The movement needs the face because the face, no longer a pixie tomboy's, offers the femininity, the beauty and the naked passion that the sport and the camera need. The face needs the movement because it offers the sense of mission, the justification for all those solitary three-a-day workouts, that a Hamm needs. Where else can the lenses go when the U.S. women's team wins the 1996 Olympic gold medal on U.S. soil in front of 76,489 fans but to the burning hazel eyes of the team's leading scorer, the woman who led UNC to four national tides? She becomes, according to surveys, the most recognized and appealing female athlete in America, and the fourth-most-admired one, behind Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. One of the select few whose first name suffices. One of PEOPLE'S 50 Most Beautiful People. Nike names its largest building after her, and people she's never laid eyes on begin saying, "If you need me, I'll be in Mia at 3:30 today." The shyest one becomes the anointed one.
Sometimes it's beautiful. When she knows a public moment's coming, when she has agreed to it and prepared herself, she might still pace and fret, but when the moment comes to perform, the performer turns on. She's eloquent, gracious, funny. People walk away dazzled by Mia.
Sometimes it's painful. She's walking off the practice field. A pack of reporters she didn't expect walks right past all her teammates and surrounds her. They're asking her the question that paralyzes her: What's it like to be the best woman player in the world? They're creating more responsibility, more expectations. They're asking her to put herself first. She can't do it.
"Ask me that question when I can dominate on both offense and defense like [teammate] Kristine Lilly does," she replies. "Ask me when I can head a ball like Tisha Venturini, defend as well as Joy Fawcett, play an all-around game like Julie Foudy." It's how she feels. It's a way of disappearing. It's both.
The reporters roll their eyes. A pack of fans gathers around the pack of reporters. Mothers and daughters begging for autographs. Mia! Meeee-aaaaaa! Over here! A hundred baby birds to feed, and the mother bird must choose which ones. The team bus revs. The media want more, much more, but she has no quick answers: They all require so much thought. Her mates are waiting. They're the ones she wants to be with. They're why she works out eight hours a day—to be good enough just to be part of them.
The vise tightens around the woman who makes all those girls feel so free. It's all on her face. Everything's being squeezed through layers and folds of intellect and feeling, being measured once, measured twice. What'll people think? What'll her teammates think if she keeps standing here, separate, consenting to all this attention? So she must say no. But what'll the reporters and fans think if she spurns them, and what about her responsibility to women's soccer? So she can't say no. But she's determined to have boundaries. No matter how much she loves her mother, she's not going to be her, she's not going to live her life by other people's expectations. So she must say no.
Yes or no, a strange thing happens. There's so much heat inside her, people sometimes walk away thinking that Mia's cold.
She's not built for celebrity. She can't play the game—any game—lightly, can't make breezy chitchat with strangers while all that's grinding inside her; she can't fake it. She's too busy trying to decide what's the right thing to do, too caught in her own crossfire, too wary of what lurks just below it. When a girl rises in a roomful of eight-to 14-year-olds in Sydney and asks Mia what her main goal in life is, she replies, "Not to embarrass myself." She's kidding. Sort of. Maybe.
She finds her way into the corner or the foyer at receptions and cocktail parties, or onto the floor to play with somebody's child. She lowers a ball-cap brim over her eyes on the street. She lowers her eyes. "I'm sure I miss some things about the world," she tells people, "but I can tell you a lot about my shoes."
That's what the world misses about her, what teammates who've known her for years cherish: her wicked sarcasm, her honesty, her vulnerability, days when her guard comes down and she's positively giddy. They get her dead-on Noo Yawk and Brit and Aussie accents, her impersonations, her rocking Rocky Top on karaoke nights. They get long notes so heartfelt that some keep them and read them before every game. They get her on their doorstep after a five-hour flight when their parents die. They get a teammate whose eyes well up in compassion when they're feeling down and need to talk, one who crisscrosses headbands over her nose in commiseration when they suffer a fracture and have to wear a face guard. They get her hauling the equipment bag out of the bus when they're trudging to their hotel rooms at midnight. Doing all the community work. They get appearances in her commercials, they get cash, because she takes less and insists that they be included. Newcomers keep their distance at first, wary of her moods, but by their third year on the team they love her: They've seen so much goodness unfold.