Hamm, Mariel Margaret ("Mia")

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HAMM, Mariel Margaret ("Mia")

(b. 17 March 1972 in Selma, Alabama), considered the best all-around female soccer player in the world and one of America's most recognizable athletes.

Hamm was born in 1972, the same year that the federal Title IX law prohibiting discrimination against female athletes took effect. Many have pointed to her career as evidence that the law has made a difference. Her father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and his career meant that her childhood was filled with frequent moves to such places as California, Italy, Virginia, and Texas. She was the fourth of sixth children born to Bill and Stephanie Hamm. The last to join the family was her older brother Garrett, adopted at age eight when Mia was five.

In a book on soccer she authored in 1999, Hamm recalls first playing the sport at age six when her brother Garrett could run circles around her. By age ten, she had joined an eleven-year-old boys' team and eventually led them in scoring. While playing on an Olympic development team in Texas at age fourteen, she drew the attention of the coach of the U.S. National Team, Anson Dorrance. He told the New York Times when he saw her play that she was "this skinny brunette (who) took off like she had been shot out of a cannon." At age fifteen she became the youngest player, male or female, ever to join the national team.

In 1989 Hamm followed Dorrance to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was coaching. Because her parents moved to Italy that year, Dorrance was declared her legal guardian and remains one of the most influential figures in her life. At the university, she led her team to four National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) soccer championships. Also while there, she met Christiaan Corry in a class covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. The marine pilot would become her husband in 1995.

In 1991 she joined the U.S. Team for the first-ever Women's World Cup in China. At nineteen she was the team's youngest player. The team's victory opened the door for women's soccer in the United States and marked the beginning of an unprecedented wave of popularity of the sport among young girls. But at the time, the team returned to the United States in virtual anonymity. Hamm wrote the following in her book:

There were no TV crews or fans waiting for us at the airport when we returned, just several friends and U.S. Soccer Federation Representatives. Sports Illustrated chose to note the historic victory with a tiny mention in its scorecard section, and newspapers across the country buried the story next to the tire ads in the back. No one offered us endorsements, money or fame, and while we enjoy those things now, it's not why we play. Look back at the pictures of all the young faces on that 1991 team, awash with smiles, the glow of a world championship, and athletic glory in its purest form, and it becomes obvious why we play.

After her graduation from UNC in 1994 with a degree in political science, the university retired her No. 19 jersey. That year was the first of five consecutive times she was named the U.S. Soccer Federation's Female Athlete of the Year. In 1995 she returned to the Women's World Cup, where the team took the bronze as Norway won the gold. In 1996 she helped lead the U.S. Olympic team to the first-ever gold medal awarded in women's soccer, which catapulted Hamm to a new level of fame. She acknowledged her role as a pioneer in the sport but accepted the accompanying celebrity reluctantly, sometimes expressing doubt in her own abilities. After her coach and others called her the world's best female soccer player, Hamm responded in her book, "They're wrong. I have the potential, maybe, but I'm still not there. But because I can't believe what they say, because I'm not yet satisfied, someday I may prove them right."

In 1997 Hamm was named to People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list and ranked No. 14 on the "Soccer Business International" list of most influential people in the sport. But the year would be a dark period for her. Hamm's brother Garrett died at twenty-eight from complications from aplastic anemia, a bone marrow disease. Two years later, she formed the Mia Hamm Foundation to raise money and awareness for two causes close to her heart: bone marrow disease research and creating opportunities for young women in sports.

By 1999 the Women's World Cup had come a long way from the virtual media blackout Hamm described in 1991. Television, magazines, and newspapers everywhere were filled with images of Hamm and her teammates celebrating their dramatic victory. She appeared in a commercial with Michael Jordan in which she flipped him over in a judo maneuver as Irving Berlin's music declared, "Anything you can do, I can do better." The Nike Corporation named a building after her. That year, with her 108th goal, she surpassed the previous international women's goal-scoring record of 107 goals.

In 2000 the U.S. Olympic women's soccer team was unable to defend its gold, taking the silver in a heartbreaking loss to Norway in Sydney, Australia. But Hamm's profile remained high as she became one of nineteen players with an ownership stake in the new WUSA, the first world-class women's professional soccer league. The league was formed with the backing of five cable industry corporations.

The league launched in early 2001, quickly surpassing its attendance goal of 7,500 fans per game (as of July 2001, the average was close to 8,500 a game). Several times Hamm's presence on the field was credited with swelling crowds beyond 30,000 fans. But the career travel demands of both Hamm and her husband took a toll. In July 2001 she confirmed that she was beginning divorce proceedings with Corry after six years of marriage.

At the same time, Hamm declared to the New York Times that she had "loved every minute" of her soccer career. She was looking forward to the conclusion of her inaugural professional season, and even further ahead than that. She said she intended to play on the 2003 Women's World Cup team in China and the 2004 Athens Olympics, seeking more gold medals to add symmetry to her remarkable career.

Hamm wrote Go for the Goal: A Champion's Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life in 1999. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Women (Mar./Apr. 2001). She has been profiled in the New York Times (11 June 1999 and 10 July 2001).

Leigh Dyer

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