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THE SECRET LIFE OF Mia Hamm
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 14. It's 1986. She tries out for the North Texas Olympic Development girls' team 150 miles away in Dallas, and when the players split up for a scrimmage and a defender belts one skyward to clear it out of her end, every coach jotting notes on a clipboard stops and stares. Some little bitty gal bolts into the path of that clearing pass, wheels and drills it before it ever hits the ground, a 35-yard rocket volley into the upper right-hand corner of the net. Whoever she is, she's on the team...and six months later she's jumped to the women's team.

The team travels to Metairie, La., to play in a regional tournament. Her coach, John Cossaboon, alerts Anson Dorrance that there's a player he needs to look at.

Dorrance is 35, but already he's the lord of U.S. women's soccer. Already he's coached North Carolina to three national titles and been named coach of the U.S. national women's team. "Don't tell me which one she is," he tells Cossaboon. It's his way of testing the supposed phenom, and himself. She should appear to him on her own.

Dorrance watches the first minute of the first game and heads straight to Cossaboon. He nods toward the littlest one, the youngest one, the streak of light. The one who knifes right at a defender, knocks the ball a yard past her and then beats her to it, rubbing her out in a footrace. "That's her, right?" Dorrance says.

"No," deadpans Cossaboon. "You got it wrong."

Dorrance blinks, then shakes his head. Nice try, pal. She's his. Just like that. On his national team at 15 and will be on his college team the minute she finds her way out of high school. She shows up at that first national camp with a mullet haircut and a deer-in-the-headlights stare...and comes home with fire on her face. She can't stop babbling at the dinner table: How marvelous Michelle and April are, how wonderful Kristine and Wendy and Joy. Women who knock her off the ball after she knocks them off the ball. Vicious competitors. A whole community. They exist. Females just like her.

Well, not exactly like her. Lots of them wear skirts now and then, even makeup. Women she can study, women she can draft behind when they go to a restaurant or mall, women who can introduce her to sides of herself she's never met. Good Lord, in just a few years they'll have her standing in a fitting room, trying on a bikini!

Look at her, this new person in the mirror. Not bad. Legs not half so bowed as she thought. But she could lose her so easily: One mediocre tournament could make her vanish. It's not enough, the hour and a half of dribbling and shooting drills she does alone at school on summer mornings, chasing down every shot on a netless goal in the Texas heat. Mia needs to get her first pair of running shoes and go for miles. She needs to pack up and move, for the seventh time, to some place where the competition will force her game to grow. Alone this time. That's how badly she needs to be with those girls she's just discovered.

It scares the hell out of her, walking out of tiny Notre Dame High in Wichita Falls and her class of 35 in February of her sophomore year, with her basketball teammates fighting to recapture the state championship that she'd led them to as a freshman. She clamps back her emotions, says goodbye to her family and friends, and she's gone.

She walks into a school, Lake Braddock, with more than 5,000 students. Sick to her stomach. Silent. It's in Burke, Va., a soccer hotbed, where she'll live with a man she barely knows, her aunt's brother-in-law. There's no Garrett anymore to give her cover. He's back in Wichita Falls, still trying to come to terms with the diagnosis that doctors gave him two years before: aplastic anemia, a bone marrow disorder that at the time was usually fatal.

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