Thursday, September 18, 2003

Hamm healthy, happy and back on top of the World

Struggles behind her, star takes refined game into Cup play

The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Mia Hamm has scored 239 international goals - a world record.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - As she prepares for her fourth and final World Cup, Mia Hamm is happy, healthy and confident again.

Her world-record tally of 239 international goals is sure to grow by the time she retires from the international scene after next year's Olympics.

"I know I can't do this forever, and I'm going to give it one more go," said Hamm, 31, whose quest for another World Cup title begins Sunday when the U.S. team hosts Sweden at RFK Stadium.

For several years, Hamm seemed more likely to fade away rather than go out on top. The goals weren't coming the way they used to, and she was no longer the most dangerous scorer in the world.

She had knee surgery. She divorced her husband of six years. Her notoriously fragile confidence was splintering to the point that she felt the need to hug U.S. team coach April Heinrichs and say "Thanks for not giving up on me" after scoring a goal at an Olympic warmup game in 2000.

So, asked if the reason for her slump was physical, personal or psychological, Hamm responded: all of the above.

"They all play on one another," Hamm said. "But I didn't want to say, 'Well, this is the reason.' Not that you shouldn't try to find the reason, but if I said it's because I'm not happy, or because I'm injured, then when you become healthy and they still don't happen, you're totally freaked out.

"What I tried to do is focus on the things I could control."

That meant rehabilitating her knee and relying on "wonderful friends and an amazing family" as her marriage ended and a new romance began with Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, whom she'll marry later this year. It meant improving her playmaking and defense to compensate for her lack of scoring.

The comeback began 15 months ago, when Hamm needed just seven minutes to score for the WUSA's Washington Freedom in her first game after surgery. This season, her well-rounded game was the perfect complement for Freedom youngster Abby Wambach; they tied for the WUSA's scoring lead and helped the Freedom win the league title.

That made this week's demise of the WUSA even tougher for Hamm to swallow. The league was the perfect setting for her to refine her game and regain her health and confidence; it would have been difficult to work her way back through the national team's intermittent camps and games.

"We're all sad," Hamm said. "This is something that we've all invested so much time and energy."

Despite her slump, Hamm has remained by far the most popular female player in the world and is the queen of endorsements despite a shy public demeanor sometimes mistaken for aloofness.

The question of image reveals another of Hamm's inner battles. Teammates Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain are born leaders, naturals in front of a camera. People want the same from Hamm.

"I will never be able to be that, that's what I finally realized," Hamm said.

Said Heinrichs: "Let's value the qualities Mia has: (She's) intelligent, articulate and humble. Write that story."

Women's World Cup in Columbus

Saturday: Germany vs. Canada, Japan vs. Argentina.

Sept. 24: Germany vs. Japan, Canada vs. Argentina.

Sept. 28: Sweden vs. Nigeria, North Korea vs. U.S.

Coming Friday: A look at the U.S. team and a full-page Cup preview.

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Hamm healthy, happy and back on top of the World

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