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Mia Hamm’s charity soccer game has a goal of saving lives

Celebrity Soccer Challenge inspired by Mia’s brother, Garrett

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While Mia Hamm was leading the U.S. women's soccer team to Olympic gold, her brother Garrett sat quietly in the stands. After fighting a rare blood disorder called aplastic anemia for nearly 12 years, his health was worsening and doctors advised him to stay at home for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Instead, Garrett traveled to Atlanta and was one of the first to greet his younger sister after the gold medal game.

"It meant so much to me to have him there," Hamm said. "I got out of the van, and he just kept telling me how proud he was of me."

Less than a year later, Garrett Hamm died after a bone marrow transplant. His battle has inspired the creation of the Mia Hamm Foundation and its largest annual charity event, the Celebrity Soccer Challenge.

Now in its fourth year, the 7-on-7 exhibition will kick off at Kastles Stadium on the southeastern D.C. waterfront Sunday at 11 a.m., the morning after Barcelona and Manchester United play at FedEx Field. It's the first time Hamm and her husband, former baseball star Nomar Garciaparra, have brought the challenge to Washington.

Many local and national celebrities are slated to participate on the two teams: FC Mia and Nomar United. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, Georgetown product Jeff Green, Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson and "Around the Horn" host Tony Reali headline the event. U.S. Women's World Cup players Alex Morgan and Dumfries, Va., native Ali Krieger also will attend.

"I grew up watching Nomar play, so when I heard that he and Mia were hosting this event in Washington, D.C., I jumped at the opportunity to get involved," Carlson said in a statement. "I don't know if I'm the best soccer player, but I'm happy to participate."

Unlike most charity events, Hamm and Garciaparra want their game to be about more than simply raising money.

"We're extremely proud of raising the money," she said, estimating that the event generates between $70,000 and $100,000 each year. "But more importantly, it's getting people registered in the national bone marrow registry."

Only 30 percent of people seeking transplants have a suitable match in their immediate family. The rest, including adopted children like Garrett, have to rely on the willingness of strangers through databases like the National Marrow Donor Program. Because less than 2 percent of the population is registered, the chances of finding a match are small.

The Celebrity Soccer Challenge not only registers 200 to 300 potential donors every year, but it also introduces survivors to their anonymous donors at halftime. For Hamm, this makes the break in the action more memorable than the game.

"It's extremely powerful, and words just can't do it justice," she said. "To see that happen and be able to physically embrace and say thank you, it's just beyond words."

Garrett was Mia's role model growing up, and she still cites his athleticism as one of the reasons that she fell in love with soccer. After he was unable to find a suitable donor nearly 15 years ago, Mia understands the impact that an event like this can have on families and their communities.

"The transplant isn't just for the patient," she said. "It's the entire extended family that is going through this just hoping that their miracle comes through that door."

While the game's main goal is to raise awareness and funding for bone marrow transplants, there's still a competitive edge between the two team captains.

"I just want to beat Nomar's team," Hamm said. "They've won the last two years, and I've got to bring it back to our side."

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