioning, decided to place Scurry in goal.

“Coach was a good guy. I’m not saying he was wrong, but he thought mistakenly that the goal was a safe place to put the only girl on the team. He put me in the goal, and it is literally the most dangerous position to play,” Scurry said. “That’s how I started.”

Although Scurry would venture outside of the confines of the goalie’s box after that season – “I wanted to score some goals instead,” she said – in high school she returned to the position that would define her career and life. According to Scurry, the weight she had felt at the age of 12 – the responsibility and intense pressure of being the last line of defense – was the very thing that drew her back into the box.

Photo/Briana Scurry and Chryssa Zizos
Briana Scurry played as goalkeeper on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team during the squad’s victories in the 1996 and 2004 Olympic Games and the 1999 World Cup.

“As a goalkeeper, I learned that I could essentially stop the other team from winning,” Scurry said. “… I realized it was very powerful in that regard, and if you can shoulder the responsibility, then you can really do well. A lot of us goalkeepers, we [have] a different mindset than a lot of people about that, and we thrive under that weight.”

Scurry would feel the press and release of that weight many times over a career that took her to the highest of career highs – Olympic gold medal wins and clutch World Cup victories – to the lowest of personal lows, as she struggled to escape the physical and mental anguish of a career-ending concussion.

The weight persists, but Scurry, who now lives in Alexandria’s Beverley Hills with her wife, Chryssa Zizos, and two stepchildren, and tours the country as a public speaker, has rediscovered the light and passion that drove her to become one of the best and most influential goalkeepers in the history of women’s soccer.

A Black, gay goalkeeper from a small town in Minnesota, Scurry’s story is one defined by the constant, driving need to overcome those challenges and strike a path forward for herself and those who came after her.

“I feel like I’ve been a pioneer in a lot of ways for women’s soccer; I think that was one of them, that I was willing and brave to be who I am,” Scurry said.

Humble beginnings

Born on Sept. 7, 1971, in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Earnest and Robbie Scurry, Scurry’s athletic aspirations started early.

When she was 8 years old, Scurry, like many Americans, recalled watching, eyes wide and ears perked, as the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team defeated the USSR in its famous 1980 upset, aptly called the “Miracle on Ice.”

“It literally was a miracle, and at 8 years old, I understood that somehow and I was inspired to be an Olympian and I declared that to my parents,” Scurry said. “As I grew up over time, I didn’t necessarily think that I was obviously going to be an Olympian in ice hockey. I just knew I wanted to be one. I didn’t know which sport I would be doing it in, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Unlike many Americans, Scurry actually realized those childhood Olympic dreams.

Rise to fame

Scurry didn’t start her athletic career with soccer. She started playing tackle football in fourth and fifth grade in the boys’ lightweight division, since, like with soccer, there was no girls’ league in Dayton. In high school, Scurry would balance playing soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and track or softball in the spring.

“Over the years, my parents, fortunately, cultivated the inspiration that their little girl had,” Scurry said. “Instead of dismissing it out of hand and saying something like, ‘Girls don’t play sports,’ they were totally onboard with it and so totally supportive and amazing throughout.”

With her sheer athleticism, Scurry found success in every sport she played. She was an all-state basketball player and held state records in both track and softball, but she found the most success as a goalkeeper.

Photo/Briana Scurry and Chryssa Zizos
A young Briana Scurry poses inside the goal.

At Anoka High School, Scurry helped the Tornadoes to a Minnesota State Championship in 1989, her senior year, and was named an All-American. Scurry was recruited by 70 different colleges across the four sports she played, receiving the most interest as a goalkeeper.

Her talent caught the eye of Coach Jim Rudy at University of Massachusetts Amherst, who successfully recruited her to the UMass Minutewomen in 1989.

