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WORLD BEATER MICHELLE AKERS, SOCCER'S TOP FEMALE, IS READY TO LEAD THE U.S. TO ANOTHER TITLE

June 05, 1995
June 05, 1995

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June 5, 1995

WORLD BEATER MICHELLE AKERS, SOCCER'S TOP FEMALE, IS READY TO LEAD THE U.S. TO ANOTHER TITLE

U.S. national team forward Michelle Akers has been called "the
Michael Jordan of women's soccer," but unless you happen to be a
rabid soccer fan, you probably haven't heard of her. The best
female player in the world was known as Michelle Akers-Stahl
when she was married. Does that name ring a bell? "Once a P.A.
announcer at a game introduced her as Michelle Aerosol," says
Julie Foudy, a midfielder on the U.S. team. "Another time I was
at a camp and someone said, 'Oh, you play with that girl ... um
... Michelle Anchor-Steam!' Yeah, right, Mich is a beer."

This is an article from the June 5, 1995 issue Original Layout

Maybe you would recognize the hair. With her unruly mane of
curls, Akers is the Alexi Lalas of women's soccer. And at 5'10"
she is several inches taller than most of her ponytailed
teammates.

When Akers flew back from the inaugural Women's World Cup, held
in China in 1991, a little old lady sitting next to her on the
plane asked where Akers had been. She explained that she had
just played in the world championship soccer tournament.

"How'd you do?" the woman asked.

"We won."

"That's nice," the woman said.

The win was more than just nice. The 2-1 victory over Norway in
the final gave U.S. soccer its first world championship since
1862, when the first team was organized in the U.S. Whereas the
U.S. men's team has struggled for the past century merely to be
competitive in most international games, the women's team became
a power soon after the women's game went worldwide in the
mid-1980s.

Akers laughs at the memory of the U.S. team's first overseas
trip, to a tournament in Italy in 1985. At the time she was a
sophomore at Central Florida. "We didn't look like a national
team," she says. "All we had were these lime-green and purple
uniforms. No one was fit. It just felt like we were off to Italy
on a vacation. We were just a bunch of kids, we didn't know what
we were getting into." That team lost three of its four games
and tied the other.

By the time of the first Women's World Cup six years later,
America's team had changed dramatically. Most of the players who
made up the 1991 side had taken up soccer when the game began
booming in the U.S., in the 1970s, which was just about the same
time European girls began playing their continent's favorite
sport. That team, drawn from the first generation of U.S. women
players, developed into an offensive powerhouse, led by Akers.

Now there are players on the national team who, as they were
growing up, dreamed of being like Mich. "In high school our
coach showed us tapes of the 1991 World Cup,'' says starting
U.S. midfielder Tiffany Roberts, who recently turned 18. "She
was the best player I had ever seen. I was in awe."

Since the World Cup, Akers's life has been turned upside down.
For the past four years she has battled chronic Epstein-Barr
virus, which causes incapacitating fatigue and a host of other
debilitating symptoms, and in January she was divorced from
former professional soccer player Roby Stahl. But amid such
traumatic events, one thing has remained constant: Akers's
status as the best woman player in the world. And though she has
performed sparingly--but still brilliantly--for the U.S. team the
past several years because of her illness, the 29-year-old Akers
seems ready to again go full bore, just in time for America's
defense of its title in the second World Cup tournament, which
begins on June 6 in Sweden.

"The way she has progressed, we're expecting her to peak in
Sweden," says U.S. coach Tony DiCicco, whose team is a strong
favorite to win. "If she peaks, we'll peak with her."

Akers is renowned for her Ruthian shots on goal. "They feel like
cannonballs when you catch them," says DiCicco, who was a
goalkeeper in the now defunct American Soccer League. According
to U.S. forward Mia Hamm, a typical Akers goal unfolds like
this: "Usually she draws a crowd of defenders around her, and
when she gets the ball, she turns and gets hit, then she turns
again and gets hit again, then she claws her way through the
pack, calms herself for the shot--she's so composed and focused
at a time of so much panic--and strikes the ball perfectly."

