- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

ATHENS — She never has met the man, never even talked on the phone. But when Mia Hamm saw Pete Sampras on the screen, weary and at peace, she just knew. Knew what he was going through. Knew her time was running short.

“I watched Pete Sampras’ retirement speech,” Hamm recalls. “He talked about how you just know when it’s the right time. That’s the way I feel.”

Hamm is done. Not quite yet, of course: She still has two more matches, starting with today’s semifinal against Germany that could put the U.S. women’s soccer team into the final of the Athens Games.

But after the Olympics, her last Grecian hurrah, the premier player in women’s soccer is walking away. Walking away from the sport she helped build, from 154 career goals, from 18 long, hot summers of training camp.

And just so this is clear: She’s walking. Running would be a bit hard on Hamm’s 32-year-old knees. And hamstrings. And every other place that’s a whole lot more sore than it used to be.

“It’s everything,” says Hamm, a graduate of Lake Braddock High, with a smile. “When you’re 15 or 20, warming up is pretty much bending down and tying your shoes. You laugh at all the old people that have to go out and stretch 15 minutes before everyone else.”

Hamm doesn’t laugh anymore. She’s too busy working out the knots. And she isn’t alone: The other members of Team USA’s greatest generation — Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain — likely are playing in their final major international tournament as well, certainly the last one as a group.

Together, they have become a rallying point for an American side that has grown considerably younger since Chastain’s memorable jersey-strip capped a 1999 World Cup triumph.

“I did have posters and T-shirts of them in high school,” defender Kate Markgraf says. “Very rarely do you get to play with your idols and then actually become friends with them. There’s no way we want to let these guys down.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. The vets can still play. Especially Hamm. A step slower than in her explosive, nearly impossible to defend prime, she has a better feel for the game, becoming as much a playmaker as a pure goal scorer.

Hamm has two goals in four Olympic matches; in pre-Olympic competition, she scored eight goals and led the national team with 13 assists. Reason to hang on? More like reason to get out while the getting is still good.

Hamm doesn’t want to end up a shade like Emmitt Smith, wasting away at the end of a bench, clinging to long-faded glory.

“As an athlete, you want to do it on your terms,” she says. “You want to walk away still feeling good about it. That’s the way I feel right now.

“If I didn’t think I could still help the team, I wouldn’t be out there. The physical and psychological stamina it takes, there are a lot more fun things to do than run.”

The running is getting harder. For so long, Hamm has attacked the sport with laser beam focus, willing herself to success. A national team member at age 15, she went on to become the all-time leading scorer in international history. A two-time world player of the year. A gold medalist at the Atlanta Games.

Even today, Hamm remains the face of her sport, the Title IX icon who judo-flipped Michael Jordan in a sports drink commercial. But she never has been comfortable with celebrity, and the years of traveling — to China, Norway and all points in between — have taken a toll.

Married to Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra last year, Hamm wants to settle down, have children. And she would like to spend more time with the family she already has: her parents and five siblings, the ones who always planned vacations around Hamm’s far-flung tournaments.

“I get pangs in my heart when I call my sister and talk to my nephews,” Hamm says. “Or when I see them, and they’ve grown another six inches. I want to be a part of their lives. For so long, they’ve followed me around and supported me. It’s time to give back.”

Intense and serious for much of her career, Hamm finally is enjoying herself — or at least allowing her playful side out in public. She seems more relaxed, at ease with her place in the game. She speaks of savoring her final Olympic experience, taking pleasure at the sight of little girls wearing her jersey. She has become a mentor to her younger teammates, emerging stars like former Washington Freedom linemate Abby Wambach, the vanguard of U.S. soccer’s next generation.

Hamm even jokes about her outsized legacy.

“I want to be remembered as 5-11,” says Hamm, listed at 5-foot-4. “It’ll never happen, though.”

During the final four months of Team USA’s training camp in Carson, Calif., Hamm, Chastain, Lilly and Foudy shared a house in Manhattan Beach. They cooked together, hung out, reminisced about a trip to Haiti that saw them bathing in a hotel pool, thanks to a lack of running water. Or the time five years ago, when Nike named the largest building on its corporate campus after Hamm.

The day before the dedication ceremony, Foudy and others posted sarcastic signs around the team hotel: “Mia Hamm Drinking Fountain,” “Mia Hamm Supply Closet.”

“Am I going to miss it?” Hamm says. “Absolutely. It’s been a part of my life. These players have been a part of my life for the last 18 years and will continue to be. Kristine, Julie, these guys are some of my best friends.”

Still, Hamm isn’t getting overly sentimental just yet. Not when work remains unfinished. The world is catching up to the once-dominant United States, and the Americans haven’t won a major international tournament since the 1999 World Cup. Losses to Norway in the Sydney Games final and to Germany in the 2003 World Cup semifinals still burn.

In Germany, Team USA faces a defending World Cup champ that has outscored Olympic opponents 12-1 and features Cup MVP Birgit Prinz.

“The game is evolving,” Hamm says. “We need to re-raise the bar, re-raise that ante.”

In doing so, Hamm hopes to exit the sport on top. Just like a certain tennis legend.

“I still love what I do,” she says. “If I didn’t, it would be a disservice to all these guys working so hard. You don’t want to sit there making excuses if you aren’t in shape, not playing as well as you can, saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter.’ That’s not the way I want to leave this game. I still care so much, and I want to leave caring that way.”

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