SI Vault
Gary Smith
September 22, 2003
In the divided soul of the world's greatest female soccer player, the shy, self-critical athlete is locked in mortal combat with the relentlessly driven superstar
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September 22, 2003

The Secret Life Of Mia Hamm

In the divided soul of the world's greatest female soccer player, the shy, self-critical athlete is locked in mortal combat with the relentlessly driven superstar

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She's in Florence today. That's Italy. She's two. Banging down the Hamms's long apartment hallway, delighted with the percussion of her new Italian high-tops on the hard floor. She's the Hamms's third straight daughter. It's her third home, her family having moved from Selma to Monterey, Calif., for a half year so that Air Force captain Bill Hamm could learn Italian there, and then on to Florence on a two-year grant for overseas graduate study designed to improve understanding between U.S. military officers and their foreign counterparts.

Clomp, clomp, clomp. Mia has bolted out of those leg casts and orthotic shoes as if they were jail, and she hasn't stopped bolting since, except for those astonishing two weeks when she sat on the potty, as still as Buddha, surrounded by books she'd piled up in her determination to meet Mom's challenge: Mia could go to school with her two older sisters only if she was out of diapers. She did it. Turbo potty training, the awed Hamms called it. Now the family's taking its proud housebroken runt to the park. "Andiamo!" Mia keeps hooting, bursting ahead of them all to the next Florence street corner. "Let's go!"

She's flying down a sliding board in her purple dress and white lace tights—every detail in the formaldehyde of family lore—when she sees her first soccer ball, en route from an Italian man's foot to his five-year-old son. It's the sport her father has begun to watch on weekends, bicycling to the stadium and falling in love with the throng and the drama and the way one man with a ball on his foot can bring a city to its feet.

In one whoosh Mia shoots down the sliding board, leaps a puddle and flies across the grass, intercepting the ball and kicking it again and again until the five-year-old boy loses interest and the marveling Italian papa takes up the game with her for nearly half an hour.

Bad accent. Bad clothes. Bad haircut. Those are Mia's first words at age 31 when she's asked what comes to mind as she looks at a picture of herself at a desk as a little girl.

All innocence and exuberance. Nothing can touch her. Those are Mia's words when it's a picture of her as a little girl playing ball.

A funny thing happens. Mia's standing on the fringe of a pack of boys in Wichita Falls, Texas, cooking in the sun and in her own self-consciousness. What'll people think of you? It's the question her mother asks whenever the Hamm girls—four of them now—are out of line. It's 1977. It's Mia's fourth town in her five-year life, and in each new place she has to worry about what a whole new set of people will think of her, and she gets this feeling in her gut as if she's going to vomit, this sick feeling that she's not going to fit in.

She doesn't want to play dress-up or dolls with girls, or wear tutus and dance The Nutcracker like her mother. Doesn't matter how many times Stephanie Hamm explains to folks that she's nicknamed her third daughter, Mariel, after a dancer with whom she studied, Mia Slavenska. Nor how many times Mom coos that Mia has the body and athleticism and pixie face to play every gamine in every ballet ever choreographed. Mia had burst into tears and stormed out of her second dance class, recoiling from a life surrounded by mirrors, a life surrounded by Mia.

She wants to do what guys do—make friends and forget about herself by playin' ball—but she can't because she's too shy and shrimpy, and the boys might hoot her off the block. Can't because her skin's so thin that if they do, this powder keg of emotion inside her might detonate right in front of everyone. Can't, most of all, because she's...a girl.

Suddenly this frail, dark-haired eight-year-old boy with a trace of the Orient in his eyes and skin glides into the group and begins to speak quietly to the leader. And somehow, at the end of it all, the boys break into two teams, and the Thai-American boy waves her into his huddle. He's her ticket in. He's her brand-new brother, Garrett. One of them, at least. The other one's half African-American and half Puerto Rican, a newborn named Martin. The Hamms—weary after four daughters of trying to produce a son—have done the most remarkable thing: adopted two different-colored ones.

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