- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Mia Hamm’s extraordinary soccer career is coming to a close.

Hamm is ready to move on with her life, and you can’t blame her. She has logged better than 15 years with the U.S. team, beginning when she was 15. At 31, Hamm’s unparalleled resume is nearly complete. The only thing missing is a league championship, and she has a chance to remedy that Sunday when her Washington Freedom play the Atlanta Beat at San Diego’s Torero Stadium in Founders Cup III.

This autumn’s Women’s World Cup will be Hamm’s last appearance on the international stage, and she remains undecided about returning for a fourth WUSA season — the league she helped launch three years ago.

“For so long, the game has just been my entire life,” Hamm said. “And now it doesn’t need to be, and that’s wonderful. There was a time when I didn’t have fun during stages of a game, and it was absolutely terrifying. [Now] I’m not afraid to step away from the game and be without it. It’s given me so much. It’s given me the structure from where I can step away from it.”

Hamm, who was one of the WUSA’s first 20 players, has won an NCAA championship at North Carolina, plus an Olympic gold medal and two Women’s World Cups during her career. The world’s all-time leading goal scorer, male or female, has played 237 games and scored 140 goals for the U.S. team.

Her recent engagement to Boston Red Sox slugger Nomar Garciaparra, who was a standout high school soccer player in Southern California, has given Hamm a new outlook on her future and lessened her commitments to her sport. The couple has not set a wedding date, but many believe it will happen soon after Boston’s season ends.

Hamm and Garciaparra met at a charity event in 1998 and started dating in 2001 around Thanksgiving, shortly after Hamm divorced her husband of six years, Marine Corps pilot Christiaan Corry.

“The time is right for her with her age and personal life,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said of his star forward.

Hamm was named by People Magazine as one of its 50 Most Beautiful People in 1997. Soccer has been good to Hamm. She is a multi-millionaire thanks to endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade.

If it weren’t for Hamm, there probably would not be a WUSA. During its first two years, the league pressured Hamm to serve as its image. Hamm was forced to do countless promotions and appearances, and it wore her down.

“I feel fortunate enough to have seen first-hand how she deals with it all,” said Freedom star forward Abby Wambach, who along with Hamm, is one of three finalists for WUSA player of the year.

“It’s not easy being Mia Hamm,” Wambach said. “She has a lot of people ask her to do a lot of things. I think it’s getting to a point where there are some young players that need to step up and take over those sort of appearances that she needs to do and whatever. She’s laying the framework for all of us. She’s giving us the opportunity.”

Injuries have been a factor in Hamm’s career. In the WUSA’s inaugural season, the product of Fairfax County’s Lake Braddock High School was coming off shoulder surgery and scored only six goals with three assists despite starting 19 of the Freedom’s 21 games.

Last year knee surgery forced Hamm to miss the first 10 games, and she played the rest of the season as a second-half substitute. Despite playing half a season (11 games), she topped her production from her first season with eight goals and six assists.

This season has been the most productive of Hamm’s WUSA career. Healthy for the most part, she finished tied with Wambach as the league’s leading points producer with 33 (11 goals, 11 assists).

“As a competitor, [the injuries were] frustrating, but at the same time I think at certain times it enabled me to take step back and kind of refocus,” Hamm said.

Asked if she will continue to play in the financially strapped WUSA, Hamm replied, “I haven’t decided that yet, but we’ll see. So much is going to depend on what happens after this year and where we [the WUSA] go from there.”

Gabarra said Hamm has changed her game as the years have gone by.

“She started as a slashing, very fast goal scorer,” Gabarra said. “She was very direct in getting behind defenses. Naturally as you get older, there’s other parts of the game that you develop, and she has become more of a creative player who can play in midfield, she can play up front and do that kind of work and take players on.”

Regardless of whether this is Hamm’s last season, she has a goal.

“It would be wonderful to bring [the Founders Cup III title] back to this community,” Hamm said.

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