Mia Hamm: An Icon

Though now retired, Mia Hamm's imprint on North Carolina, women's soccer and an entire generation remains as strong as ever.

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An Icon

Though now retired, Mia Hamm's imprint on North Carolina, women's soccer and an entire generation remains as strong as ever.

Inside Carolina Magazine
September, 2008
by Beau Estes

C
hapel Hill. The springboard for a global sporting icon whose name and face have become a worldwide brand. Does the story sound familiar? In a recurring theme that defies all odds, this miracle ascension has happened twice. Once, of course, for Michael Jordan—and proving that UNC is an equal opportunity catapult junction—once for the ladies in the person of Mia Hamm.

Hers is the story of the reluctant star that shone so bright it had no choice in being recognized for its brilliance. One of six children who spent her childhood part of a family frequently on the road in pursuit of her father's career as an Air Force Pilot, Hamm found soccer at a young age. "I developed a love for the game very early," she says. "I was four and I remember I was too young to join a team but I would go out to my sibling's practice every chance I had. They let me join in and run around with them and I had so much fun."

By the time she came to North Carolina, Hamm was a known commodity, both to the coaching staff at North Carolina and the soccer community at large. At age 15, she became the youngest woman ever to play for the Women's National Team. Her coach on that team was UNC's Anson Dorrance, who first saw her play in a youth game in Texas and soon after had Hamm on the National Team. "I chose UNC because they were the best," Hamm says, flatly. "Anson was my National Team coach and I loved the commitment he and the players there had towards the game. Only after my arrival at school did I realize just what a special place Chapel Hill was." It was the beginning of a relationship that spanned the entirety of Hamm's playing career and continues to this day.

The relationship has evolved. Beyond being just a coach, Dorrance was Hamm's guardian during her freshman season at UNC. Prior to her first year at North Carolina, Hamm's father was stationed in Italy, so Dorrance took responsibility of his young star both on the field and off it as her legal guardian.

Her time spent in Chapel Hill as a player was a cavalcade of achievement and honor. Hamm's record reads like a fictionalized account of a superhuman soccer star fabricated in the mind of a video game creator. Over a five year span she and the Tar Heels won four national championships. Hamm left UNC as the school's leading goal scorer (103) as well as the leader in career assists (72.) She was the ACC Player of the Year her final three seasons and in 1993-'94 received the Honda Broderick Award as the nation's top female collegiate athlete. Immediately following her final season in Chapel Hill, Hamm's No. 19 jersey was retired.

Maybe though, the best indication of the esteem in which she was held lies in the nickname she was given during her time as a Tar Heel. In Chapel Hill, the moniker needs no explanation. To her teammates at North Carolina, Hamm was known simply as "Jordan."

***

Still, there is the issue of her redshirt year of 1991 to consider during her Chapel Hill years. Hamm took off what would have been her sophomore season with the Heels to prepare for the first ever Women's World Cup held in China. It proved to be time well spent for both her and her college/National Team coach Anson Dorrance. Hamm became the youngest player to win the World Cup at 19, scoring two goals and starting five of six matches.


Deaton Bell, a 1990 graduate of UNC, was in China embarking on a career as a soccer producer and found the event to be a seminal moment in the Tar Heel star's career. "I saw Hamm play at the '91 Women World's Cup and she scored goals and was very successful," Bell explains. "But when she came back and played at UNC it was almost unfair. She was so far better than the other players. Most of it was speed—both foot speed and speed of decision making. When you take a successful player on the international level and then put them on a NCAA level, the result is really unfair."

Hamm was back in Carolina blue for the 1992 season, a year Dorrance described as "the greatest season ever by a collegiate soccer player." The endgame of her junior season saw Hamm and her Tar Heel teammates take on their arch-rival in the season's ultimate game. "One of my favorite memories or games is when we defeated Duke for the national championship 9-1 after they scored first," Hamm explains as she recalls the event. "It was such a wet and rainy day but the team still played extremely well." Hamm wasn't bad herself, notching a hat-trick en route to her third of four national championships.

***

If North Carolina was the launching pad for Hamm's success story, her international career was her true orbit. Already the owner of every school scoring record available upon her graduation in Chapel Hill, set her sights on propelling her sport and the team bearing her country's name to new heights.

After a disappointment in the 1995 Women's World Cup, the Women's National Team that became known as "the Golden Generation" took the Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The win in Georgia was during her third year of a five year streak where she won the U.S. Soccer Federation's Female Athlete of the Year.

Hamm and her mates grabbed Gold in '96, but at the 1999 World Cup the entire U.S. Women's National Team captured the nation's heart. The World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena had the greatest attendance of any event in the history of women's sport, officially tallying 90,185 spectators. Hamm and her teammates had won their way into the public consciousness and the result was both immediate and far reaching.

"It sounds cliché to say she was inspiring a generation, but when you see it first-hand you end up believing it," Bell says. "They would come out of the tunnel and you could hear the screaming of ‘Hamm, Hamm, Hamm.' It happened so often that you got used to hearing it. Still, it's hard in a team sport to single out one person and Hamm would be uncomfortable with that because she knows what a team sport it is."

