The essence of Mia

Best female athlete of the past 40 years? Mia Hamm. And she was even better as a teammate, says Julie Foudy, left. Harry How/Getty Images

I would bet a fine dinner (without kids) and my left leg (just a kickstand anyway) that, upon learning she has been chosen as the No. 1 female athlete of the past 40 years, Mia Hamm will shake her head, smile sheepishly and say, with a hint of incredulity, "Really?! That cannot be true with all the great female athletes of this era."

And that is the essence of Mia. It is why she transcended sports. It is why she is so beloved. It is why I constantly thank her for providing the foundation for our national team and guiding our growth, and for giving girls around the globe hope that they, too, can wear a sports jersey, tear apart defenses and dominate with grace and a smile.

Everyone knows what Mia did as an athlete. You know about her successes and awards as the best female soccer player in the world. But it's her refreshingly sincere selflessness -- in everything she does -- that helped make her an icon.

The irony of it all, of course, is that Mia never wanted the attention. She just wanted to play. And she wanted to win. I mean, she REALLY wanted to win. When she was thrust into the spotlight in the late 1990s, she could have easily declined interviews, refused photo shoots, shied away from the media. Instead, and intuitively, without anyone ever telling her what had to be done, Mia understood that women's soccer needed attention.

She understood that girls needed to see other girls playing sports. She understood that the popularity of soccer rested almost squarely upon her shoulders. Most of all, and perhaps most important to our team's success, she understood that it was about the group, not about her.

This unselfishness, her willingness to deflect and graciously thank others, is what I will always cherish the most when I think of Mia's many qualities. Because her way of doing things showed her teammates, along with millions of girls and boys and grown-ups, that success is about working your tail off, motivating others to join you and celebrating others when the focus could be on you.

One of my favorite examples of Mia's insatiable quest for the greater good was before the 1999 Women's World Cup. When asked to do a magazine cover shoot, Mia said, "I would love to -- if I can do it with these four players, as well." And that's how five teammates ended up on the cover. (This kind of thing happened often.)

Whenever she accepted an award, Mia would spend the first 10 minutes thanking her teammates, family, coaches, friends, doctors, trainers, past teachers, etc., for helping her achieve success. She did it honestly and never for show. Mia's unwavering commitment to the group defined who we were as a team. She set the standard for all of us to follow.

Be strong, be tough, be competitive, be a family. Respect the game. Respect each other.

I know that I speak for all of my former teammates when I say that luck found us when we were given the opportunity to play alongside Mia and to watch her dominance from the front row. But I think I am most blessed to be able to call her a friend. (As we mention to her often, she is stuck with us for life.)

Mia, thanks for what you have done and continue to do to show the world why sports is so much more than just wins and losses. Thanks for showing young kids that they don't have to compromise who they are to find success. Thanks for being a constant reminder of the brilliant balance between competing and collaborating. Thanks for inspiring generations to come.

And thanks mostly, well ... for just being you.