From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Most of her gold-winning U.S. gymnastics teammates decided to watch the Olympic closing ceremonies on TV, so Kerri Strug tagged along with friends on the softball squad. Good move. When fans clamored after the diminutive (4'9") athlete, her softball buddies gently, but firmly, stepped in. "They looked out for me," Strug recounts, "and said, 'Leave her alone. She wants to enjoy the show too.' "

This was the Year of the Woman at the Olympics—U.S. women captured 19 of the nation's 44 gold medals—but the bond that formed spontaneously between gymnasts, swimmers and soccer stars surprised even them. "The unity of the athletes was the biggest high," says softball pitcher Lisa Fernandez. "It was almost like we came together as one."

Part of the reason for their success may be Title IX, a 1972 education bill that upgraded the quality and funding of women's athletics. Since then, an entire generation has grown up with greater expectations. Says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation: "These Olympics proved that women's performances could dominate."

For the stars, there could also be a payoff in the marketplace. According to Stan Becker, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, one of the best bets in the endorsement scramble may be Amy Van Dyken. "She came across as a hero, but vulnerable," he says of the befreckled swimmer. "People can say, 'Oh, she has a little spinach between her teeth. She's like me.' " But, he adds, "what really emerged is team women's sports. This was the most inspiring thing at the Olympics—the teams."

The women agree. "I think we'll never be the same, "says Dot Richardson, the shortstop who is also an orthopedic resident. "My cleats never touched the ground."

Angel Martino
Gold Medals: 4X100 freestyle relay, 4X100 medley relay Bronze Medals: 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly

"I'll never forget that crowd," says Martino, at 29 the oldest women on the U.S. Swim Team, of the cheers as
she swam the 100-meter butterfly. She could also have been referring to the hometown crowd in Americus, Ga., which held an Angel Martino Day parade Aug. 3 in her honor. Former President Jimmy Carter came over from nearby Plains, and the citizens of Americus presented her with a diamond heart necklace and a green Pontiac Grand Am. One other thing she'll long remember: the chocolate-chip cookies she inhaled after all her races were done. "I ate them two straight days," says Martino (at her parents' home with husband and coach Mike Martino and niece Sophia Andrews, 20 months). "Breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was great."

Mia Hamm
Gold Medal, Soccer

When 76,000 fans showed up for the gold medal match between the U.S. and China, Mia Hamm sensed victory. Not just for her team—although they won 2-1—but for all women athletes. "With everyone embracing the women in these Olympic Games, we see it's all right [for women] to be successful," says the 24-year-old forward. "You gotta work hard for it, but the opportunities are there, and that's a wonderful feeling." Almost as wonderful as an R&R weekend in New York City with her younger sister. "We're iS going to go nuts," she says.

Amy Van Dyken
Gold Medals: 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 4X100 freestyle relay, 4X100 medley relay

When Van Dyken arrived at a hotel near Washington last week, she checked in as Heidi Griffiths. The night before in New York City, the 23-year-old Denver native had also changed her name, after fans kept phoning her hotel room.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of one of the warmest personalities to come out of the Olympics. Sponsors have been lining up at her door (so far only Wheaties has been invited in), and she has become the toast of the talk show set (Letterman, Rosie O'Donnell), eager to hear how she battled asthma on the way to Atlanta.

Mostly she revels in the attention. "I like to stop the car," she says, "and accommodate those who want their picture taken. One thing is for sure—the whole experience exceeds the taste of even great chocolate." But don't be fooled by her throaty laugh. "When I get ready to swim," says Van Dyken, who may seek more medals in Sydney in 2000, "I might bite your head off if you joke with me."

Kim Rhode
Gold Medal, Double Trap Shooting

Kim Rhode can't wait to tell people what she did in Atlanta on her summer vacation—especially certain skeptical classmates at Arroyo High School in El Monte, Calif., where she will be a senior this fall. "All these guys [at school] were saying to me, 'Don't be disappointed if you don't make it, but if you do, show us your medal,' " says Rhode, 17, whose parents introduced her to shooting during childhood camping and hunting trips. "I'm gonna tell them, 'Look at this!' " And if any future college classmates adopt the same attitude, they may get the same treatment. "I'm gonna go for it again in Sydney," she says. "That would be so much fun!"