It was during that time that Hamm began to parlay her on-the-field success into off-the-field opportunities both of a business and charitable nature. Her endorsement deal with Gatorade provided the platform for a reunion of two UNC icons. Set to the tune "Anything you can do I can do better," Hamm and Michael Jordan battled in an ever changing series of sports. "My memories of all the ads with MJ were all special," she says, "but one of my favorites was when the two of us played basketball. I wish I could tell you that I dunked on him or made the game winner but MJ pretty much smoked me. At least I can say that the best ever beat me."


"It sounds cliché to say she was inspiring a generation, but when you see it first-hand you end up believing it."

Years later, following Hamm's retirement, Jordan would appear in another Gatorade commercial. This time though it was his daughter, Jasmine, who took center stage. The ad was constructed as a montage of "thank you's" to Hamm. Standing next to her father on a dimly lit stage Jasmine said "thank you for being a role model for me… and my dad."

The groundswell of affection for the 1999 World Cup-winning U.S. National Team gave rise to a pioneering effort. The first ever women's professional soccer league was formed. Called the Women's United Soccer Association, the league first played in April of 2001 and lasted for just over three seasons. "She was the absolute star of that league," Bell, then a producer for WUSA, says. "She was the icon of that ‘golden generation' of players."

That her silhouette will be the logo for the new league called Women's Professional Soccer proves to be a fitting tribute to a league borne out of the passion and desire of a generation of girls who grew up dreaming of being the next Mia Hamm. She is now the Jerry West of her sport; recognizable by a mere shaded outline.

***

In 2001, in part because of her play in the WUSA, Hamm was named the first female FIFA World Player of the Year and then repeated the feat in 2002. Following the 2003 season that saw her Washington Freedom team win the final WUSA championship, Hamm began preparing for her last major international championship.

On March 4, 2004 Pele announced the top 125 living soccer players at the FIFA 100 ceremony in London. Hamm was one of only two Americans on the list, the other was another member of some of the USA's dominant squads of the 1990s, Michelle Akers.

Two months after Pele's announcement, Hamm had an announcement of her own. The 2004 Olympics would be her final international tournament. She was retiring from the game she helped make famous to start a family with her husband, baseball star Nomar Garciaparra.

Perhaps more reflective of her preference in that final competition, Hamm was not the leading scorer, but her team carried home the highest honor—the Gold Medal. In the closing ceremonies Hamm was selected to carry the American flag.

"Her only goal was to leave the sport of soccer in a better place than where she found it," says her agent, 1993 UNC graduate Dan Levy of the Wasserman Media Group. "She has a deep respect and love for the game and always viewed her individual and team's success as an opportunity to help grow the game in this country."

Her world these days is more consumed with her family and foundation, yet, somehow, her legend and legacy continues to grow.


That her silhouette will be the logo for the new league called Women's Professional Soccer proves to be a fitting tribute.

"I dream big. Thanks Hamm." It was a sign clutched tightly by a young girl watching Hamm play but it may as well have been a message from a generation of young girls inspired by the play and the demeanor of UNC's all-time leader in assists and goals. And her reach isn't limited to soccer or sports. "I didn't have fashion icons - I looked up to Mia Hamm," actress Jessica Biel once said reflecting on her own childhood.

***

She is retired now, the mother of twins and the wife of a ballplayer. "My life right now consists of raising our two daughters, Ava and Grace, and trying to keep up with my husband's baseball schedule," Hamm says. "I am really enjoying my life and raising our two daughters."

Though she is a full-time mother, Hamm does keep an eye on her old teammates and school. "I follow the current Carolina team via the web as well as keeping in touch with Anson and Coach Palladino," she explains. "Anson and Dino are some of my closest friends. I always love getting together with them as well as former Carolina stars Wendy Gebauer, Carla Overbeck and Cindy Parlow."

On several levels it's clear that Hamm maintains a close connection with Chapel Hill. "She calls it home all the time," Levy says of Hamm's old college hometown. In fact, the two-pronged charitable effort—The Mia Hamm Foundation—is based in Chapel Hill. The organization's mission is to both inspire young girls through sports and also to help in the research of bone marrow diseases. The bone marrow research thrust was borne out of the loss of a loved one. Hamm's adoptive brother, who she has often cited as an inspiration, lost a battle to a bone marrow disease in 1996.

The quest to find a cure is part of an overall mentality that can be traced back to Hamm's upbringing. "She learned the importance of giving back to others from her parents at a very young age," Levy explains, "and she followed their example throughout her career. Mia's success and subsequent celebrity was never something she sought out but realized quite early that it could be used to make a bigger difference in the lives of others."

The juggling act of being a full-time mother while married to a professional ballplayer and mixing in time to help organize a charity foundation leaves little time for personal pursuit, but occasionally Hamm has time to chat with her friends that remain on the National Team. "I do still follow the National team," Hamm confirms. "I still have some friends that play and I am also such a huge fan of the game and the team. We will all be watching and cheering them on in the Olympics."

She's also still a sounding board for the women who aim to defend the Olympic gold earned in Athens. "The National Team players," says Levy, "use her as a resource, not only technically, but emotionally."

With no plans to coach, "I enjoy coming in and doing training sessions" the shared soccer journey of Mia Hamm and Anson Dorrance formally concludes on August 3rd. Dorrance inducted Hamm into the National Soccer Hall of Fame one year prior and in Oneonta, N.Y. Hamm returns the favor. Two Tar Heels forever bound by one abiding objective—to be the best.


Beau Estes is a sports anchor and columnist living in Atlanta, Ga. His Tar Heel roots trace back to growing up in Matthews, N.C.


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