Most players who aspire to play on the national team appear on the national radar in their early teens. But according to Wayne Coffey, a bestselling author and sports journalist who worked with Scurry to write a book about her life, “My Greatest Save: The Brave, Barrier-Breaking Journey of a World Champion Goalkeeper,” due out in June 2022, Scurry seemingly appeared on the national stage out of nowhere. She came into UMass with great athleticism but, despite her success in high school, relatively raw goalkeeping skills.

“She wasn’t very good with her feet at all, punting and even playing the ball with her feet, but she was an insane athlete, and she could just fly through the air,” Coffey said. “One of her coaches said, ‘Before I had her, I’d never had a keeper in my entire career who hit her head on the crossbar’ and Bri would do that all the time.”

It would have been easy for Scurry to rely just on her athleticism and acrobatics, but instead she worked to hone her craft. By the time she was at her first national team camp as a college junior in 1993, she had developed the foundation of a goalkeeping philosophy that would carry her to international success.

“This space was hers – it was this inviolable 190 square feet. You weren’t getting the ball by her,” Coffey said.

The art of the save

For Scurry, goalkeeping is a philosophy and an art more than anything else. She likened the position to a chess master or general who marshals their forces and positions them in such a way that the ball never even gets to the goal.

“I have the complete opposite philosophy about goalkeeping than someone who wins the goalkeeper of the year award,” Scurry said. “That person usually has the most saves in a season. Well, to me that sounds like you’re doing it wrong.”

“A lot of people think about goalkeeping as somebody who can dive into the corner at will, which I could also do. When I needed to, I could do that, but that means that you are not doing the number one thing properly, which is positioning your defenders,” Scurry added.

Olympic gold(s)

The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta marked the first time women’s soccer was included in the competition. Two short years after playing her first national team game against Portugal in 1994, during which she earned a shutout, Scurry found herself face to face with the dream she had envisioned since she was 8 years old.

“You don’t necessarily need to know how you’re going to get somewhere – you just need to know where you want to go,” Scurry said.

Scurry played every minute of the team’s five games in the 1996 Summer Olympics and conceded only three goals. Scurry and the rest of the team, which included legends like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, took home the gold by defeating China in the finals, 2-1.

Scurry vividly remembered the moments after that victory, as she and her teammates grabbed their American flags and took a victory lap around the stadium full of 76,000 people. Scurry said she spotted her parents and counted no less than 10 people from her high school and club soccer days in the stands, all of whom came down to congratulate her.

Still buoyed by her first Olympic win, Scurry said she didn’t really understand the enormity of the accomplishment until much later.

Photo/Briana Scurry and Chryssa Zizos
Scurry poses alongside Title IX feature in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Game Changers exhibit.

“It’s years and years of time, of effort, of desiring this thing – and especially in team sports – as a group, together in that journey. You don’t really think about it until after because if you thought about it too much, you could be crushed under the weight,” Scurry said.

Eight years later, Scurry would return to the Olympic stage under very different circumstances. Where the 1996 Olympic Games were the culmination of her effort and her mother and father’s support, the 2004 games in Greece happened in the aftermath of Scurry’s father passing away on Father’s Day 2004.

Her sorrow was a shadowy presence that pervaded Scurry’s every moment during the 2004 games, from training to the games themselves.

“I decided that I was not going to try to put my emotions in a box; I decided to let them flow,” Scurry said. “… On the training pitch, I would just sometimes break down crying because I’m doing the thing that my dad had raised me and had walked with me [to do].”

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team beat their archnemeses Brazil in the gold medal match, 2-1. What is normally a moment of elation, Scurry referred to as “maximum grief in the arena of maximum joy” and a true test of her spirit.

“It didn’t rip me apart, thank goodness, but that goes back to the pressure and weight of things. I was very good at carrying the weight,” Scurry said.

A World Cup legend

Coming out of 1996, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team was riding high on its first Olympic victory. Suddenly, a team that very few Americans knew about had the spotlight – somewhat.

No U.S. networks had broadcast the team’s gold medal match live, betraying how the media and nation felt about women’s soccer at the time, according to Coffey.

