If she were a boy, she wouldn't have to agonize over joining a new team, because boys understand that sports create hierarchies and that the ball will go to the dominant player the moment he asserts himself. But girls have to assess you first; they have to decide they like you before they let you fit in. How can Mia—with no time to chat because she's cramming in extra courses in order to graduate a year early and start at North Carolina, and missing entire weeks of practice because she's off training with the best women in the world—pull this one off amid a pack of teenage girls who have played together for years?
Like this: By shrinking in team meetings and schlepping the team's gear. By taking the team's worst ball for individual drills and feeding all the girls the most wonderful passes and compliments. By making it clear to the coach, Carolyn Rice, that she's only to praise Mia fleetingly, furtively, amid kudos for the other girls. By erasing herself as she imposes herself and carries Lake Braddock to the state championship.
She returns from her first trip overseas with the national team bubbling with things to tell her family—what she's just seen and done in China, and the new world opening before her. But what awaits her are two coffins, a pair of funerals and a family lost in grief. Her mother's dad and brother have gone down together in a Cessna.
It's almost as if fate's conspiring to hammer home her life's theme, in case she forgets it for an instant: It's not about you, Mia Hamm.
You've got the potential, Mia. You can be the best soccer player in the world. But do you know what it takes? It's a decision you make. You can't make it halfway. You have to make it in your heart and mind, completely. You don't make the decision slowly. It's like turning on a light switch."
Mia and Anson Dorrance sit in darkness in his office. She's never met anyone like this. A man handing her a hall pass from guilt, from 19 years of conditioning about what a female owes everyone around her. A man offering her an environment, both at Chapel Hill and on the national team, where it's O.K. for women to be sisters off the field and cutthroats on it. Where you step on the foot of an opponent shadowing you too closely; where the results of every day's drills are posted to show who's Top Gun in each and who's breathing down her neck; where losers of intrasquad scrimmages must bend over in front of the goal and clutch their ankles so winners can blast 20-yard bullets at their butts. Where Mia finally feels it's safe to start growing out her hair.
Mia's parents have moved to Italy, where Bill is a U.S. Air Force attach�, but first Stephanie has sent Dorrance a long letter attempting to explain in advance in case her daughter's emotions run amok. Dorrance shrugs it off. He's never had a player like Mia, who can't eat or talk at the team's pregame buffet. Who goes off alone before a game, cutting through imaginary opponents, dancing with the ball like a ballerina. Then paces the sideline inside her own private tunnel. Then, before the big games, bolts to the toilet or nearest trash can and vomits. Bile. There's nothing in her to vomit. Then brings the crowd to its feet, chanting, "Mia! Mia!" when her foot touches the ball. Then flogs herself at halftime if she hasn't scored—Dammit, I suck, I'm worthless, the world's ending—as if she's about to become the outcast, the stranger over on the sidewalk the next time teams are chosen; as if she owes her girls a pair of goals to prove she belongs, must dominate to feel like an equal. Then she does what's so hard for her to do outside the rectangle: exposes her soul, lets go, explodes, slams two into the back of the net and fist-pumps or slides or bull-rushes the stands, not in celebration of Mia but in release from the pressure she keeps heaping upon herself. You have to take responsibility for the community. You have to be perfect. But you're no better than anyone else.
Dorrance doesn't want to resolve this tension inside her. He wants it to flow like molten metal on a hundred soccer fields across the globe. He wants the furnace at full blast; he'll live with the collateral damage when Mia's anxiety over losing or not scoring sends the blaze the wrong way.
"Please tell Mia to stop yelling at me!" Tar Heels teammates ask captain Angela Kelly as they race upfield.
"It's all right, Hammer!" Angela insists.