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 this girl play with the boys.” Strangely enough, he’s talking about her stint as split end and kicker for the junior high football team at Notre Dame Middle School. I ask how she fared, even though I’m pretty sure I know what Findley’s response will be. “Well, they won a bunch of games, and I’m pretty sure she was voted MVP one year,” he says. Given the struggle to find competitive girls’ teams when she was young, it is no surprise that Mia embraces the fact that she was born the same year that Title IX was enacted, the legislation that sought to bring gender equity to American collegiate sports and gave rise to an entire generation of world-class female athletes.

When Mia was fifteen, she was invited to play for the North Texas State team in an Olympic development tournament in Metairie, Louisiana. She led all players in scoring with five goals and caught the eye of Anson Dorrance, the legendary coach at the University of North Carolina, who was heading up the national team at the time. Meeting Dorrance turned out to be a pivotal moment in Mia’s career. She soon devoted herself to soccer, and her direction was set: She joined the national team, becoming the youngest person ever to represent the Stars and Stripes on the soccer field, and went on to play at the University of North Carolina. Utterly convinced that this girl from Texas was the blue chip of his dreams, Dorrance pulled her aside and, in a conversation that has become the stuff of soccer legend, reputedly told Mia she could become the best player in the world.

Now her life has come full circle. Earlier this year Hamm purchased a home in Central Austin, where her parents now live, reclaiming her Texas roots and establishing a place where she can be close to her family in those rare instances when soccer gives her a few days off. Though her husband, Christiaan Corry, is a Marine pilot stationed in San Diego and Hamm has been drafted by the Washington, D.C., franchise for the WUSA, Mia made the decision for a simple reason. The Austin home is really about her adopted brother Garrett, who died in 1997 of complications arising from a rare bone disorder. “The middle child often tries to be the one who pulls the family together,” says Stephanie. “Mia could have bought a house out in San Diego, but I think she wanted to be where Garrett’s widow and son live.” Hamm’s affection for her older brother is clear, and she often credits Garrett as the athletic inspiration of her youth. His family remains an important part of Mia’s life; in fact, Go for the Goal is dedicated to Garrett’s son, Dillon. That loyalty comes as no surprise to those who know her. “I think Mia is the sort of player who plays for the people around her,” says the coach of the U.S. team, April Heinrichs. “She wants to win, but what motivates her is playing for her team and helping them win.”