When a game is on the line, Akers has the poise of Joe Montana.
During the World Cup title game in 1991, with less than three
minutes to play, the score tied 1-1 and 65,000 fans screaming,
Akers pursued a long, high pass that landed on Norway's 18-yard
line. But a defender got to the ball first and passed it back
toward the Norwegian goalkeeper. Akers gave the defender a
shove, and the defender fell into a teammate, taking them both
out of the play. Akers intercepted the back pass, pushed the
ball to the left of the onrushing goalie and stroked home the
Cup-clinching score.

Akers has scored 82 goals in 87 international games, a ratio
believed to be un-matched in women's or men's competition. (By
comparison, the U.S. men's alltime leading scorer, Bruce Murray,
had 21 goals in 93 international appearances.) Given her limited
playing time in the 37 international matches she has
participated in since becoming ill, it's hard to believe she
averages nearly a goal a game. Imagine Michael Jordan leading
the NBA in scoring while playing only 24 minutes a game.

As soon as Akers started feeling the symptoms of the illness
upon her return from the last World Cup, her minutes on the
field had to be conserved like water during a drought. Before
each game she would bargain with DiCicco, hoping to increase the
number of minutes she would play before he took her out. A
typical pregame conversation went as follows:

Akers: "How many minutes will I play?"

DiCicco: "Forty-five."

"No, give me 90."

"O.K., 60 minutes."

"Seventy-five."

"Seventy."

Though her body told her she needed to slow down, Akers not only
pushed for more playing time but also continued her rigorous
training regimen. "Of all people to get this Epstein-Barr virus,
she's the worst," says Foudy. "She's a trainaholic."

Akers was stubborn enough to believe she could beat the
illness, beat it just as she might slip past two defenders who
stood in her path to the goal. She would give Epstein a shove,
Epstein would fall into Barr, taking them both out of the play.

Her most agonizing bout with the illness occurred over a
seven-month period last spring and summer. "Every day I felt as
if I had just flown to Europe, not gotten any sleep or anything
to eat, gotten right back on the plane, flown to the U.S. and
then trained," Akers says. "When it was bad, I couldn't sit up
in a chair. All I could do was lie in bed. At night I sweated so
much I went through two or three T-shirts. And the migraine
headaches pounded. Boom! Boom! Boom!" And those were just the
bad days. On a really bad day, an entire percussion section
played in her cranium.

Being on the road with the national team last summer became
increasingly difficult for Akers. After any short flight she
felt as if she had just circumnavigated the globe in a puddle
jumper. There was a vacant expression in her eyes during team
meetings. "I feel cloudy today," she would tell trainer Patty
Marchak on days she was unable to get out of bed for practice.
The postgame trip to the shower was a major expedition, brushing
her teeth required extra effort, finding the energy to eat with
the team was a struggle. "It was hard just to be friendly,"
Akers says. Certainly this wasn't the same good-natured soul her
teammates knew, the one who laughed long and loud, especially if
the joke was on her.

"But on the field she still was the same dominating player,"
says Foudy. "She just couldn't go 90 minutes. It was a factor of
time, how long she could play and not be wiped out for the next
game."

Akers usually went 20 to 40 minutes a game. She would pick her
moments to make runs and conserve her energy by hanging high on
the opposing team's sweeper instead of running back to help out
her teammates on defense. At times she thought about getting a
plane ticket and going home. "It was an awful feeling, knowing
before a game started that I'd be sick for the next two days,"
she says. But she stayed with the team because the CONCACAF
Qualifying Championship, the World Cup qualifying tournament for
teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean, was to
be held in Montreal in August. "My challenge was to help us win,
whether or not I was playing," Akers says. Somehow defying
logic, medicine and all odds, she scored six goals in four games
and was named MVP of the tournament, which the U.S. won.

