In a skybox sits Bill Clinton, pulled so near the edge of his seat by this game that he has nearly fallen out of it. On the sideline stands Robert Hanashiro, discovering that his front-page USA Today team photo isn't the failure he feared. "Nice photo," people at the Rose Bowl tell him. "It's fitting. That's Mia." In the stands, flown here from Japan by the U.S. military at President Clinton's request, is Mia's husband, Christiaan Corry.
Wait a minute. Mia's married? Absolutely. Well, sort of. To a quiet, intense young man she met in a class at UNC and wedded at 22. His intensity and easy wit remind her of her father's, and his career choice—he becomes a Marine helicopter pilot—does too. What she miscalculates is how much energy and time marriage takes, how little she has left for it when her soccer devours so much. She and Christiaan are so busy following their dreams that they're rarely on the same continent, let alone the same bed. So her marriage often seems invisible, too, and she makes sure it is to the world, pleading with reporters who write about her to steer clear of it.
A hush falls over the Rose Bowl in anticipation of the shootout. Mia's teammates wrap themselves in iced towels and pour water over their heads, but it's too late for Mia, the white dot has set all her combustibles aflame. Doesn't matter that just a few months before, she became, at 27, the leading international scorer in soccer history, male or female; that she left Pel� in the dust 34 goals ago. Doesn't count that her defense and passing have improved so relentlessly that she no longer needs to score to alter a game, and that opponents double-team her, freeing her pals to score. Mia scored two goals early in the World Cup tournament, then ran dry, and the questions have begun again, reporters digging up those stats about her dearth of offense in major tournaments, spinning their cute little MIA puns and tying her in so many knots over failing to meet so many people's expectations that it becomes harder and harder for her to explode. An eight-game drought just a few months ago brought her into Tony DiCicco's office in tears. Do you know how scary it is to be Mia Hamm and not feel like playing?
If she misses the kick that decides this World Cup, she'll have to live inside those flames until her final breath. Her penalty kicks in practice have been shaky. Oh, no. What if the coach thinks he has to choose her because she's supposedly the star? She has to let him know he's not obligated. Oh, no. A hierarchy's being created here, a threat to sisterhood and equality and all the potato meal that ever stuck to the roof of her mouth, a thing loathsome enough when it's being foisted on the team by outsiders—the media or a sneaker corporation or a soccer federation presenting awards—but unbearable when it's the coach doing it, the family's father figure. She has to show her teammates that she doesn't feel entitled to one of these five kicks. Oh, no. What if she protests too much and they think she doesn't want to contribute, that she fears the responsibility, that she's foisting it on somebody else? Trust me. You don't want to be in Mia at 3:51 PDT on July 10, 1999.
Mia fails. She can't airbrush herself out of the biggest moment of her career. She is chosen to kick fourth for the Americans. They're up 3-2—the third Chinese attempt was punched away by U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry—when Mia approaches the white dot. If she scores, the Chinese are against the wall. She places the ball on the dot, pushes a strand of hair from her face. She will remember nothing from then until the ball strikes the net, and the Rose Bowl explodes.
She screams, but her face never relaxes, never smiles, her eyes still burning and her jaw clenched as she races back to her teammates. She is not a woman celebrating. She's a woman howling I beat you, goddammit, at all her fear and doubt.
She passes out in the locker room an hour and a half after the game, awakens on a table with IV tubes in her arms and spends the rest of the night in her hotel room, vomiting bile, going hot and cold, unable to speak or even open her eyes, they burn so much. Fried as much by months of anxiety over the World Cup as by the blazing sun over the Rose Bowl.
At the jubilant team party at the hotel that night, everyone asks the same question that people asked at Mia's prom, at her school sports banquet, on her high school team picture day, and at 11:30 p.m. when her college teammates hit the Chapel Hill bars to celebrate another championship: Where's Mia Hamm?
How much do they pay you to write a story?" she asks. "Maybe I could pay you that much not to write it." She's joking. Sort of. Maybe.
Goodness, we're on the 12th page of a story that she hoped to God, if it had to be written at all, wouldn't last more than four. So let's not linger on the depressing loss to Norway in the 2000 Olympic final or the two goals Mia is limited to in the tournament. Let's skip past the new league kicking off in 2001, the Women's United Soccer Association, thanks to Mia and her national teammates' agreeing to play for peanuts. Let's zip past the burden placed on her, as the only household name, to sell her new team, the Washington Freedom, and the WUSA itself—and the feeling that she's doing too much...but never enough.