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Feet of Gold

No Me in Mia
By Lisette Hilton
Special to

"A lot of players have trouble with confidence. It's not just Mia. But it surprises people when a great player struggles with confidence. That's been her life work to deal with her own lack of self-confidence on the soccer field," says former U.S. national team coach Tony DiCicco on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury's series.

Some called it "Mia Mania," when Mia Hamm carried the torch for women's soccer. The 1990s marked an era when Hamm's outstanding ability, good-natured way, clean looks and undeniable passion made young girls around the U.S. take notice of a sport that was a blip on the radar screen.

Dominant and intense under the spotlight, she also was modest, self-critical and shy. There's "no 'Me' in Mia," and no ham in Hamm, she wrote in her book Go for the Goal: A Champion's Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life. Because of those qualities, she would never say what so many others have: Mia Hamm was the greatest female soccer player of all-time.

Hamm is not only an all-American hero but an icon in women's sports. She was instrumental in the U.S. winning two Women's World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals.

In 2004, after competing in the Olympics and participating in a 10-game "Fan Celebration Tour," she retired from international competition at 32. Hamm, who joined the U.S. team at 15, is the world's all-time leading goal scorer with 158 and was named the Player of the Year in the first two years that FIFA gave the award (2000 and 2001).

Her popularity has led to endorsement deals with Pepsi and Nike, which named the largest building on its Oregon campus for her. Her most popular commercial was for Gatorade, in which she competed against Michael Jordan.

Born March 17, 1972 in Selma, Ala., Mia was the third of Bill and Stephanie Hamm's four daughters. She grew up a military brat, living around the world as her father rose to the rank of Air Force colonel.

Hamm was barely a year old when the family moved to Florence, Italy. She also lived in Virginia and California before she was five. She became a soccer fan as a toddler, watching matches on television and kicking the ball around in the backyard.

The family moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1977, and that year, the Hamms adopted Martin, a newborn, and Garrett, eight years old.

One of Garrett's gifts to Mia was the sharing of his passion for sports. She tagged along for whatever sport her brother was playing. She went with him to touch football games, and he picked her for his team knowing his little sister had terrific hands and speed. Hamm's mother Stephanie said Mia was Garrett's "secret weapon."

Hamm's world was shattered when Garrett, at 16, was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare disease marked by insufficient platelets in the blood. Twelve years later, he received a bone-marrow transplant, but he died two months after that, in April 1997, because of a fungal infection.

As youngsters, Garrett had helped Mia develop into a soccer standout in Wichita Falls. Still, when Anson Dorrance, the national team coach from 1986 to 1994, went to watch the 14-year-old play in a tournament in Louisiana in 1986, he was skeptical. "I didn't ask who she was; I wanted to let her emerge," Dorrance said. "This skinny brunette accelerated to the ball like she'd been shot out of a cannon. I'd never seen athleticism like that. I ran around screaming, 'Is that Mia Hamm?' "

In 1987, Hamm - at 15 - was the youngest player to compete for the U.S. women's national team. The next year, she moved to Burke, Va., and she was named an All-American at Lake Braddock Secondary School.

In 1989, after graduating a year early from high school, Hamm was playing for North Carolina, where Dorrance coached. He became her legal guardian during her freshman year as her parents moved to Rome.

Scoring 103 goals and emerging as a three-time All-America, Hamm led North Carolina to four NCAA championships between 1989 and 1993, in the midst of the school's nine consecutive titles from 1986-94. Named to Soccer America's College Team of the Decade for the 1990s, the 5-foot-4, 125-pound forward completed her collegiate career as the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-time leading scorer in goals, assists (72) and points (278).

Hamm was known for her relentless pursuit of excellence. In the summer before her senior season, Dorrance caught a glimpse of her tirelessly running cones and sprints in a park. Impressed by her work ethic, he wrote her a note: "The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when nobody else is watching."

Hamm had taken a year off from college sports to help the U.S. win the Women's World Cup in 1991 in China. Once again, Hamm - at 19 - was the youngest player on the team. She started five of six games and scored two goals.

At the 1996 Olympics, Hamm was hindered by an ankle sprain in the first round and scored only one goal. However, she continued to play and led the U.S. to a 2-1 victory over China in the final by setting up both goals.

In 1997, Hamm was named the U.S. Soccer Federation Female of the Year for the fourth consecutive year and led the U.S. team in scoring for the third straight season. The next year she reached highs with 20 goals and 20 assists.

She refused to pose for a cover of Newsweek in 1999, during the World Cup competition, because she didn't want the tournament to turn into the Mia Hamm show. In the tournament's opening game, before 78,972 fans at Giants Stadium, Hamm scored the first goal against Denmark. She went on to help the team win the championship, scoring in the fourth goal in a shootout as the U.S. defeated China on penalty kicks 5-4 in the final before a record women's crowd of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

In her 26 international matches in 1999, Hamm led the U.S. with 13 goals with 16 assists. Her biggest individual moment came when she scored her 108th goal in a 3-0 victory over Brazil in Orlando, Fla. At 27, she was the world record-holder for goals, breaking her tie with Italy's Elisabetta Vignotto. (Pele is the men's leader with 77.)

At the 2000 Olympics, Hamm played all 462 minutes. In the semifinals, she scored the game's only goal in a victory over Brazil. Despite orchestrating two goals in the final, the U.S. lost 3-2 to Norway and settled for the silver medal.

Capitalizing on the newfound popularity of the sport, the first women's pro soccer league - the Women's United Soccer Association - was formed in 2001. Hamm was the league's top attraction and she scored six goals and four assists for the Washington Freedom.

Despite missing the Freedom's first 10 games in 2002 because of off-season knee surgery, she continued to star, scoring eight goals and six assists in just 11 games. In 2003, Hamm led the U.S. in scoring with eight goals and nine assists. She also led the Freedom to the league title, but three weeks after the championship game a lack of funds forced the WUSA to fold in September, five days before the Women's World Cup opened.

In the tournament, Hamm was the top U.S. scorer. However, the Americans finished a disappointing third after losing to Germany in the semifinals.

In November 2003, Hamm married baseball star Nomar Garciaparra. It was her second marriage. Her first was to a Navy ROTC midshipman named Christiaan Corry whom she met while both attended North Carolina. They wed in 1994. However, her career in soccer and his as a Marine helicopter pilot often kept them from living together and they divorced in 2001.

At the 2004 Olympics, Hamm scored two goals in helping the U.S. gain the gold medal. Then she became the first soccer player to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony.

"A lot of players have trouble with confidence. It's not just Mia. But it surprises people when a great player struggles with confidence. That's been her life work to deal with her own lack of self-confidence on the soccer field," says former U.S. national team coach Tony DiCicco on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury's series. "She has the ability to cause people to hold their breath. It's a lot like what Michael Jordan did in basketball."

"Mia didn't want the tag 'Best Player in the World,' even though, when she was on, there's no question she was," said Tony DiCicco, her former U.S. team coach. "She had the ability to cause people to hold their breath. It was a lot like what Michael Jordan did in basketball."

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