One last thrill

By Mike Szwaja

Someday, somewhere, a little girl will lace up her first pair of soccer shoes, put on her first pair of shin guards, pull her first uniform over her head, and then score her first goal in her first real soccer game. After the game, she’ll run up to her parents and say, with a hint of excitement in her voice, “Did you see that? I scored, Daddy! Aren’t you proud of me, Mom?”

To which one of her parents will respond, “Yes, honey, you looked just like Mia Hamm out there.”

The excitement in her voice will quickly turn into confusion.

“Who is Mia Hamm, Mommy?”

“Mia Hamm was the best soccer player there ever was, honey. She was my idol. She was the reason I played soccer and the reason so many little girls just like you play today.”

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During the car ride home, the parents will tell their new little soccer star all about Hamm. They’ll tell her stories about the magical 1999 Women’s World Cup, during which Hamm and her teammates filled our football stadiums on their way to the championship match where they slipped past China to win it all.

“Wow, I wish I could have seen Mia play,” is how the girl will reply shortly after story time ends.

We’re the lucky ones. Most of us have been here to witness at least some of Hamm’s 153-and-counting goals, but time is running thin. Hamm is currently leading Team USA towards another shot at a gold medal in Athens, but after the Olympics – gold medal or not – Hamm will never play another competitive match for the stars and stripes.

She made the announcement shortly before the Olympics began and hearing the news was like hearing your dog died; deep down you knew the day would come, but it was never something you wanted to hear.

Watching Hamm never gets old because you never quite know what to expect. In Team USA’s first match against Greece, Hamm pulled off the kind of ankle-breaking move you wouldn’t expect from someone who’s playing her final few games. After leaving her Grecian opponent behind, Hamm netted her first goal in Athens and the 152nd of her career. She added a perfect penalty kick against Brazil.

Team USA easily qualified for the medal round, beating Greece and Brazil and tying with Australia. Then they slipped past Japan. Next were the defending World Cup champions from Germany in a game where the Americans were underdogs. After Germany tied the match in the 93rd minute to send the game into overtime, Hamm, who was having a quiet game, got that look in her eye – the kind of look we’ve seen in the past from the select few: Ali, Jordan, Montana, etc.

After beating a winded Germany defender, Hamm sent a perfect ball to the young and talented Heather O’Reilly, who scored to seal a trip to the gold medal match on Thursday.

While it’s easy to name Hamm in the same breath as the aforementioned dominating athletes, it’s just as easy to say she’s in a class of her own because she’s arguably the most influential athlete of our generation.

Before Hamm came along, women didn’t play soccer professionally. Now there are female leagues in Europe and a semi-pro American league. She also made soccer the sport of choice among young American girls.

Hamm is the reason you see women’s soccer spikes in your Eastbay. The biggest building on the Nike world headquarters campus in Beaverton, Ore. is named after her. She was so good and so recognizable that she appeared in commercials with Michael Jordan – unthinkable for an American soccer player.

It’s fitting that Hamm’s swan song will come in the Athens Olympics, minutes from Olympia, Greece, where Olympic competition began almost 2,800 years ago. Back then, not only were women not allowed to compete, they couldn’t even be spectators.

Now, the most influential Olympian in Athens is a woman. Who knows what the future holds for women’s athletics?

So, move over Michael Phelps. Amanda Beard, we enjoyed it while it lasted. Carly Patterson and Paul Hamm, nice stories, but sorry. You’re all looking up at Mia. No Olympian has done more for his or her sport than Mia Hamm.

Those of you who have never seen her grace a soccer pitch still have one last chance Thursday in the gold medal match. Don’t miss it, because it’s as good as advertised. Just remember, we’re the lucky ones. Years from now, they’ll all wish they could have been there to see Mia.