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The Mia Generation

The player who took women's soccer to masses nears end of an era-defining career

October 03, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Her hands gave her away.

Clutched tightly around the wooden arm of a chair, like a bird's claw gripping a frail branch in a howling windstorm, Mia Hamm's left hand sought desperately to hold on.

The white-knuckle ride that is the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup is nothing near as nerve-racking for the world's greatest female soccer player as the prospect of facing, yet again, the carnivores of the media.

How can she make them understand if they haven't been there from the beginning, from the moment all those years ago when Mariel Margaret Hamm became simply Mia -- a magical word on the lips of hundreds of thousands of pony-tailed, No. 9 jersey-wearing little girls across America?

And so, while the intrusive snouts of television cameras focused on her haunted eyes, and while the out-thrust circle of microphones picked up her every whispered word, Mia Hamm's hands unconsciously spoke louder than she did.

They never stopped moving. She rubbed them together. She kneaded and cracked her knuckles. She picked at her fingernails. She stuck her right hand beneath her knee to keep it still. She reached out for the chair arm with her left hand, the one with a glittering diamond engagement ring given to her by Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.

But there was no relief. The media pack encircled her. If she could have jumped up and bolted, the sense was that she would have.

Instead, she stuck it out, answering questions she had answered a thousand times before in a career that stretches back more than 16 years, a career that very likely will end after the Olympic Games next summer in Athens.

Hamm is 31 now. She will be 32 then. It is time to move on.

A British reporter asked Hamm before the U.S.'s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Norway Wednesday night what comes after that, after she has hung up her size-5 1/2 boots.

"To be honest with you, I haven't even thought about anything outside," she replied. "My focus is on Norway and what I can do individually and how I can help my team get the result that we need and that we want. When this [tournament] is over, I'll concentrate on that, but right now my focus and my heart are right there."

It was a typical Hamm answer.

When reporters try to delve into her personal life or try to discover just what it is that makes Mia Hamm Mia Hamm, she doesn't withdraw so much as deflect. She has become adept at giving long, detailed and usually interesting answers that often have nothing to do with the question.

She has changed, however, since her first marriage ended in divorce after seven years in 2001, and even more so since Garciaparra, a fellow athlete also at the peak of his game, became part of her life.

In a rare revealing moment recently, she admitted as much when asked about her increased on-field leadership of the U.S. team.

"I don't know what it is," she said. "I really haven't kind of watched me. I know how I feel and I know I feel better. I feel better physically, emotionally and psychologically and that makes a huge difference."

The difference certainly shows in her play. Always keenly competitive, ever since she made her national team debut as a shy but incredibly talented 15-year-old in 1987, she has been able in this Women's World Cup to raise her game to an even higher level.

After Hamm had scored two goals and assisted on a third in a 5-0 demolition of Nigeria -- this only a few days after she had created all three goals in a 3-1 defeat of Sweden -- U.S. Coach April Heinrichs was unstinting in her praise.

"What a wonderful inspiration she is to this team," Heinrichs said after the Sweden game, in which Hamm, after providing the perfect corner kick for Shannon Boxx to head in the third U.S. goal, sprinted up the sideline and slapped hands with every player on the American bench.

It was the most spontaneous and delightful of moves, an exhilarating flashback to the Hamm of old, to the laughing teenager delighted in her own skill at the game she loves.

"Mia's play on and off the ball was magnificent," Heinrichs said after the Nigeria game, a game in which Hamm was fouled time and again, hammered to the turf in brutal fashion, but answered the best way she knows how -- by twice putting the ball in the back of the net.

Hamm has scored 144 international goals, more than any other soccer player, male or female, in history. But those very goals have forced her into the spotlight that she just as soon would shun.

Even before the World Cup began, and while the U.S. team was undergoing final preparations at the University of Virginia, Hamm talked about fame and the attendant distractions it brings.

"I understand the responsibility that comes with it, I do," she said. "But at the same time I'm a part of a team and I'm no better or any worse than any single player on this team. That's the approach that I've always had and I will continue to have.

"It's not all about me. It's never been all about me. If it had [been], this would have been a really lonely journey."

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