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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The Shooter's heart froze. She'd been right in front of his camera when he'd started gunning the motor drive. Dammit, he was sure of it.

See, there she was in the first few frames, but they weren't photos worthy of the front page of USA Today and the living hell Robert Hanashiro had gone through to arrange this high-spirited team picture. For weeks this story had ripened, and now—48 hours before 90,000 people would jam the Rose Bowl to watch women play soccer, for crying out loud—every media crew in the country was chewing on it, and he'd had to beg the U.S. women's soccer team to pose on his duct-tape markers as he clicked from atop a ladder and the TV jackals jostled him from below.

He blinked at the images on his laptop. How was it possible, firing 3� frames every second? Somehow, on the brink of the 1999 World Cup final against China, when he'd finally gathered all the girls of summer around two inflated globes and gotten all the faces of American women's soccer smiling...the face of American soccer was nowhere to be seen. Poof. The greatest goal scorer in the history of international soccer. Vanished. Where in the world was Mia Hamm?

Don't read this story. For Mia's sake. Don't read it or even look at the pictures. It might take too long. Then she'd feel like a burden. You might get to know her. Then she'd have to agonize over what you think.

She'll be disappearing soon anyway. For good. She's got one more year, the woman who launched millions of girls across thousands of fields. Two final engagements on the world stage. The first begins this weekend, in the World Cup, which is back on U.S. soil because of the SARS epidemic in China. The second occurs in Athens, at next summer's Olympics. In between she'll marry one of the greatest shortstops in baseball, but there's no way you'll see that.

Perhaps, in spite of her, we'll see her place in history—the first female team-sport superstar—and finally understand how many more complications lay in her path than in those blazed by the women icons of the solo sports, the Babes and Billie Jeans, the Wilmas and Chrissies and Peggys who preceded her.

It's tricky business, being anointed queen amid a circle of female peers, having to dismantle the throne even as you sit on it. Maybe she can pull it off here too. Maybe she can fill a dozen magazine pages without being seen. Maybe at the end you still won't know what makes a woman ignite and extinguish herself all at once.

How will this story start?" Mia asks. She's nervous already. "Will it begin, 'I was born a poor black child....'?"

No. But close. She was baptized as a middle-income black couple's godchild. With a pair of misshapen feet and sharply bowed legs soon to be wrapped in casts, then in orthotic shoes connected by a steel bar. In a small African-American Catholic church in Selma, Ala., because her fighter-pilot father wanted to taste what life was like for blacks in a segregated Southern town and had already bailed out of the white Catholic church with the shallow social conscience. Just a few feet from the church garage where Mia's ballerina mother taught black girls how to pirouette because she'd seen a black man in a civil rights march carrying a crucifix with a sign on it saying, HE DIED FOR US TOO.

Find something else to do. Mia's story is too tangled. Because just when you're coming to grips with Selma, and with a dad who goes from strafing Vietcong from an F-100 to weekend retreats with his wife among rural 'Bama blacks organized by the Taiz� brothers—antiwar and anti-materialist Christians dedicated to sharing their lives with victims of violence, poverty and racial oppression—you'll be flung from town to town, country to country, all the places our heroine moves to and vanishes from. All the places where neighbors and teammates look up one day and ask, "Where is she? Where's Mia Hamm?"

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