Kim Graham
Gold Medal, 4X400 relay

After failing to qualify for the women's 400-meter finals, Graham says, "I was like, 'I'm not leaving this place without a medal, and I want a gold one.' " With her spectacular third-leg sprint in the relay—which gave final runner Jearl Miles a 10-yard advantage—Graham, 25, of Manassas, Va., got her gold.

Not that she has time to sit around polishing it. Her agenda post-Olympics? "I'm going to train," says Graham, who started running as a 6-year-old in her hometown of Durham, N.C. "Track goes on and on and on. We have the World Championships coming up next year. I have meets in Europe."

Still, she managed to make time for fans like Vice President and Mrs. Gore, who invited her along to the women's basketball final. Cheering with Al and Tipper was "really cool," says Graham. "Now," she adds, en route to Washington for a post-Olympic celebration, "I need to meet the head man in charge."

Becky Dyroen-Lancer Tammy Cleland
Gold Medals, Synchronized Swimming

"I could picture the American flag at the top when I dreamed about the Olympics," says Dyroen-Lancer, 25 (right). "Now it feels like a fairy tale; it's sinking in slowly." It's sinking in a little faster for teammate Cleland, 20. "I am so tired of cold water," says the aspiring interior decorator, who is off to the Cayman Islands with boyfriend Chris McGregor. "Every day we sit by the side of the pool, and we stick our feet in, and someone will go, 'How's the water?' We're really like human thermometers." And while San Franciscan Dyroen-Lancer has long-term goals—she wants to market a line of dog clothing, collars and leashes—Cleland prefers to take a rest, at least for now. "I'm not going to swim," she says of her Caribbean vacation. "I'm just going to vegetate, let my brain relax." She admits to one goal, though. "I'm hoping," she says, "to come back engaged." (Your move, Chris.)

Beth Botsford
Gold Medals: 100-meter backstroke, 4X100 medley relay

"The U.S. women were kind of underdogs," says Botsford, 15. "I think we wanted to show everyone, including the guys. And when we did, it was so awesome, it was like, 'ha-ha!' " Botsford (at a post-Games concert with swimmer Jeremy Linn), a high school sophomore whose other Atlanta souvenir is a daisy tattooed on her right ankle, plans to keep her medals in her Timonium, Md., home—but not in her room: "They're sure to get lost."

Kerri Strug
Gold Medal, Women's Team Gymnastics

The It Girl of the Summer Olympics, Strug reaches into her ever-present backpack, rummages a bit and fishes out her gold medal. "Here it is!" she chirps. "We're attached at the hip. I'm not letting this out of my sight."

No surprise there, considering the price she paid: 14 years of training, a heroic vault-through-pain and an ankle injury that kept her from competing in any of the individual events upon which she had set her heart. Overshadowed by some of her teammates when the Olympics began, Strug, like them, couldn't take a step outside after July 23 without drawing a crowd. "Finally someone thought of wearing disguises," says Strug. "They found me a hat with a ponytail attached—but people still recognized me."

Which also has its pluses. Strug, 18, stands to earn millions from potential endorsement deals. "Things have changed a bit," understates the Tucson native, who plans to attend UCLA in September. "It's exciting and at the same time scary for me because I don't have complete control. For the first time in my life, I don't know where I'm going. It's weird."

Lisa Leslie
Gold Medal, Basketball

The 6'5" center's Olympics got off to a shaky start when she slipped out of a high heel while walking down a ramp during the opening ceremonies. "I had to grab [Dream Teamer] Karl Malone to get my shoe back on," she says. Undaunted, Leslie says her first post-Olympic goal is to climb back aboard those dangerous heels and go for the gold as a professional model with the Wilhelmina Models agency. "I want little girls to see that it's okay to be a woman first, to be feminine," says Leslie, 24 (at home in Hawthorne, Calif., with her mother, Christine Leslie-Espinoza), who has already appeared in Vogue and TV Guide. But what about the fans who long to see her join one of the two women's pro leagues currently taking shape? At the very least, they may have to wait. "I want to pursue something different," Leslie says. "I played 10 years straight to be an Olympian. I'm tired."

