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Great Americans in Sports: Mia Hamm
Read by Eileen Stevens
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Mia Hamm’s speed, aggressive play, and ability to “read the field” helped her become the best women’s soccer player in the world. Her stellar performance as a college, World Cup, and Olympic champion made her a sports hero, and her story will inspire a new generation of young athletes. This comprehensive biography – with bonus photos and infographics – gives readers an up-close look at one of America’s greatest soccer stars.
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On the afternoon of August 1, 1996, more than seventy-six thousand spectators poured into Sanford Stadium on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. There was nothing unusual about that. The university's football team, the Bulldogs, regularly packed the stadium with at least that many fans when they played their home games during football season.
The stadium wasn't packed with fans for a Georgia Bulldogs game or for any American football game, though. People from all over the world had come to Athens to watch a game of soccer. To be more specific, they had all come to see who would win the first gold-medal game in women's Olympic soccer, the United States or the People's Republic of China. Millions more across the world were watching on television as the superstar of women's soccer, Mia Hamm, led the United States against China's team. Never before had so many people gathered to watch a women's sporting event.
Only a few decades earlier, the idea that so many people would watch a soccer game played by women would have been hard to believe. For most of the twentieth century, women were taken seriously in only a handful of sports. Track and field, golf, tennis, gymnastics, basketball, and figure skating were considered sports women could play without needing to be too physical. Many people thought sports like soccer were simply too rough for women to play. During those years, young women were constantly reminded of the notion that sports were for boys. Girls, on the other hand, were expected to engage in other activities—like homemaking, or standing on the sidelines and cheering on the boys. It wasn't until the introduction of Title IX, an amendment that outlawed gender discrimination at schools and colleges receiving money from the government, that women's athletics was finally given even a small portion of the attention it deserved.
Soccer, or what the rest of the world calls football, was the most popular sport in the world and started to become more popular in the United States as boys' and girls' youth leagues sprang up across the country during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But only a few women in the entire world played competitive professional-level soccer. Not many people even knew that women played soccer. In the United States, only a few high schools had a women's soccer team. It wasn't until 1978 that a college or university would field a varsity women's soccer program! There was no such thing as a national team or women's World Cup competition. No one thought that women would someday play soccer in the Olympics, let alone have their own professional leagues all over the world.
It was strong and talented women like Mia Hamm who changed all of that. Mia Hamm is without a doubt one of the greatest athletes of this century. Her playing and drive helped make the US women's national team one of the greatest in sports history. Mia caught the attention of the world with her play and became an ambassador for the sport. Her success has been hard-earned, and it all started when a toddler fell in love with soccer.
CHASING THE BALL
As the story goes, it was a warm day in 1973 when the toddler of the young Hamm family saw a boy and his father kicking a ball back and forth. No one in the family understood the game very well, but little Mia, the fourth of six Hamm children, loved what she saw. As she stood close to her parents, she never took her eyes off the black-and-white soccer ball. After a missed pass, she sprang after the ball and gave it one big whack. She had been born with a clubfoot, which required a corrective boot, and she was still learning to run and walk, but she managed to keep the ball from an older boy before giving the ball another mighty kick.
From that day forward, Mia dreamed of playing "the beautiful game," as soccer is often called. She didn't know that girls weren't "supposed to" play sports. For her, it was fun to chase after the ball and kick it, to run around with other children, then sit and play in the grass together, making friends.
That's how Mia Hamm's soccer career began. Years later, her love of the sport and the friendships she made on the field would take her all over the world and make her the most well-known female athlete of all time. But that was still a long ways off.
Mariel Margaret Hamm was born on March 17, 1972, in Selma, Alabama. Her father, William, was a pilot in the United States Air Force, and the family moved around a lot. Her mother, Stephanie, was a ballerina. Soon after she was born, her mother started calling her Mia because her daughter reminded her of one of her former ballet teachers, the world-famous ballerina Mia Slavenska.
As a member of the air force, Bill Hamm was never stationed in one place for very long. In 1973, he was transferred to Italy. The entire family, which then included Mia's older brother and two older sisters, moved to Florence, Italy.
When he wasn't flying airplanes, Bill Hamm loved to watch sports. But in Italy, hardly anyone played the sports Bill was used to watching in the United States. Bill liked baseball, football, and basketball. In Italy, the most popular sport was soccer, which was a huge part of the culture there. Men, women, and children all loved the sport. The stadiums on match days were always packed. The country would practically shut down when the national team played since everyone was focused on the game.
