It’s 80 degrees, breezeless, and humid as dusk settles over Hershey, Pennsylvania—the Sweetest Place on Earth. I’m sitting in the top tier of the stadium behind a ponytailed pack of flag-waving zealots. But unlike any soccer hooligans you’ve heard of, these teenage girls choose Slurpees and Skittles over beer and chips. Even their red, white, and blue face paint, I’m told, is sugar based. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is en route to an 11-0 thrashing of Trinidad and Tobago, and each time Mia Hamm touches the ball, a shrill chant of “Mia! Mia! Mia!” erupts. Just before halftime she buries a shot into the roof of the net, sending the crowd into earsplitting paroxysms of joy. Hamm throws her head back with discernible relief and traces a cross on her chest. The whole world smells like milk chocolate.When asked about the goal after the match, the 28-year-old Hamm confesses, “It’s been a long time.” Since her breakout year in 1998, when she led the U.S. team with twenty goals and twenty assists, Hamm’s production has slipped. Despite helping the U.S. capture the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Mia’s shots have found the goalie’s gloves as often as the net. Defenses now regularly double- and triple-team her, and her squad also features a more balanced attack, with Tiffeny Milbrett, Kristine Lilly, and Cindy Parlow shouldering added responsibility. But when the U.S. women set out to defend their gold medal this month during the summer Olympics in Sydney, Hamm will have to be at the top of her game. To reach the medal rounds, the U.S. must beat archrivals Norway and China, two teams that have already defeated the U.S. women this year. As if that pressure weren’t enough, more than another gold medal is riding on Hamm’s play. The Women’s United Soccer Association ( WUSA) is slated to kick off next year. The professional league hopes to do for women’s soccer what the WNBA did for women’s basketball. Olympic success will be vital to its upcoming launch. Whether she nets the decisive goal or not, Hamm will leave her mark on Sydney. Her best gift may be her competitive fire. If scoring eludes her, she intensifies other areas of her game, doling out assists, hounding loose balls, and stretching the defense with her long, slashing runs. She is without a doubt the most dominating female sports figure to emerge from Texas since Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias sauntered into the 1932 Olympics to collect two gold medals in track and field. It has not gone unnoticed that Zaharias became a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, claiming every title available to women at the time and helping to inspire a generation of female athletes along the way. Hamm is in a similar situation, given that her talent will provide the star power in the new league. She too owns nearly every record her sport has to offer. She led the University of North Carolina to four NCAA titles, ending her collegiate career as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leader in goals (103), assists (72), and points (278). She has scored more goals than any other player (male or female) in international soccer, and she has won an unprecedented five straight United States Soccer Federation Female Athlete of the Year awards. Nike chairman Phil Knight even added Hamm to the formidable company of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods when he described the “three athletes who played at a level that added a new dimension to their games.”
But it isn’t simply her talent that is of consequence. She’s an idol, but unlike so many other superstars, she makes a point of being a role model too. Utterly spent after the match against Trinidad and Tobago—and after a long session with reporters—Hamm dutifully returns to the field, where thousands of devotees await her return. She poses for photographs and signs jerseys and copies of her best-selling memoir, Go for the Goal: A Champion’s Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life, as tearful, trembling girls reach out to touch her. It’s a black and white newsreel of Elvis after The Louisiana Hayride or a Technicolor film of the Beatles at Shea. On a souvenir soccer ball, she scrawls her autograph, her number, and the words “Dream Big” before tousling a young girl’s hair.
Born on March 17, 1972, in Selma, Alabama, Mariel Margaret Hamm is the daughter of Bill and Stephanie Hamm, a retired Air Force colonel and a dancer, respectively. The nickname Mia comes from prima ballerina Mia Slavenska, a former teacher of Stephanie’s (it took all of two lessons for the young Mia to turn in her slippers). Because of Bill’s career, the Hamms moved no less than seven times while Mia was growing up, and it was Bill’s passion for the “beautiful game” that would later inspire his daughter. While stationed in Italy, he purchased season tickets to see the premier soccer club, Fiorentina. Every other Sunday he faithfully attended home games, and before long he was hooked. By the time the family came to Texas, in 1976, he was refereeing recreational matches and coaching two of Mia’s older siblings, Tiffany and Garrett (Mia is the fourth of six children). Bill happily stepped up to coach Mia’s teams as she roamed the soccer fields of San Antonio and Wichita Falls, where she spent most of her youth.
The multisport theme of the recent Gatorade commercial that features Mia going toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan in everything from basketball and soccer to fencing and judo isn’t just the creative fancy of a bunch of advertising copywriters (okay, maybe the fencing part). Mia played pretty much anything that came her way—baseball, soccer, basketball, tennis—and she usually played with the boys. “Trying to find girls’ soccer teams when she was growing up was difficult,” Stephanie explains. “She benefited from playing with the boys because there were no girls’ soccer teams.” Lew Findley, one of Mia’s coaches in Wichita Falls, remembers people saying, “You gotta come see