Hamm steps off center stage

Friday, December 10, 2004

Hers was the game that launched a thousand kicks, then tens of thousands, then millions, a rare blend of brains, beauty and hard-nosed grace that redefined what it meant to play like a girl.

But Mia Hamm's influence didn't end there.

Like every great athlete, she knew that every game mattered, that every time she raised the bar, everybody who played alongside or after her would have to pull that little bit extra out of themselves. And if making teammates better is the ultimate compliment bestowed on an athlete, what more can be said about Hamm and that small band of soccer players who lifted an entire sport to heights that once seemed unimaginable.

This: Under her leadership, they never, ever took a night off.

"We all understand there's a bigger perspective," Hamm said Wednesday night, moments after joining longtime teammates and fellow retirees Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly on the sidelines after a 5-0 win over Mexico. "We want to make sure this game and these girls go forward together."

Wednesday night's game in Carson, Calif., was the last in a 10-match, post-Olympics tour by the U.S. national team to mark the end of an era. The game itself was little more than an exhibition, a chance for the quartet to take their bows on the international stage one final time in what soccer fans call a "friendly."

Typically, though, Hamm wouldn't allow the friendly part of the evening until she'd taken care of business.

In the opening 20 minutes, she set up the first two U.S. goals and saw her bid for another ricochet off the crossbar. Midway through the second half, with the U.S. women already ahead 5-0, Hamm chased a teammate's pass into the goalbox and ran into Mexican goalkeeper Pamela Tajonar instead, a collision that left her clutching her knee and writhing on the turf. It wasn't until she'd hobbled around for another 15 minutes or so that Hamm finally walked off the pitch, stopping to shake hands with every player and coach on both benches.

Like all pioneers, she and the handful of others who blazed the trail for women's soccer were overachievers by nature.

"Think of it this way: Imagine that Magic, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe and LeBron were all on one team for 15 years. That's what we have had with our women's national team," U.S. national team coach April Heinrichs said.

It wasn't simply the winning that made this bunch remarkable, though there was plenty of that: World Cup championships in 1991 and 1999, and Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 1996.

At the center of it all -- night after night for more than two decades -- was that familiar ponytail bobbing just above shoulders too impossibly slim to singularly shift the attitudes of an entire nation. But Hamm never shirked her task.

"It wasn't just a game here or a game there," Foudy said. "We could always count on her."

Hamm had predecessors every bit as smart and tough as she was, though the most memorable made their mark in individual sports. She's the first real team superstar that women's sports produced.

"Ask yourself if you could have your choice of role models, would you ask for a day with Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy or with a famous male athlete of today?" Heinrichs said as the celebration drew to a close. "They had an impact on America's consciousness, on women's sports, on women's voices."

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