With the World Cup coming to the U.S. in 1999, though, the team knew it had to bring the sport and the team the attention they deserved. The weight was once again on Scurry’s shoulders. In the two years leading up to the World Cup, the women’s national team worked relentlessly to get women’s soccer in front of Americans. They traveled to different clubs around the country in order to get people excited, Scurry said.

The efforts paid off. Right before the team’s first game at Giants Stadium in San Francisco, Scurry and her teammates were told that the 76,000 people who showed up had broken an attendance record for a sporting event at the venue. They almost broke an attendance record in general, but Pope John Paul II’s 1995 mass had them beat at 83,000.

“And that was because you could fill the infield when the pope was there,” Scurry laughed.

“We were able to do a thing that a lot of people didn’t think women’s sports could ever do on its own,” Scurry said. “… As I get older, I realize that parents just wanted their daughters to have a great example of a role model because young boys have had that their whole lives.”

According to Coffey, America’s victory in the World Cup final against China “was one of the watershed moments in the history of women’s sports worldwide.”

“It was really a sociocultural happening in a very big way. It changed everything,” Coffey said. “It put that U.S. Women’s National Team on the map, and it’s done nothing but grow ever since.”

Running out on the field, Scurry said the sounds of the crowd was deafening.

“It’s just this thunderous roar of applause and little young girls with pigtails screaming their heads off,” Scurry said.

The game itself was one of the most dramatic in the history of the sport. After regulation and golden goal extra time ended, the game was still scoreless, and the teams moved into an overtime shootout.

For a goalkeeper, a penalty shootout, especially one in the final of a World Cup, is the most high-pressure scenario possible. The first two players on each team made their shots, before Scurry saved a shot from Liu Ying. With the score tied at 4-4, Brandi Chastain had the final shot for the U.S. Her famous game-winning goal sealed America’s 5-4 World Cup victory – and Scurry’s chapter in the history books as the World Cup saving goalkeeper.

The walk of fame

Scurry was already an Olympic athlete, but her public profile grew tenfold after the ’99 World Cup, she said.

“I’m walking in Pasadena down the street and people are slamming on the brakes of their car and putting it in park and jumping out of the car,” Scurry recalled. “One gentleman ran over to me and said, ‘Hey Scurry, you’re awesome,’ high fived me and then ran back into his car. I was like, ‘What just happened? That is so crazy.’”

Along with the fame came even more public scrutiny. Although she admitted she didn’t notice it at first, Scurry said that over time she realized the way the media covered her was not the same as her teammates.

The moment that springs to mind for Scurry occurred in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup win.

“The interesting thing that happened when we were playing in the World Cup is my girlfriend at the time was at the games, and after the World Cup win, you see me running into the stands. I went up to her, and I think the camera realized it was her and it completely cut away,” Scurry said.

Scurry was never shy about the fact that she was gay, but the decision to erase what was such a joyous moment for her was “painful,” she said.

“I didn’t really have a problem being an African American or being gay on the team,” Scurry said. “The media might’ve had an issue with that, but I certainly didn’t and neither did my teammates.”

Career kryptonite

Scurry originally planned to retire in 2011, after one last season with the Washington Freedom, but those plans were dashed in 2010 by a concussion that she sustained in what would be the last game she ever played.

A knee directly to the temple ended her career and left her physically and mentally debilitated for years.

“For me, my superpower was my mentality and my belief that I could somehow do just about anything if I could learn how and be able to figure things out, like I did with my soccer career,” Scurry said. “… The problem with getting a concussion is it affects your mental wellbeing, your mental health, so the person I was before that hit was a different person after that hit.”

Scurry experienced excruciating headaches emanating from behind her left ear every day for three years. She had sound sensitivities and vision problems and a slew of mental and psychological issues – anxiety, panic attacks, depression – that resulted from her inability to execute on her post-career ambitions.

Photo/Briana Scurry and Chryssa Zizos
Scurry’s career-ending concussion resulted in years-long legal battle with her insurance company to pay for her occipital nerve release surgery.