At the end of the tournament she was a physical and emotional
wreck. That same week, she and her husband, who was with her in
Montreal, decided to get a divorce. Akers and Stahl met in 1989,
were engaged within six weeks and married in a year. That April,
following their honeymoon, she left their home in Florida to
play for her semipro club team, Tyreso, in Sweden. The World Cup
awaited the following year. "I fell into a fantasy world--a quick
engagement, a house, a wedding, a World Cup. It all happened too
fast," she says.

Of the failure of her marriage, she says, "I had been unhappy
for a while. I was so sick that I didn't have the energy to
waste on faking it anymore. That's one of the reasons why I made
the decision to divorce in August. It was the hardest decision
I've ever had to make in my life. Roby and I weren't good for
each other, but I tend to think I can get through anything.
Having my health compromised made me make choices. It took
Epstein-Barr to knock me on my ass and get me going in the right
direction again."

The divorce was the first step of Akers's comeback. Soccer had
consumed her life, and it had been the focal point of her
marriage. Everything else--her relationships with her family, her
friends and her religion--had been relegated to the sidelines.
Akers started to rebuild those relationships. Attending services
at a local church helped change her perspective. "I don't know
how to explain it without sounding syrupy," she says, "but
Christianity became my strength; it gave me peace of mind."

The second step involved Steve Slain, the U.S. team's massage
therapist and strength coach, who became Akers's personal
trainer/personal drill sergeant/personal watchdog last August.
Getting Akers to stop pushing herself was a Sisyphean task. When
Akers would overdo it, Slain would give her what she calls the
"you-stupid-jerk look." Once in a while Akers would sneak in
an extra training session, but Slain would always find out. Then
the stupid-jerk look would become a you-complete-idiot scowl.

Though Akers was feeling better, she doubted she would be able
to play in the World Cup. "The whole fall I thought, If I'm only
running for five minutes a day, there is no way I can play for
90 minutes in the most demanding tournament in soccer," she
says. "Now there are bad days instead of bad months." The best
player in the world will make it to her sport's Super Bowl.
There is optimism in her voice and a wide smile on her face; she
hasn't felt this good in a long time.

Before a recent Friday-night game against Canada at a Dallas
high school, there was no bargaining for minutes. Akers would
play 90 minutes if her body told her it was O.K. As it turned
out, she scored two goals in the first half, both on penalty
kicks, and didn't return to the lineup after intermission. "I
took myself out because I was feeling lethargic," she says. "Why
push it right before it really counts? See, I'm learning to
listen to my body."

Long after the end of the game, a 9-1 win for the U.S., there
were still a hundred or so fans behind a chain-link fence,
screaming for Akers. The Friday-night lights seemed to shine
only on her. She laughed and mugged for cameras and scribbled an
autograph that looked like a violent seismograph reading. She
was having fun again. Most of the fans were boys and girls, some
of whom no doubt dream of being the Michelle Akers of their
sport someday. She signed T-shirts, flags, posters, programs,
even a kid's forehead. It looked like she might stay out there
all night, autographing with moonbeams as her only light, but
soon a team manager interceded and told the crowd that their
idol had to go. "See you in Sweden," Akers said. And then she
waved goodbye.

COLOR PHOTO:BRAD MANGIN Despite a fatiguing illness that has beset her for four years, Akers has scored almost a goal per game for the national team. [Michelle Akers dribbling soccer ball]COLOR PHOTO:BILL FRAKES [see caption above--Michelle Akers sitting on ball holding her head in her hands]COLOR PHOTO:DUOMO At the first women's World Cup, in 1991, Akers was her hard-charging, healthy self, and the U.S. celebrated with the championship. [Michelle Akers playing against two defenders]COLOR PHOTO:DANIEL MOTZ/MOTZSPORTS [see caption above--Michelle Akers and the U.S. team with arms raised on thewinner's stand]COLOR PHOTO:JIM GUND Akers has trimmed her playing time but not her intensity, as Finland's Sari Seppanen (2) discovered. [Michelle Akers colliding with Sari Seppanen]