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The Mia Generation

Times Staff Writer

Her hands gave her away.

Clutched tightly around the wooden arm of a chair, like a bird’s claw gripping a frail branch in a howling windstorm, Mia Hamm’s left hand sought desperately to hold on.

The white-knuckle ride that is the fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup is nothing near as nerve-racking for the world’s greatest female soccer player as the prospect of facing, yet again, the carnivores of the media.

How can she make them understand if they haven’t been there from the beginning, from the moment all those years ago when Mariel Margaret Hamm became simply Mia -- a magical word on the lips of hundreds of thousands of pony-tailed, No. 9 jersey-wearing little girls across America?

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And so, while the intrusive snouts of television cameras focused on her haunted eyes, and while the out-thrust circle of microphones picked up her every whispered word, Mia Hamm’s hands unconsciously spoke louder than she did.

They never stopped moving. She rubbed them together. She kneaded and cracked her knuckles. She picked at her fingernails. She stuck her right hand beneath her knee to keep it still. She reached out for the chair arm with her left hand, the one with a glittering diamond engagement ring given to her by Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.

But there was no relief. The media pack encircled her. If she could have jumped up and bolted, the sense was that she would have.

Instead, she stuck it out, answering questions she had answered a thousand times before in a career that stretches back more than 16 years, a career that very likely will end after the Olympic Games next summer in Athens.

Hamm is 31 now. She will be 32 then. It is time to move on.

A British reporter asked Hamm before the U.S.'s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Norway Wednesday night what comes after that, after she has hung up her size-5 1/2 boots.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t even thought about anything outside,” she replied. “My focus is on Norway and what I can do individually and how I can help my team get the result that we need and that we want. When this [tournament] is over, I’ll concentrate on that, but right now my focus and my heart are right there.”

It was a typical Hamm answer.

When reporters try to delve into her personal life or try to discover just what it is that makes Mia Hamm Mia Hamm, she doesn’t withdraw so much as deflect. She has become adept at giving long, detailed and usually interesting answers that often have nothing to do with the question.

She has changed, however, since her first marriage ended in divorce after seven years in 2001, and even more so since Garciaparra, a fellow athlete also at the peak of his game, became part of her life.

In a rare revealing moment recently, she admitted as much when asked about her increased on-field leadership of the U.S. team.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “I really haven’t kind of watched me. I know how I feel and I know I feel better. I feel better physically, emotionally and psychologically and that makes a huge difference.”

The difference certainly shows in her play. Always keenly competitive, ever since she made her national team debut as a shy but incredibly talented 15-year-old in 1987, she has been able in this Women’s World Cup to raise her game to an even higher level.

After Hamm had scored two goals and assisted on a third in a 5-0 demolition of Nigeria -- this only a few days after she had created all three goals in a 3-1 defeat of Sweden -- U.S. Coach April Heinrichs was unstinting in her praise.

“What a wonderful inspiration she is to this team,” Heinrichs said after the Sweden game, in which Hamm, after providing the perfect corner kick for Shannon Boxx to head in the third U.S. goal, sprinted up the sideline and slapped hands with every player on the American bench.

It was the most spontaneous and delightful of moves, an exhilarating flashback to the Hamm of old, to the laughing teenager delighted in her own skill at the game she loves.

“Mia’s play on and off the ball was magnificent,” Heinrichs said after the Nigeria game, a game in which Hamm was fouled time and again, hammered to the turf in brutal fashion, but answered the best way she knows how -- by twice putting the ball in the back of the net.

Hamm has scored 144 international goals, more than any other soccer player, male or female, in history. But those very goals have forced her into the spotlight that she just as soon would shun.

Even before the World Cup began, and while the U.S. team was undergoing final preparations at the University of Virginia, Hamm talked about fame and the attendant distractions it brings.

“I understand the responsibility that comes with it, I do,” she said. “But at the same time I’m a part of a team and I’m no better or any worse than any single player on this team. That’s the approach that I’ve always had and I will continue to have.

“It’s not all about me. It’s never been all about me. If it had [been], this would have been a really lonely journey.”

