She is a household name. Across the globe, girls who play soccer strive to be her, while female athletes who play other sports look up to her. Mia Hamm is the face of women's soccer and an advocate of women's sports.
"She is the perfect role model for the sport," said Anson Dorrance, the women's soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. Dorrance, who coached Hamm from 1989 to 1993 at UNC, was also the U.S. Women's National Team coach who invited Hamm into his team when she was only 15-years old, the youngest player to ever play for the national team.
"It's a risk [taking a 15-year-old onto the national team]. If I bring her in too young, will she be overwhelmed and lose confidence, or her head will get too big," said Dorrance. "She surpassed every expectation we had of her."
Dorrance first saw Hamm play when she was 14 years old, after a friend from Texas recommended her to him. He said Hamm's athleticism instantly amazed him. "I saw her sprint to the ball and she was unbelievably explosive."
Under Dorrance's leadership, 19-year-old Hamm and the U.S. National Team won the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991.
Throughout her soccer career, Hamm and her teams earned accolades and titles at all levels, including: two World Cup titles in 1991 and 1999, an Olympic silver in 2000 and an Olympic gold in 1996, two ESPN "Espy" awards for Female Athlete of the Year and two "Espy" awards for Soccer Player of the Year, four NCAA championships, three Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year awards and two Hermann Awards - best college soccer player.
ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP HAMM won was the 1989 girls soccer Virginia State title with Lake Braddock. Although Hamm, a transfer from a high school in Texas, only played at Lake Braddock for a year, she left a huge impact on her teammates and the program.
"Lake Braddock had previously won the state championship [1987, and lost in the state final in overtime in 1988] and had a lot of talent, but she brought a whole new dimension to the team," said Hamm's Lake Braddock teammate, and the current girls soccer coach Liz Pike. "She was fast and she could score at will." Pike said opposing defenses could not figure out how to play against Lake Braddock, because the Bruins had too many weapons in their attacking arsenal.
This year's high school National Coach of the Year, Chris Godart, coached at Robert E. Lee high school in 1989. The Lancers played in the regional final against the Bruins that year. The Bruins won 3-2, and Hamm scored the deciding goal.
"She had a tremendous touch on the ball, and she was exceptionally quick with the ball," said Godart. "If you marked her too tight she would blow right by you, then again you couldn't give her too much space either."
Godart said Hamm was already an established player, since she was a member of the full national team. In 1990, Godart led the Lancers to a state title. "I'd like to think that if not for Mia, we would have won more state titles," he said.
The Herndon high school coach at the time, Don Coghlan, said coaching against Hamm was difficult. "You coach away from Mia Hamm if that is at all possible."
According to Pike, Hamm's competitive attitude fit right in with the competitive nature of Lake Braddock sports. "Her work ethic was unbelievable," said Pike. "She always arrived to practice early and was always the last to leave." The Lake Braddock track coach at the time, Bob Digby, said Hamm often practiced with the boys team. However, through all of her early success, Pike said Hamm stayed humble. Morgan Birge, a 1988 graduate of Lake Braddock, confirmed that. He said walking in the halls of the school, one would never know how good Hamm was.
AFTER WINNING THE 1989 state title with the Bruins, Hamm followed her national team coach, Dorrance, to the University of North Carolina. A four-time NCAA champion at UNC, Hamm made an immediate impact in Chapel Hill, scoring 21 goals her freshman year en route to the 1989 NCAA title. She followed that with 24 goals in 1990, 32 goals in 1992 and 26 goals in 1993, bringing her total to 103 collegiate goals. Over the four years, Hamm also added 72 assists to her name.
In 1993, UNC played against George Mason University in the NCAA final. The GMU coach at the time, Jac Cicala, said Hamm's reputation preceded her. He said when she stepped on the field she had a psychological impact on his players. "Knowing she wasn't even on the field and we were still struggling, and then she came on," and his players felt powerless, he said. UNC won the game 6-0.
After college, Hamm continued to dominate soccer fields across the globe. Although the U.S. team failed to win the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, Hamm was selected as the tournament's most valuable player. She went on to set national and international scoring records, many of which still stand. However, Hamm's achievements go further than her trophies and awards, and further than just the sport of soccer.
"SHE BROUGHT A LOT of attention to women's soccer," said Pike. "She is a household name and girls soccer is now huge. She got the younger players excited." Godart echoed Pike's thoughts. He said that through name recognition Hamm energized a whole legion of little girls, who now had someone to look up to.
A 1989 Herndon high school graduate, and an All-American goalkeeper at GMU, Skye Eddy, played against Hamm in the 1993 NCAA title game. She said: "[Hamm] is an incredible athlete and an incredible role model for so many women. Can you think of another female athlete that everyone knows like that? Aside from being an exceptional soccer player, she was the first female sports icon." Eddy said that at the time she and her peers knew Hamm had the talent, but did not know if the world was ready to receive a female athlete.
"Being the face of the sport is not a small responsibility," said Dorrance, "but we were blessed to have a champion who didn't want any exposure." Dorrance said Hamm did not listen to the people who told her she was the best player in the world. He said she always explained her success as a sole responsibility of her teammates. "She was a perfect media darling and her teammates loved her humility."
Hamm's presence is still felt in the international soccer community, and in women's sports, even after her retirement from the sport. She became a familiar face in living rooms across the world in Gatorade commercials, competing in different events against Michael Jordan. On top of her athletic accolades, Hamm was featured in the People Magazine's 1997 edition of "50 Most Beautiful People."
She is the founder of the Mia Hamm Foundation, whose mission is to raise funds for bone marrow transplant patients and their families. The foundation also supports programs for young female athletes. That Mia Hamm keeps in touch with the local community is evident. "After [Lake Braddock] won the 2003 state title [first one since 1989], Mia called and congratulated the team," said Pike. "That meant a lot to the girls." Hamm is married to baseball star Nomar Garciaparra of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
— Additional Reporting by BJ Koubaroulis
Mia Hamm is 4 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.