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Women's soccer legend Brandi Chastain has already won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals, but she isn't interested in resting on her laurels.
Today, 20 years after she played among the best women's soccer teams to ever compete in the Olympic Games, she has turned her efforts to a new goal, which is inspired by her 10-year-old son Jaden. He was diagnosed with Crohn's disease last year, and Chastain has decided to team up with AbbVie in support for My IBD Game Plan, a website that helps educate and raise awareness about the chronic illness.
"Being on a team is something that is very important to me, always has been since I was a little girl, and now I find myself amidst a new team," Chastain told NBC News this week. "There are 1.6 million Americans who live with this daily, and this is a great outlet for them to be able to go to find information and to ask questions to find comfort and to find others out there so they know they are not alone."
Chastain learned of her son's diagnosis on her birthday after his pediatrician suspected he was suffering from something far more serious than a stomach ache and recommended she see a gastroenterologist. Once her son started to get the treatment he needed, he finally saw relief, and Chastain was motivated to take a more active role on the issue, in part because of his courage.
She wants him and anyone else battling Crohn's or inflammatory bowel disease not to be embarrassed or let their illness define them and to eliminate whatever stigmas exist about the diseases.
"As a mother, I’ve got my mama bear suit on, you know. I want to take care of my son, but I also know how important it is to be a part of a great team," she said. "I played soccer for a long time, and I’ve made some bad mistakes on the field, but when I did -- like for example, scoring an own goal during the World Cup, which you hope you never do, I had teammate right there to say, 'Don’t worry about it, it’s OK, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to help us win.' And as it turned out, she was right, and that comfort gave me great confidence."
"I’m hoping working with AbbVie and putting out the information on My IBD Game Plan is really gonna give people confidence about moving forward, what’s my next thing, what’s my next goal -- that’s important to me," she added.
Besides her championship play on the field, Chastain has long been someone who is engaged with issues off of it. For instance, she made headlines earlier this year by volunteering to donate her brain for scientific research into CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which has so far only been discovered posthumously in deceased male athletes. In soccer, where heading the ball is commonplace, there could be a risk to players of all genders.
And when the U.S. women's soccer team resurrected the fight for equal pay this year -- even threatening to strike two months prior to this year's Olympic Games, she reacted with pride.
"For me being a part of those teams, I know that what we were doing was important, not just important for the 18 players on the team, but like this team that I am on now. We’re fighting for a much greater population," she said. "I think there’s a lot of people out there who didn’t know that women’s soccer was treated differently than men’s soccer, so I think these two for me kind of align each other. And I think we’re strong, and we are in for the fight, and we want to make change.
Last fall Senate Republicans successfully blocked a resolution that would have put pressure on FIFA to embrace pay equity. And last month a federal judge ruled against the women's team, arguing that they do not have the right to strike to seek improved conditions and wages due to clauses in previously negotiated agreements. Still, what has been heartening for Chastain is watching how much women's sports has evolved and continues to break cultural barriers.
"Young girls, especially, look up to the females that didn't exist when I was playing," she added, citing tennis superstar Serena Williams as an example. "For team sports, girls now, they have an outlet to look at women and say, 'Wow, she really looks likes me' or 'I did that.' There is an inherent responsibility, but I think part of the inherent responsibility is that you need to be able to be yourself."
Today, it's also hard to imagine that her most infamous moment -- removing her shirt to celebrate her winning kick in the 1999 World Cup championship final -- would generate the same kind of national controversy it once did.
"One of the greatest gifts that that photo has given to me is the platform to speak about embracing the situation that you’re in," she said. "I never thought I would be the person making the last kick in the World Cup, nor did I ever think I would be an Olympic gold medalist or a World Cup champion. That was never a part of the plan ... When you’re presented with an obstacle or an opportunity, you have to be able to go for it, and in preparation, you’ll be ready."