Heinrichs, too, has seen the changes in Hamm. She says they are due not only to her newfound personal happiness but also to the influence of the Women’s United Soccer Assn. (WUSA).

“I don’t know that her personality has changed so much,” Heinrichs said. “I just think she’s more comfortable with who she is. “I think all these women [on the U.S. team] are a little bit better leaders than they were four years ago because when you get taken away from the national team and put in another pool of players you have to lead, and she [Hamm] has led Washington.”

Hamm, along with U.S. teammate Abby Wambach, carried the Freedom to the WUSA title this season, giving Hamm one more championship in a career filled with them -- four NCAA championships at the University of North Carolina, two world championships, Olympic gold and silver medals, the list goes on and on.

But the ups have been matched by the downs, as injuries and on-field disappointments have been felt in recent years.

“Athletics is so much about this wave that you ride,” Hamm said. “The greatest athletes in the world either make those peaks and valleys less noticeable or are really good at hiding them from people.”

Mia Hamm has not been hiding during the World Cup. She has been a force on the field and has been more available than ever off the field, even though she would just as soon see the focus on someone else.

The emotions are still there, too -- the fist slamming the turf in anger at a missed shot, the glare that can melt the yellow cards in a referee’s pocket after a bad call.

“I’ve always been a person and a player who has kind of worn their emotions on their sleeve,” she said. “Probably the best thing for me is to surround myself with people, or confide in people, who help me temper it a bit.

“I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t always make the right decisions and, as I’ve said before, I don’t always let things go. And you have to, because in this game, and in sports in general, there tend to be a lot more failures than successes.”

But there’s something else in play this time around.

Hamm knows that this is the next-to-last ride, a farewell tour in her home country. This is her fourth and final World Cup and she not only wants to win it but enjoy it.

“Sometimes when you’re younger you just assume that you’re going to play in another World Cup,” she said, acknowledging that there will be no more for her after this one.

“I didn’t really enjoy [past World Cups] as much as I should have. This time I’m trying to. It’s a goal of mine not to just go, ‘OK, we’ve played Nigeria, let’s move on to the next game.’ ”

The next game, in this case, was against North Korea, and Hamm, seated in that wooden-armed chair, holding on for dear life, was being bombarded by questions about the game’s alleged political significance.

She handled them with aplomb, saying that while perceived political undertones might interest some, they did not interest her.

“I’m not going to stand next to someone on a corner kick or a goal kick and ask them, ‘So, what’s going on in North Korea?’ ” she said.

“I think all players are proud of who and what they represent. The opportunity to represent your country means a lot to all of us. We’re out there playing for the friends and family and the people that we represent and that care about us. If that’s a political statement, then yes [there are political undertones to the game].

“But that 90 minutes is about women who love to play this game and the best way they can celebrate that is by playing hard.”

Mia Hamm has always played hard. The pity is, her playing days are nearing their end.

Life beckons and it’s time to move on.

*

(Begin Text of Infobox)

Hamm’s

Greatest Hits

A collection of the most significant of Mia Hamm’s world-record 144 international goals:

*--* 1 July 25, 1990 vs. Norway. Her first goal for the national team came in a 4-0 victory in Winnipeg, Canada. 13 Nov. 17, 1991 vs. Sweden. Hamm’s first World Cup goal came in a 3-2 victory in Panyu, China. 100 Sept. 18, 1998 vs. Russia. Scored in a 4-0 victory in Rochester, N.Y., it made Hamm only the fourth woman to reach 100 goals. 108 May 22, 1999 vs. Brazil. By scoring in a 3-0 victory in Orlando, Hamm passed Italy’s Elisabetta Vignotto as the all-time career leader. 110 June 19, 1999 vs. Denmark. A goal early in a 3-0 victory over Denmark before a packed house at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., got the World Cup off to an electric start. 136 Nov. 9, 2002 vs. Canada. The biggest goal Hamm has scored in Southern California gave the U.S. a 2-1 overtime victory at the Rose Bowl and the championship of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament. 144 Sept. 25, 2003 vs. Nigeria. A free kick during a 5-0 victory in Philadelphia gave Hamm her first two-goal World Cup game.

*--*


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