Wednesday August 11th, 2010

A recent Harris poll had some revealing results. In a nationwide survey asking Americans to name their favorite female athlete, Mia Hamm rose from No. 5 to No. 4, behind only the tennis-playing Williams sisters and race car driver Danica Patrick. Considering those three athletes are still competing and that Hamm has been retired for almost six years, the poll raised a few eyebrows (including mine).

Hamm, for her part, can only laugh. "It's definitely surprising," she said. "And it's flattering. I promise I don't vote in those polls, but it's nice to get the acknowledgement."

Women's soccer's all-time leading scorer went out on top with a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, and while Hamm has spent the past six years focusing on raising a family with her husband, Nomar Garciaparra -- their twin daughters, Grace and Ava, are now 3 years old -- Hamm has increased her presence in the public spotlight of late. It's an intriguing list of projects that we talked about recently:

• The U.S. World Cup Bid Committee. Hamm is part of an eclectic group that's trying to land the 2018 or '22 World Cup for the U.S., a board that includes former President Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt, Henry Kissinger, Spike Lee, Bob Kraft and Landon Donovan. "For this thing to be successful you need all these minds," she said. "I was thrilled they asked me. Having a female soccer player is important so that we're not separating men's and women's soccer. We're trying to grow this sport on both sides." Hamm says she feels "really good" about the U.S.' chances of landing the tournament when the decision comes down on Dec. 2.

• A global ambassador for FC Barcelona. Last November Hamm joined forces with the famed Catalan club, and she recently appeared at a Barça skills camp in suburban Los Angeles. It might have been new to see Hamm in Barcelona's blue and red uniform, but she says it's a good fit between her and the club. "Their whole motto is 'More than a club,' " she said. "It's about spreading the love of the game, working on your skills and being extremely creative. It was fun for me to get out there, to share and to learn from the coaches how Barcelona teaches players about the game."

• Non-profit work in South Africa. Hamm attended the recent World Cup in South Africa, where she partnered up with actors Charlize Theron (a native South African) and Matt Damon to start a program called Home-Field Advantage. Hamm joined Theron and former U.S. teammate Lorrie Fair in a visit to a clinic in an impoverished part of South Africa near the Mozambique border. "Charlize is working with a doctor to reduce the numbers of HIV infections and educate young kids about respecting each other," Hamm said. "A mobile health clinic travels to schools, and my involvement was through soccer, using that as a tool to help these kids. To get boys and girls, especially young girls, out there and find some comfort and happiness just playing and being kids was great."

• Her foundation. For the past three years Hamm and Garciaparra have hosted a celebrity soccer game in the L.A. area for the Mia Hamm Foundation. "He always reminds me that his team has won more than mine has," she joked.

Hamm doesn't have any plans right now to coach full time, but she does some part-time coaching on a Southern California youth team that has ties to two of Garciaparra's sisters. She marvels at her close friend Kristine Lilly, who's in the running to make her sixth World Cup team when the tournament is played in Germany next year. ("She doesn't take any opportunity for granted, and that's why she's endured the longest out of all of us.") And she keeps tabs on what's going on in the U.S. women's league, WPS.

"I think the level of play in the games I've seen in person and on TV has been tremendous," Hamm said. "There's dynamic play, and you see the diversity that comes from the different coaching styles. I was at a Washington Freedom-FC Gold Pride game recently, and it was an exciting game. You were seeing Abby Wambach and Marta battle for balls, and then you were seeing defenses stretch a little bit but then make good adjustments. It was also great to see Tiffeny Milbrett out there. She scored a great goal."

But for the most part Hamm is still geared toward her family, one that has some of the best sporting bloodlines you'll ever come across. And while she and Garciaparra don't have their daughters participating in scheduled training sessions -- they are only 3, after all -- they already like spending time with the ball.

"We had a reunion with former Freedom players, and they wanted to chase the ball around," Hamm said. "It made me feel good. I would love for them to play. They don't have to play at the highest level. I just want them to try it, because I think it's such a great game, not just for what it can add to your life physically but emotionally too. For me, it was just a great way to get out and express myself, and whatever happened at home or with my friends, if I had a bad day I could just get it all out on the field."

Now 38, though, Hamm doesn't have any desire to make a serious comeback. Not long ago she played in a game with some friends and understood why. "I took my first shot and got a cramp," she said. "Then watching the WPS game the next day I was like, 'Oh, that's the speed you're supposed to compete at.' We'd been at half-speed the day before.

"I'm on the right side of the chalk."

There was a cool scene in a parking lot outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., last Saturday night. A 100 friends and family members of Clint Mathis gathered around a friend's motor home to commemorate the career of Mathis, who retired at 33 after playing in the Los Angeles Galaxy's 3-2 friendly loss to Real Madrid. Surrounded by thousands of tailgating fans, the party was a fitting way to mark the career of a player who was a man of the people.

"I'll always remember this," said Mathis, who was joined by his wife, Tracey, their two children, Maximus and Capryce, and his mother, Pat, among a horde of well-wishers. "To come back to the Rose Bowl where my career started was great."

In the end, Mathis's bum knees just couldn't hold up to play anymore. "I could train, but I couldn't walk up the stairs normally, couldn't play with my kids," he said. "I decided I've had a good career, and after 13 years it's OK to say family is more important now."

One of the most talented players in the history of U.S. Soccer, Mathis didn't fulfill his vast potential, but he certainly had his share of glorious moments, especially when he was at the height of his powers from 2000 to '02. With plenty of good food and drink to go around at the party on Saturday, the memories and the stories flowed freely.

There were recollections of Mathis's signature moments on the field: his 60-yard slalom run to score for the MetroStars against Dallas; his MLS-record five goals in a game at the Cotton Bowl; his game-winning free kick for the U.S. at Honduras in a World Cup qualifier; and, not least, his technically flawless strike in the 2002 World Cup to silence a stadium full of South Korean fans in Daegu.

"That World Cup goal is something I'll never forget, no matter how old I get, even if I get Alzheimer's or something," Mathis said, raising a glass. Then Mathis' youth club coach, Phil Neddo, told a great story about the hardball tactics MLS tried to use when Mathis was negotiating his first contract. "There are a 100 Clint Mathises out there," one MLS executive said.

He was wrong, of course. As we know now, he's one of a kind.

***

(My apologies for no commentary on Tuesday's U.S.-Brazil game. I'm on my post-World Cup vacation this week, and by the time you read this I'll be on a boat off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Planet Fútbol column will resume in two weeks.)

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