Akers, Michelle

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Michelle Akers


American soccer player

Michelle Akers led the United States to an Olympic gold medal and two World Cup championships in women's soccer, and has drawn acclaim for her successful battle against chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome. "If I hadn't had the illness, I would've thought soccer, trophies, World Cups and scoring goals would've been the best thing about my life," Akers said of her battles with her condition. "But it's not. I consider this illness a blessing. And, that has helped me get through each day and through the tough times when this illness is really an anchor, dragging me down day to day."

Akers, who scored 136 goals and is one of only four players, male or female, to score more than 100 goals in international competition. She sparked the United States to arguably its most shining moment in women's team sports-the 1999 World Cup. And while many consider the choreographed, made-for-television clip of Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey as the signature moment of the American victory over China at the Rose Bowl, Akers embodied the U.S. grit during the 90 minutes of regulation before succumbing to fatigue in the 110-degree heat at Pasadena, California. "Want to know a secret? Brandi wasn't the only player who lost her shirt when we won the World Cup," Akers wrote on the Sports Illustrated for Women Web site in September, 1999. "I lost mine, too: Team doctors had to cut it off me after I got knocked out late in the game and staggered off the field. All I remember was lying in the fetal position in a Rose Bowl exam room while they snipped off my jersey and attached me to two IVs, an oxygen mask and an EKG machine."

"Girls Don't Play Football"

Akers, born in Santa Clara, California, grew up in Seattle. She had dreamed of being a wide receiver for the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers and, in fact, had practiced catching "Hail Mary" passes during recess. She cried when an elementary school teacher told her, "Michelle, girls can't play football." Soccer, however, was a more than adequate fallback and she became a three-time All-American at Seattle's Shorecrest High School. Akers credits religion, which aroused her interest when she was a high school sophomore, as turning around her life. While acknowledging her successes, she added, "Unfortunately, I had also become the epitome of the rebellious teenager. Skipping school. Dating older guys. Experimenting with drugs. Lying. You name it. I was putting my family, and everyone around me through the test of true love."

At the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, Akers was a four-time All-American, won the first Hermann Trophy as national player of the year and was offensive MVP in the 1987 NCAA Final Four. She was also Central Florida's Athlete of the Year in 1988-89.

Embarks on Pro Career

In 1989, Akers met pro soccer player Roby Stahl and they married within six months. Shortly after the honeymoon, she left for Sweden to play for the semi-pro club Tyreso, in the first of three stops with that team. In 1991 came the World Cup in China. Akers scored 10 goals in that tournament. "I fell into a fantasy worlda quick engagement, a house, a wedding, a World Cup. It all happened too fast," said Akers. People frequently mispronounced the hyphenated namethe lack of publicity women's sports received at the time didn't help. "Once a P.A. (public-address) announcer at a game introduced her as Michelle Aerosol," says longtime national squad teammate Julie Foudy. "Another time I was at a camp and someone said, 'Oh, you play with that girl um Michelle Anchor-Steam!' Yeah, right, Mich is a beer." However, Akers' life "turned upside down" shortly thereafter, Kelly Whiteside wrote on the Sports Illustrated-CNN Web site. The Epstein-Barr virus hit full force, producing chronic fatigue, and in 1994 she and Stahl filed for divorce. "But amid such traumatic events, one thing has remained constant: Akers's status as the best woman player in the world," Whiteside wrote.

Glory at the Rose Bowl

Akers sparked the Americans to a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, and the United States team aimed for their second World Cup title in 1999. Much had changed in the American sports landscape since the previous Cup victory in China eight years earlier. Women's sports were now more in the spotlight, and the soccer talent pool was deeper. As more girls in elementary, middle and high school levels were opting for soccer as their outdoor sport of choice instead of field hockey and track, dividends were paid for the national soccer program. "Now there are players on the national team who, as they were growing up, dreamed of being like Mich," Whiteside wrote.

With visibility, however, came pressure to succeed, both on the field and off. "As they were constantly reminded, the pressure on the U.S. players was far more than just a desire to win the World Cup," the Washington Post 's William Gildea wrote. "This event was seen by some as a bellwether of women's sports in America. Could women's teams fill stadiums, draw advertisers and attract television viewers in a non-Olympic event?"


