With hundreds of eyes trained on her, Mia Hamm stood on one foot at the front of the Woodrow Wilson Middle School auditorium Tuesday. Balanced on the other foot was a soccer ball.
But instead of juggling, as had been requested, she flicked it toward the audience.
“I have never really been a tricks person,” Hamm said before inviting eighth-grader Christina Hacobian forward to demonstrate her own moves.
It was a characteristic moment for Hamm who, seven years after her retirement from professional soccer, has redefined herself as a mother and an advocate for youth athletics. Her visit to Wilson was in conjunction with the “Play it Safe” campaign, an effort by the American Assn. of Orthodontists to promote the use of mouth guards to protect against injuries to the face, mouth and jaw.
There are some physical risks that are unavoidable on a sports court or playing field, Hamm said. But taking appropriate safety measures can mean the difference between an athlete playing through the season and an athlete landing on the sidelines with an injury, she said.
“It is one of the things we are trying to communicate to kids,” Hamm said. “It is not just for football. You wear it [and] can still communicate and breathe in soccer.”
Hamm became an international sensation after the 1999 World Cup championship game, when she and her American teammates defeated China in front of a record crowd at the Rose Bowl
“It is great to have someone that famous come to your school,” said Wilson Principal Richard Lucas, adding that the administration had kept the visit quiet to avoid uninvited guests.
Hamm was not much older than the students at Wilson when she was first called up to the U.S. women’s national team camp.
“I was just a kid that was a really good athlete,” Hamm said. “I didn’t know much about soccer. I didn’t know how to strike a ball, how to shoot a ball. Technically, I wasn’t very sound.”
There were plenty of mistakes, Hamm said, but she left the camp knowing that she wanted to pursue soccer to the highest level. And she did, winning four NCAA national championships at the University of North Carolina, and two World Cup championships and an Olympic gold medal with the national team.
“Sports has changed my life,” Hamm said. “They have put me through school; they’ve taught me how to be more confident. When I was your age, there was no way I would be able to stand up here in front of you. I was the kid in the corner.”
The Michael Jordans of the world are not born, Hamm said. They are made through intensive training.
“Every single day, they recommit themselves,” she said. “And that is the difference between them and pretty much everyone else. They do it when it is tough; they do it when it is not pretty; they do it when everyone doesn’t think they can do it, and they also do it when everyone thinks they should.”
Her favorite player to watch is Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, whom Hamm described as diminutive.
“He could easily sit in the middle of this auditorium and you wouldn’t know if he was Lionel Messi or an eighth-grader at Woodrow Wilson Middle School,” Hamm said. “But with the ball at his feet, he is magic.”
Much of her energy now is focused on her family, which includes husband and former Major League Baseball star Nomar Garciaparra and twin 4-year-old daughters. Hamm occasionally plays soccer with friends, and plans to attend the women’s World Cup this summer in Germany as an official ambassador for the U.S. team.
“That is exciting — to see countries that didn’t even have a program when I started, now are competing,” Hamm said. “I am excited for them, and it says a lot about the growth of the game.”