Should historians wish to crystallize the impact of Mia Hamm, who retired last week after a remarkable 18-year career, they could do so in any number of ways: through highlights of her 158 international goals, a record that may never be touched; through aerial shots of the sold-out Rose Bowl at the 1999 World Cup final; or perhaps through a list of the Division I colleges that now have women's soccer programs. As for me, I'll simply close my eyes and imagine that roar, the feral screams of all those pigtailed hooligans (MIIIIII-aaaaa!!!) who swarmed around Hamm after every game. For Hamm wasn't just the face of a sport--of a movement, really--but the sound of it as well.
The 32-year-old Hamm won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals, yet her legacy resides in the 5.5 million girls under 18 who play soccer today in America, to say nothing of her sport's rise in the once male-dominated futebol strongholds of Brazil and Germany. As the first female team-sport superstar, Hamm was fascinating in her complexity. Though she excelled at scoring goals, Hamm often had to overcome paralyzing self-doubt, never more so than when she tried to avoid taking a penalty in the '99 World Cup final shootout--only to bury her spot-kick when it mattered most.
In the final days before her retirement, Hamm thought constantly of how her teammates had always responded to her teenager's fear of being singled out, how they ignored the attention lavished on her by fans and the media and included her in their bonding activities as though she were no different, just another player. "That's what mattered to me," Hamm says. "I didn't want that separation to be there." It never was, thanks to Hamm's disdain for self-promotion. "Mia has represented us in a way that is so classy. It's always team-first," says U.S. captain Julie Foudy, who along with defender Joy Fawcett also retired last week. "That's what the fans see, what they identify with, because she set that standard."
Now Hamm can start the family she has always wanted, with her husband, Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. When she donned a jersey with GARCIAPARRA on the back during the second half of her farewell game, a 5--0 win against Mexico, Hamm achieved one last astonishing feat: adopting one of the most famous surnames in sports, yet somehow managing to recede from her singularity; she's just part of a new "team." Soon, perhaps, she'll be just another soccer mom. Which is exactly how she wants it.