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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

A Surprise Retiree, Akers Enjoys Life After Soccer Fame

September 27, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Somewhere in Georgia, home state of the previous Summer Games, Michelle Akers has found a little bit of heaven.

That's Michelle Akers, horsewoman; not Michelle Akers, world and Olympic soccer champion.

"I just met with my architect," Akers said Sunday in Canberra, having arrived in Australia the day before to watch her former teammates--her "buds," as she calls them--play Brazil in the Olympic women's soccer semifinals.

"He's going to draw up some plans, so when I go back I'll have the first drawings."

These are exciting times for Akers, who surprised many by ending her 15-year international career last month before, rather than after, the Sydney Olympics. Injuries and illness had taken their toll, she said, and it was time.

An avid rider, she has purchased 25 acres of land in Georgia and is about to turn it into a horse farm.

"Stormy is due in March," she said, "so hopefully I'll have everything built."

But even though she underwent shoulder surgery only three weeks ago and watched some of the early Olympic events "through a drug haze," she was determined to come to Australia to support the U.S. team.

What she saw Sunday bothered her a little. The U.S. won, 1-0, to advance to Thursday's gold-medal game against Norway, but it struggled to do so.

"I think we looked a little flat," she said. "I didn't see a sense of urgency. We were not taking on [opposing players] up front as I would like to see.

"I was just talking to Mary Harvey [the starting goalkeeper on the Americans' 1991 world championship-winning team]. I said, 'Did we look like this in the World Cup last year?' and she said, 'Yes, there were times when we looked flat or tired or couldn't possess, didn't have shots.'

"I don't know what it is. It's the first time I've seen them in person, and that's a totally different thing from seeing them on TV. Maybe they just need get their act together a bit and realize they've got to take it to the Brazilians and put something in the net.

"I'm not concerned. This team has it under control. They're veterans and they know how to win. They refuse to lose, so I have no doubt they'll do what they need to do to be in that final."

Mia Hamm's goal put the U.S. there and consigned the unhappy Brazilians to Thursday's bronze-medal game against Germany.

Still, it might have been much easier Sunday had Akers still been on the field. Instead, she was playing mind games.

"It's like you constantly play the game in your mind and say, 'I wonder what pass I would have made?' or 'That would have been a fun tackle to make,' " she said.

Other than that, though, she is at peace with her decision to call it quits at 34.

"It's bizarre," she said. "I was kind of unsure of how I would feel sitting in the stadium watching my team down there playing. Actually, I just feel a peace about [it]. When I reinjured the shoulder, I knew I was done. I knew I had done everything I could and I think that's the reason why I'm able just to sit and cheer these guys authentically, without anything unsettled inside."

Before arriving in Australia, her interaction with the players had all been electronic.

"Lots of e-mails," she said. "I've been laughing a lot with them. I'm keeping in touch with the doc and the trainers and about five or six of the players.

"I think they're doing great. I totally feel over the years this team has been prepared to play without me and [that] I'm totally replaceable.

"[Lorrie] Fair's playing great in there. She e-mailed me and said, 'Everyone's asking me questions about our relationship and if we hate each other.'

"So, no, we do not hate each other. She's a great kid and she's playing awesome, she's stepping up and filling a really tough role for our team."

Akers will return sometime next year, not to the national team but to play in the Women's United Soccer Assn. [WUSA]. But first she has to heal from the shoulder surgery and gain some ground in her continuing battle with chronic fatigue syndrome.

"For now, water-skiing is out, tennis is out, but soccer is still in the future," she said. "I'm going to take it easy over the next six months and have a slow comeback, a normal comeback, and then hopefully look at the WUSA next."

After Sunday's game, Akers was engulfed by former teammates at the U.S. hotel, where she posed for photographs with the new Michelle--defender Michelle French, who took her spot on the U.S. Olympic roster.

Later still, her plans were clear.

"I'm going to hit the sack," she said, "then drive back to Sydney and maybe climb the bridge tomorrow."

Her arm might be in a sling and her knees might be suspect, but the woman simply can't rest.

For Michelle Akers, it's always onward and upward.

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