Dot Richardson
Gold Medal, Softball

"I have felt that swing over and over again, and the feeling will never leave me," says Richardson, 34 (with David Letterman), the shortstop whose home run clinched the 3-1 victory over China. A third-year resident in orthopedic surgery at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, she was feted by the USC marching band on her first day back. Visiting the pediatric ward, she let patients try on her medal. "Everybody shared in it," she says. "I never stopped smiling."

Ruthie Bolton
Gold Medal, Basketball

Shooting-guard Bolton, a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, wore full uniform—her Olympic sweatsuit—to meet Defense Secretary William J. Perry in Washington (and greet fans in McLean, Va.). "I think it is important to be role models, not just on the court but in the way we carry ourselves," she says. One of 20 children, Bolton, of McLain, Miss., had a rooting section that included her widowed father, Linwood. "He had a picture of my mother," says Bolton, 29. "That was an emotional moment." Bolton will probably sign with the new women's American Basketball League.

Julie Foudy
Gold Medal, Soccer

After years of winning in obscurity, Foudy was gratified by the reaction when the U.S. defeated China. "Hillary Clinton gets on the phone, congratulates us, and then Chelsea gets on," says the 25-year-old midfielder from Laguna Niguel, Calif., who is off to Hawaii with her husband. "She says, 'I wish I could have been there. That was so great.' And then she's totally casual and says there's another member of the family that wants to talk to you, and the President gets on and goes, 'Way to go, ladies!' "

"It's wild to see people so affected by our sport," says Foudy, who may attend Stanford Medical School next year. "We've gone from no one but diehard soccer fans knowing who we are to getting cheers from strangers on the street."

Lindsay Davenport
Gold Medal, Tennis

"It really felt awesome," says Davenport, 20, of her surprise 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 victory over third-ranked Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain. "Until you win a big one, you never really think you can." Admittedly a long shot going in, Davenport was at first proud just to walk in the opening ceremonies. "I didn't think it could get any better," she says with a laugh, "but it did." Now headed to the U.S. Open on Aug. 26, the 6'2" Palos Verdes, Calif., native—and daughter of '68 Olympics volleyball star Wink Davenport—is gunning for her first Grand Slam victory. "I kind of have to forget about the Olympics until then, which is kind of a bummer," she says. "But now I definitely believe in myself a lot more."

Lisa Fernandez
Gold Medal, Softball

Fans might credit her 68-mph rising fastballs, but Fernandez's hairdo was what really clinched her team's victory. "I would alternate a clip or a ponytail, whichever I felt would bring better luck to the team," says the pitcher, 25 (with teammate Dionna Harris, right), who also ditched losing uniforms to avoid "bad karma." Next up for the Long Beach, Calif., native: a stint as assistant softball coach at UCLA and a campaign to include her sport, a provisional event in Atlanta, in the 2000 Sydney Games. Still, she says, "it will never be any better than this."

Amanda Beard
Gold Medal, 4X100 medley relay Silver Medals: 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke

"I've been thinking back on how much fun it was," says Beard (decompressing in Irvine, Calif.). One highlight: Beard and fellow swimmer Kristine Quance chasing each other with markers in their dorm. "By the time we were done," she says, "you couldn't see our skin. I had to scrub to get it off." Next month, Beard, 14, who clutched a good-luck teddy bear throughout the Games, enters 10th grade at Irvine High School—and she'll be on the swim team. "I think that, maybe, when I'm older," she says, "I'll have stories to tell my grandchildren."

Gail Devers
Gold Medals: 100 meters and 4X100 relay

In 1993, when Barcelona medalist Gail Devers finally shook hands with Wyomia Tyus, she had one message for the only woman to win 100-meter gold medals in back-to-back Olympics (in '64 and '68). "I told her her name was in the history books," Devers, 29, recalls. "And I was going to put my name next to hers." She did, despite a long, painful struggle with Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder. Known as much for her personal grace as her speed, Devers (nailing it at Olympic Stadium) accepts victory and defeat with equal aplomb. "Everything in life happens for a reason," says the Southern California resident, who already has her eye on Sydney. "If I do my best, I'm satisfied."