Wherever the family went, it seemed as if someone was playing soccer. In almost every open field or empty street, clusters of young boys raced after a soccer ball. Virtually every town had a men's team, and larger cities often supported several soccer clubs. Most teams were amateur, but the Italians also sponsored several thriving professional leagues. Thousands of fans turned out to support their favorite team, chanting and singing in unison in the stands while waving huge flags and banners. Televised soccer games were the most popular programs in the country.
When Bill started watching soccer, he didn't understand the game that well. Soccer wasn't very popular in the United States. Only a few public schools and colleges had soccer teams. The North American Soccer League was the professional league in America, but few people went to the games and they were rarely televised. Only a handful of the players were from the United States. Most were from Europe and South America. In the United States, Bill hadn't paid much attention to the game.
But in Italy, he had little choice. If he wanted to watch sports, he had to watch soccer. Luckily, soccer was everywhere. The more he watched, the more he began to appreciate the sport. He realized that what had first looked to him like a bunch of players randomly running after a ball was actually a sport that demanded great athletic skill and strategy. He learned that every player on the team played a specific position, just like in basketball or hockey, and each position had different responsibilities. The more Bill learned about the game, the more he grew to love it. It didn't take long for Italy to convert Bill into a rabid soccer supporter.
The family loved to do everything together, and Bill started taking his family to soccer games. The children, particularly Mia, took to the game immediately. She was small for her age and usually quite shy, but when she saw a soccer ball her eyes would light up. On the air force base, she often joined other children for pickup games of soccer.
When Bill was transferred to the United States a few years later, he and the Hamms brought soccer back with them. It had gotten under their skin. The only problem was that Bill and Stephanie would have to find soccer for their kids. Little League Baseball and other youth sports programs like Pop Warner football were commonplace in the United States, but youth soccer programs were still hard to find. When the Hamms finally landed in Wichita Falls, Texas, Stephanie and Bill were excited to find that youth soccer in Texas was as popular as football or baseball—or at least it was close.
Slowly but surely, soccer's popularity had risen in the States since the Hamms had moved to Italy. Brazilian soccer star Pelé, the best player to ever play the game, had signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975 and ignited an excitement for the sport in every major American city. The North American Soccer League (NASL) had gone from an afterthought to a real and viable league the moment Pelé signed with the Cosmos. His popularity and his play had started a soccer revolution in the United States. Teams had sprouted in Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Portland, and even as far north as Vancouver, Canada. The NASL was growing at a phenomenal rate, and so was the popularity of the sport. Pelé's signing had opened the floodgates for soccer in America. Some of the best players from Europe began to pour into the US soccer market. European Footballer of the Year George Best; German World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer; Bobby Moore, who captained England to the 1966 World Cup; three-time European Footballer of the Year Johan Cruyff; and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia all took a chance on the NASL in America. With the influx of talent, the games got more technical and more strategic, and the quality of the games improved dramatically. Americans were exposed to a level of soccer that had previously been seen only in Europe and South America—and they loved it.
The excitement of watching Pelé and the other great footballers of that era play the game as it was meant to be played had infected the country. Wanting to be just like their heroes, thousands of kids started joining youth leagues, and new leagues popped up in cities from coast to coast. Even after Pelé left the Cosmos and soccer's popularity dipped again in the United States, kids still had fun playing soccer, and adults were happy to organize teams and leagues. The game was so simple, and the fact that it didn't require a lot of equipment made it easy to start a new league in any state, and in most seasons. All it took was a grassy field and a ball, and players could learn the game. And anyone who could kick a ball or defend a goal could play. For parents, one of the best things about soccer was that every player got to touch the ball. Everyone was included.
Because soccer is a sport that relies more on speed and agility than strength and size, it is one of the few sports boys and girls can play together. Kids of similar ages, both male and female, are able to compete equally.
When Mia's older sisters and brother found out there was a league in town, they wanted to play. Bill was delighted and did his best to support his children. He was still learning the finer points of the game, so he started studying the rules and fundamentals of youth soccer. He became a coach and referee so that he could learn even more and make sure his children learned how to play correctly. He studied every book about soccer he could find.
At first, Mia wasn't allowed to play on a team. She was just too young. Yet the family spent most of every Saturday at the soccer field. Mia loved watching her siblings and the other kids play. Every time an errant kick came her way, she was off and running after it. Her mother often spent her Saturdays chasing after Mia!
Mia's mother recognized that her daughter was full of energy, and thought she might enjoy taking ballet lessons. Stephanie had loved ballet as a girl, so maybe Mia would, too. Mia's mother enrolled her in a dancing class.
