Confidence can be a tricky thing to hold on to, even if you're Mia Hamm and you've dominated the first week of the Women's World Cup, tapping hidden reserves of self-assurance. "Athletics is so much about that," Hamm said as the U.S. was sweeping three first-round games to set up Wednesday's quarterfinal match against Norway. "It's this wave that you ride, and the greatest athletes in the world either make their peaks and valleys a lot less noticeable or they're really good at hiding them."
All evidence aside, Hamm doesn't consider herself one of the world's greatest athletes, nor has she been particularly adept at hiding her insecurities. Yet in scoring two goals, assisting on four others and roaring back like a demon on defense in the first two games of group play, the old Hamm paradox—exceptional talent laced with epic self-doubt-began to dissolve before our eyes. "Mia has always been content to let other people take the stage," U.S. captain Julie Foudy says. "Now she says, 'I can do it. If the team's not playing well, I'm going to pick everyone up.' "
That was readily apparent in Hamm's embrace of set pieces, those dramatic moments when the action stops and the crowd buzz builds. From her deadeye corner kicks (which led to three goals) to her screaming free kicks (one of which sailed 35 yards into the Nigerian net), Hamm was a constant threat. But it was her sangfroid during the pressure cooker of a penalty kick against Nigeria that most clearly unveiled Mia 2.0. Not only did Hamm bury the kick to ignite a 5-0 victory, but she also demanded that she be the one to take it.
Only four years ago, of course, Hamm had famously tried to abdicate her PK assignment during the World Cup final shootout against China. (She converted anyway.) Since then, that mental barrier has disintegrated. During this year's WUSA season Hamm took—and made—four of the Washington Freedom's five spot kicks. "I know that whenever we get a PK," says U.S. and Freedom teammate Abby Wambach, "Mia will make it."
When April Heinrichs elected to hold Hamm out of Sunday's 3-0 win over North Korea, though, the U.S. coach may have thrown her star player off stride. Heinrichs's predecessor, Tony DiCicco, came to regret pulling Hamm from the last group match of the '99 Cup, concluding that it contributed to her lack of sharpness during the elimination rounds (in which she didn't score a goal). What's more, Heinrichs herself had said before the game, "If you take Mia out, you run the risk of turning the faucet off."
In other words, Hamm ended her remarkable week with all the plotlines for another potential first-rate psychodrama. Yes, she's well aware of her big-game history: In the knockout rounds of three previous World Cups and two Olympics, Hamm scored twice in 13 games, well below her career international average of one goal every 1.67 matches. But after a 21st-century renaissance—her recovery from injuries and her engagement to Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra—that younger Mia suddenly seemed like somebody else.
"I really haven't watched me, but I know how I feel," Hamm says with a smile. "I feel better-physically, emotionally and psychologically. And that makes a huge difference."