At the peak of her career, Scurry had been able to focus on nothing but the ball and the kicker during a penalty kick in front of 90,000 people. After her concussion, she could barely hold onto a single thought. Unable to memorize the names of players and teams, her attempts at commentating on ESPN were disastrous.

“It was just horrible, and that experience led to another and before I knew it, I was in this teeny-tiny studio apartment in New Jersey wondering what happened, in 2011 and 2012,” Scurry said.

Scurry was battling her own mind in addition to an insurance company that was making it impossible for her to get the care she needed. At the time, Scurry was trying to get a then-experimental procedure called an occipital nerve release surgery, which addresses issues with the nerves behind the ears, specifically in the area from where Scurry’s headaches were emanating.

Without the care she needed to improve her injury, her symptoms grew worse until they were almost unbearable.

Scurry was also struggling financially. With no income other than frequently late disability checks, she had blown her entire life savings in three years. The cost of paying for a prolonged legal battle while living on inconsistent or late disability checks was too much for her, and eventually Scurry resorted to pawning off her two gold medals to pay for a few more months of rent.

In 2012, she started by pawning off the medal from her first 1996 win – her mother’s favorite – for $8,000 before returning later to get $4,000 for the medal from the U.S. women’s Grecian victory – which she had dedicated to her late father.

“When we’re talking about how much things weigh, I don’t have my superpower to hold it and it really crushed me,” Scurry said.

At one point, Scurry said she was suicidal and the only thing keeping her alive was the thought of what her death would do to her mother.

“The idea of somebody having to tell my mom, who was also dealing with Alzheimer’s at the time, that her baby was gone – it broke my heart,” Scurry said.

Rebuilding, regrowing

With her lawyers in her corner, Scurry continued to fight the insurance company. Eventually a friend connected her with the owner of Live Wire Media Relations, now called Live Wire Strategic Communications, who listened to her story and took her on as a pro bono case.

The owner of the Alexandria-based P.R. firm, now Scurry’s wife, Chryssa Zizos, helped get her story in the media and turn the tide against the insurance company. She also helped get Scurry’s gold medals back.

After hearing what Scurry had done with her medals, Zizos paid off the remaining amount to the loan company to get them back. She then took Scurry to Burke and Herbert Bank and got Scurry a loan that she would pay back using part of every check she got from public speaking engagements.

Getting her two gold medals back marked a shift in Scurry’s energy and vitality and a step back toward the person she had been only a few years before. Zizos likened Scurry getting her medals back to a tree regrowing its limbs. Now, the family keeps the medals in a framed box hung on a wall at home so Scurry can see them every day.

“To be able to get them back, that was [the] beginning of her climbing back and taking her life back and feeling strong again,” Zizos said. “… I think she felt like she was getting a piece of herself back.”

Photo/Goldman Photography
Scurry (right) with, left to right: stepdaughter, Daphne, wife Chryssa Zizos and stepson, Andrew.

Zizos helped Scurry rebuild her career on the back of public speaking engagements. At the same time, Scurry and Zizos also built a relationship that would blossom into something special at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. The pair married in June 2018, and now live in Alexandria’s Beverley Hills neighborhood with Zizo’s children, Sydney and Andrew.

Scurry would never play again, but soccer remained a part of her life. She was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2017 and, in 2018, served as an assistant coach for the Washington Spirit, who won their first National Women’s Soccer League Championship on Nov. 20, 2021, before becoming an investor in the team with Zizos.

After years of turbulence, financial woes and physical and mental anguish, Scurry is finally in a good place and said she is possibly the happiest she has been in her life.

She and Zizos have created a patch of bliss in their lovely house, with a pride flag hanging outside the front door and a carefully landscaped yard and garden in the back to which Scurry religiously tends. Scurry has a family she loves and that loves her and a successful, financially lucrative career telling her story.

Scurry may always feel that weight – the weight of expectations, of fame, of past experiences – but now she has roots to support it.