1966Born in Santa Clara, California
1986Graduates from University of Central Florida
1990Marries Roby Stahl, professional soccer player
1991Begins struggles with health problem later diagnosed as CFIDSchronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (Epstein-Barr virus).
1994Akers and Stahl file for divorce
1995Injured as U.S. loses to eventual champion Norway in women's World Cup
2001Lends name to high school girls tournament in Florida, the Michelle Akers Soccer Classic

The team proved that they could, largely due to its high-drama victory over China in the title game at the Rose Bowl on a Saturday afternoon in July, before a crowd of more than 90,000 that included President Clinton and scores of celebrities, as well as a national television audience. The 5-foot-10 Akers, known largely for her scoring prowessher late penalty kick had sealed a 2-0 semifinal win over Brazilwas a defensive standout that day, neutralizing star Chinese forward Jin Yan. She had at least three collisions and banged into an advertising board outside the playing field. Neither teams scored in regulation time and Akers, one of the world's most durable athletes, could hardly play in the sweltering heat, estimated at 110 degrees Fahrenheit on the field that day. "Finally, as time expired in regulation, she could go no farther, collapsing in front of the goal she was defending," Steven Goff wrote in the Washington Post. "It took about five minutes for her to stand, braced by two trainers who kept her from falling over. As the team gathered before the start of overtime, Akers sat slumped on the bench, her head covered with a wet towel. As the match proceeded, few of the 90,185 in attendance noticed her being taken to the locker room for further examination."

Neither team scored during overtime play and penalty kicks would settle the championship. Rules prohibited Akers, a logical choice for a shootout, from re-entering the game. Chastain's goal following a pivotal save by the U.S. goalkeeper, Briana Scurry , gave the Americans the title as bedlam erupted in the Rose Bowl. "I'll never know how I made it to the podium for the trophy presentation, but I'm glad I did," Akers wrote in Sports Illustrated for Women. "Standing there with the team was such an intense moment, and so was the scene afterward when I wobbled off the stage and the crowd started chanting 'Akers! Akers! Akers!'" Coach Tony DiCicco had this to say about Akers, "Michelle Akers inspires me and I know she does the same for everybody on the U.S. team."

The entire tournament had worn on Akers. "The grueling schedule and physical battering of the tournament tested her growing faith," author Judith A. Nelson wrote. "Michelle required two liters of intravenous fluid following each game. Her right knee troubled her; and, in a freak accident, a fan grabbed her hand and yanked her shoulder out of the socket." Too drained to join her teammates in a whirlwind publicity tour, Akers relaxed on a Santa Monica beach with a friend, former teammate Amanda Cronwell the following day. The salt water soothed Akers, but the dining out provided no reprieve. Fans besieged her in a Mexican restaurant.

Mainstream Heroes

Despite her celebrity status, Akers still maintains a person-next-door persona. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly noted that the winter before the 1999 World Cup, a youngster knocked on the door of Akers' home outside Orlando, Florida and said, "Can you come out and kick the ball with us?" Now, if this were the door of most American male professional athletes, the kid would've been: 1) escorted away by security, 2) rolled away by paramedics or 3) simply trying to make contact with her biological father," Reilly explained further. "What did Akers do? She went out and kicked with her, but only after bringing out an armful of pictures, books and pins. Ain't it great? Ten-year-old girls all over the country are taking down their Backstreet Boys posters and putting up the Goal-Goal Girls."

Awards and Accomplishments

1985Scores goal against Denmark in first game with U.S. national team
1985ESPN Athlete of the Year
1988Inaugural winner of Hermann Award for national women's soccer collegiate player of the year, while at Central Florida
1990U.S. Olympic Committee Soccer Player of the Year
1990-91Soccer Federation Female Player of the Year
1991Scores winning goal late in championship game as U.S. wins inaugural women's World Cup, 2-1 over host China; Akers receives Silver Ball award as second-best player
1991U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete of the Year
1991First female American soccer player to sign shoe endorsement deal
1995Named to U.S. Women's Cup all-tournament team
1996Member of the gold medal-winning national team at Centennial Olympic Games, scoring pivotal goal in 2-1 semifinal victory over Norway
1996Most Valuable Player in U.S. Women's Cup
1999Leads U.S. to World Cup victory despite injury against China in title game in Pasadena, California
2000Voted FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) Women's Player of the Century in joint poll of FIFA committee and FIFA Magazine readers
2001Receives Wilma Rudolph courage award

Where Is She Now?