"She was so petite, I thought she'd be ideal," Stephanie later said.
That's not quite the way it turned out. As far as Mia was concerned, dance class was too slow. It seemed that as soon as everyone in class started moving, the teacher would stop the dancing so that they could learn some other step. Besides, Mia didn't like wearing ballet slippers.
As she told a reporter years later, "I hated it. I lasted only one class."
Mia wanted to play soccer, just like the older Hamm kids. Her mother understood. She remembered that when she was growing up, there weren't many opportunities for girls to play sports. As she later recalled, "Those of us who wanted to be active found the joy in using our body in something like dance. Now they have this other option and it's beautiful." She put Mia's ballet shoes in a closet and bought her a tiny pair of soccer cleats and a pair of shin guards.
Mia waited and waited and waited until she turned five, when she could join a team of her own. Finally, Mia would get her chance to show what she could do on the field. She was one of the smallest and youngest players on the team, but that didn't matter. Nothing could stop Mia once she started. She had grown up with the game, and playing all those years against her bigger, older siblings had made her tougher and stronger than the rest of the kids. She understood how the game was supposed to be played. She could see the game develop better than most and although she was timid at first, she quickly discovered that once she started scoring goals, she didn't feel so shy anymore.
As she remembered later, "Soccer was a way to hang out and make friends."
In time, it would become much more than that.
The opportunity to play organized soccer wasn't the only event of 1977 that had a big impact on Mia's life: Bill and Stephanie decided to add a new member to the family. Mia's parents adopted an eight-year-old Asian American boy named Garrett. Garrett was an orphan and the Hamms had love to spare. It was a perfect match.
Soon, Mia and Garrett were nearly inseparable. He, too, loved to play soccer and other sports.
"He was an instant playmate for me," Mia said.
As Mia grew up, she tried to do everything Garrett did. "He let me hang out with him and his friends and play football, soccer, and basketball with them," she said.
Despite her small size, Mia was a good athlete. Garrett knew this, and called his little sister his "secret weapon" when the two would join his friends in the park for pickup games of baseball, football, basketball, and soccer.
"No one would want to pick me for their team," recalled Mia, "but Garrett would always pick me. We would downplay the fact that I was fast and could catch."
In the middle of the games, Garrett would give his secret weapon a look and Mia would start playing as hard as she could. One minute she was hanging back and the next she was running circles around the other children. She would get in behind the last defender to score the winning goal in soccer or catch the Hail Mary touchdown pass in football.
Playing against the older kids helped Mia improve her skills faster than other children her age. Soon she wasn't a secret weapon anymore. It didn't take long for everyone to figure out exactly how talented she was and learn to watch out for her.
In 1982, the World Cup was played. Mia was ten years old. The World Cup is the most important soccer competition in the world. It is played only every four years, and nearly every country wants its national team to qualify for the biggest soccer tournament on the planet. Qualification for each World Cup is a four-year process of local, regional, and continental tournaments. Every country's national teams play most of their qualifying games during the summer, when professional leagues such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga don't play games. They also play a few games during the fall, winter, and spring when all the professional leagues take short breaks called international breaks. The 1982 World Cup expanded the total number of teams involved from sixteen to twenty-four. The goal was to include more teams from across the globe not only to promote the game, but also to increase the level of play in the smaller, poorer countries.
The hope was that in the long run, this would make for better World Cup tournaments, but it also meant that the 1982 tournament would pair some World Cup powerhouse teams with some relative newcomers to international play. There were some blowouts during that tournament.
Although more and more children were playing soccer, very few Americans paid much attention to the 1982 World Cup. Except for a brief period in the mid-1970s when Pelé played in the North American Soccer League, soccer had never been a popular spectator sport in America.
Part of the problem was that the American national team hadn't qualified for the World Cup since 1950. Most Americans didn't know the United States even had a national team, much less what the World Cup was. The United States was about the only country in the world that didn't televise the event. Everywhere else, the World Cup was like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, and the Stanley Cup all wrapped up in one event. Billions of people worldwide stayed up late or woke up early to watch the World Cup matches on television, broadcasting live from the host country.
Mia was lucky, though. She lived in Wichita Falls, near the US-Mexico border, and they could pick up Mexican television broadcasts. In Mexico, soccer was extremely popular. The World Cup was huge. Television stations broadcast almost every game of the final rounds of the tournament, even when they took place on the other side of the world in the middle of the night.
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2015
- Hachette Audio