July 03, 2011

One of the greatest women's soccer players of all time almost never touches a soccer ball anymore. "I think there's a flat one down in the bushes," Michelle Akers says with a laugh, taking a break from the daily chores on her eight-acre horse farm in Powder Springs, Ga., outside Atlanta. Who has time for soccer when you're up at five every morning, sending your son off to school at seven and spending the rest of the day feeding a menagerie that includes five horses, four goats, three chickens, three dogs and a cat, mucking out the barn and plowing through an unending list of farm projects?

"This week I've been digging postholes and putting up some fence," says Akers, who's dressed in a plain gray T-shirt, blue jeans and rugged work boots streaked with white roof sealer. "I painted the entire barn. I went to a field and [with the help of a worker] loaded a hundred bales of hay in my trailer, and then I came home and unloaded it all by myself."

Twelve years after helping lead the U.S. to the Women's World Cup title before more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl and a TV audience estimated at 40 million, Akers, 45, spends her days rescuing abused horses, raising her six-year-old son, Cody, and rebuilding her farm after a devastating flood in 2009. It's a universe removed from a 15-year playing career during which Akers scored 105 goals and won two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. While Brazil's Marta may have taken women's soccer to new levels of creativity in recent years, Akers was the sport's first superstar, a player who dominated initially as a goal-scoring forward and later as a stay-at-home central midfielder. What's more, Akers accomplished those feats while enduring a host of injuries throughout her career and suffering for years from chronic fatigue syndrome.

"I still think she's the best player who ever played," says Tony DiCicco, the '99 U.S. coach, who these days manages the Boston Breakers of Women's Professional Soccer. "Players like Marta will challenge that, but from a physical standpoint, with her technical ability and her mentality, from every aspect of the game, Michelle was at the top. That's why I think she was able to play so long even with her physical challenges. Finishing, heading, dribbling—Michelle was the model."

With each year that passes, the cultural breakthrough of the '99 U.S. Women's World Cup team appears more like a transcendent achievement in the women's movement, not just in sports. Akers was the trusted old hand on a team that had pioneers at nearly every position, including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Briana Scurry and Kristine Lilly. After toiling for years in anonymity, the U.S. women rode a wave of mainstream support to the final against China, which culminated in a penalty-kick shootout with Chastain's winning strike and iconic jersey-waving celebration.

"It was like all the stars configured perfectly, and we won in such a dramatic way," says Akers. "I still don't understand why that captured so many people's imaginations, but something about it was very special. It changed people inside. I still don't know why, so I ask people: Why? When I think about it, my son plays baseball, and they won their Little League championship a couple weeks ago. It was so cool, because they were just these little boys playing and they were so innocent. It was just pure. And I think that's what it was about us, that team and that time. It was just pure. That resonated with people, that purity of competing."

Akers retired the following year, married Steve Eichenblatt, a lawyer, and in 2005 gave birth to Cody. Along the way horses became a part of her daily life. She read the book The Black Stallion as a child growing up near Seattle and had always dreamed of "riding across the wilderness with a horse." She bought her first one in 1996, added a couple more over the years and in 2008 got involved in rescues for the first time. On bike rides through her neighborhood outside Orlando, Akers noticed a dangerously thin horse and made several calls to animal control, which eventually picked up the horse. Because of her interest, Akers was asked if she would serve as a foster caregiver for horses in need on her five-acre Florida spread.

Though she had no experience working with sick horses, Akers agreed, and soon after, she took on an emaciated mare who'd been abandoned along with several other animals. "She was totally shut down, thin, just bones," says Akers, who dived into research on caring for rescue horses. "She had cuts on her legs, a respiratory infection, diarrhea. It was horrible. She was just vacant-looking. But after three or four months she started looking more relaxed." As time went on, the horse Akers named Zoe started gazing at her when she'd care for her in the barn. "Then I realized this is awesome, taking an animal that's had the worst of the worst and being able to do something about it. I decided I was going to try and help" one horse at a time."

One of Akers's next rescues was Ruby, a palomino who'd been left in an abandoned stable. After nursing Ruby back to health, Akers persuaded her neighbors Tom and Lisa Tyrrell to adopt the horse. "We became horse people," says Tom, a construction manager in Chuluota, Fla. "Michelle has a natural connection with animals, and she got some of the young people in the area involved, girls and boys. It was great for their work ethic at that age."

Akers and her son moved north to Georgia in '09—her husband divides his time between Orlando and the farm—and Zoe came with them. Watching Akers interact with the rehabilitated old mare, now 30, cradling her head and murmuring softly, is like seeing a horse whisperer at work. Still, it took time for Akers to learn how to build a relationship with the animals. "I used to just jump on and cross a stream and kick 'em: Let's go! Let's go!" says Akers. "But horses are deep. If you force them to do something, you lose the bond, that trust. They're like little kids. You have to find a way to get them to connect with you and keep it fun. I have to learn how to think like a horse to be good with them and get them to want to be with me. If you can do that, they'll trust you to walk through floodwater with you."

Akers has the experience to know. In September 2009, not long after she moved to Georgia, torrential rains—including 18 inches during one 24-hour period—caused severe flooding on her farm. Akers rushed her horses from the pasture to the barn, but by the next morning they were belly-deep in water there too. She ended up moving them to a boarding facility for two months while attempting to control the massive flood damage. "The soil was saturated, so every time it rained more than two inches, it would flood," she says. "All hell broke loose, and suddenly I was the one who needed rescuing."

Akers estimates she has spent $60,000 on farm improvements, from grading the pastures to building a retaining wall to filling in the ditches that facilitated the flooding. When word got out that she was planning to sell memorabilia from her soccer career to help cover the costs, DiCicco stepped in and helped organize fund-raising efforts for Akers and sent a friend who did repair work on the farm. That helped in a big way, Akers says, but she's still planning to auction her memorabilia at some point during this year's Women's World Cup to help cover the remaining $20,000 to $30,000 she needs for projects, including building a small arena on the property that the community can use for horse-assisted therapy.

Akers still has two rescue horses on the farm in addition to the three she owns, but her flooding ordeal has caused her to modify her goals. "When I have room for a horse that needs some help, I want to be able to take it," she says, "but I also want to help a family put together their farm again when something happens, like these tornadoes that came through Alabama."

It's nearing midday on the farm. The sun is out, the animals are making noises and the staff of one—that's Akers—heads down the driveway past the old John Deere tractor to the barn. This is her playing field now, and on this day, as on every other, there's work to do.


PHOTOPhotograph by ERICA LANSNERHORSE SENSE Akers moved from Florida in 2009 to have more space for her charges, like this rescued miniature named Candy Cane. PHOTOJOHN T. GREILICK/AP (ACTION)[See caption above] PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN (AKERS)HEAD FOR THE GAME Once a forward, Akers moved to central midfield by '99 and provided veteran backbone on the World Cup team. PHOTOU.S. SOCCER/AP (HAMM)Mia Hamm PHOTOU.S. SOCCER/AP (LILLY)Kristine Lilly PHOTOU.S. SOCCER/AP (FAIR)Lorrie Fair

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