Akers retired as a player shortly after the 1999 World Cup, opting out of the 2000 Olympics. She is pursuing a medical career and recently began a physician's assistant school in Florida following a stretch as a technical assistant to the former women's national team doctor. She had intended to play for the Orlando franchise of the newly formed women's pro league, the WUSA, in its inaugural 2001 season, but withdrew, citing a shoulder injury. The franchise moved from Orlando, Akers' hometown, to North Carolina.

Akers founded a sports ministry, Soccer Outreach International, in 1997. She belongs to the FIFA Soccer Committee, the NSCAA Women's Subcommittee, and the Sports Outreach America board and teaches at soccer camps. She also lent her name to a high school girls soccer tournament whose 20-year run was in danger after such corporate sponsors as Burger King and Target had withdrawn. It has been renamed the Michelle Akers Soccer Classic, held at Lake Mary High School, near Orlando.

In a commentary for USA Today, Akers, in advance of the 2003 World Cup, warns against the "flameout" that beset her defending champion team in the mid-1990s. "Coach April Heinrichs will need to take it down a notch or this could be a repeat of 1995," she wrote. "By the time the World Cup came in '95-the player roster pretty much remained the same from the '91 squad-overwhelming demands from team sponsorships, player endorsements, media and an outrageous game and travel schedule drained everyone. There are danger signs of this happening at the 2003 Cup."

Said Akers, who rejoined her parents in Seattle shortly after the World Cup and worked at a nearby soccer camp: "Offers rolled in: Book proposals, movie deals, speaking engagements, endorsements. One of my biggest tasks will be to decide which ones I have the energy, and the desire, to do." During the middle of the World Cup Akers summed her determination: "You get to the point where you get so beat up that another ding is not going to stop you. I've learned how to kind of just put it behind me and focus on the job at hand."


Akers, Michelle et. al. Standing Fast: Battles of a Champion, Singapore: JTC Sports, 1997.

Akers, Michelle and Judith A. Nelson. Face to Face with Michelle Akers, Integrated Resources, 1998.

Akers, Michelle and Greg Lewis. The Game and the Glory: An Autobiography, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.



Akers, Michelle. "Cup Gold No Sure Thing for U.S. Women." USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/soccer (November 25, 2002).

Akers, Michelle. "Still Crazy after the World Cup." USA Women's World Cup '99 Online, http://www.womensoccer.com/wwcup99 (December 17, 2002).

Akers, Michelle. "A Welcome Timeout." Sports Illustrated for Women, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/siforwomen/ (September 13, 1999).

Bamberger, Michael. "Women of Destiny: World Cup Champs:" CNN-Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/1999/sportsman (December 20, 1999).

Gildea, William. "U.S. Effort Nets Second World Cup Title." Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/sports/soccer/longterm/worldcup99/articles/cup11.htm (July 11, 1999).

Goff, Steven. "Akers's Gritty Play Is Inspirational to U.S. Squad." Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/sports/soccer/longterm/worldcup99/articles/cupside11.htm (July 11, 1999).

Langdon, Jerry. "Akers, Scurry Have Been Dominant Forces, but They Need Help." Gannett News Service, http://www.soccertimes.com/langdon (July 6, 1999).

"Michelle Akers: Just The Basics." Elaine's Team USA Webpage, http://www.geocities.com/teamusasoccer/akers.html (December 17, 2002).

Nelson, Judith A. "Michelle's Higher Goal: A World Cup and Olympic Gold Medal are only the beginning for a determined Michelle Akers." Pentacostal Evangel, http://pentecostalevangel.ag.org/pentecostalevangel/articles/Olympics/Akers.cfm#author (March-April, 2000).

People Just Like Us: Michelle Akers, Olympic Soccer, http://www.peoplejustlikeus.org/Sports/Michelle_Akers.html (December 23, 2002).

Reilly, Rick. "The Goal-Goal Girls!" CNN-Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/inside_game/magazine/lifeofreilly/1999/0705 (July 6, 1999).

Schorr, Andrew. "Celebrity Pathfinder: Michelle Akers." http://www.healthtalk.com/celeb/makers/01.html (December 17, 2002).

Women's Soccer World, http://womensoccer.com/biogs/akers.html, Michelle Akers biography (December 17, 2002).

Whiteside, Kelly. "World Beater: Michelle Akers Is Ready to Lead the U.S. to Another Title." CNNSports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/world/1999/womens_worldcup/news/1999/02/12 (February 12, 1999).

Sketch by Paul Burton