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16 Mia Hamm

PALE AS a ghost. That's how her University of North Carolina
teammates remember Mia Hamm's face before she took the field for her
fourth and last NCAA soccer championship game in November 1993.
Never mind that she had already established herself as one of the
best female soccer players in the world, that she had led the Tar
Heels to three previous national titles, that the NCAA records she
had set were, as her coach Anson Dorrance says, ''secure until the
end of recorded time.'' Forget that she had been playing world-class
soccer since she was 15, that the respect of her opponents, teammates
and fans was etched in stone. Forget all that. This game was -- as
every game and scrimmage is to her -- the biggest match ever. And
Hamm felt as serene as a 10-year-old about to perform Fur Elise on a
piano at Carnegie Hall.
''There she was, the greatest woman collegiate soccer player ever,
and she was more nervous than anybody,'' recalls teammate Roz
Santana. ''But that's the way Mia is. She puts so much pressure on
herself. Even in practice, she is always out of breath, killing
herself. She never, ever plays at a comfortable level.''
Consider what the 23-year-old Hamm has achieved in the discomfort
zone: She had a goal and two assists in North Carolina's 6-0 victory
over George Mason in that 1993 championship game -- a win that was
part of a 61-game unbeaten streak for the Tar Heels between 1990 and
'94 (with Hamm as its star and leader, the team lost just one game).
On the way to becoming the first soccer player ever named as the best
female college athlete in the country, and twice being selected as
collegiate soccer player of the year, she set NCAA career marks with
103 goals and 72 assists.
''The record is not very important,'' says Hamm. ''What it shows
is the strength of the program. It's reflective of the people I'm
surrounded with.''
Self-glorification is way outside Hamm's comfort zone. Quiet,
reserved and exceedingly humble, she shies away from the spotlight of
fame, and she has greeted advertisers' efforts to market her image
with reluctance. Still, Hamm remains soccer's greatest proselytizer
through her dazzling example on the field.
''Mia does the hardest thing there is to do in soccer, which is to
score goals,'' says Dorrance. But Hamm has also developed into a
playmaker -- in her junior year, she had 32 goals and an NCAA-record
33 assists -- and her defense is so good that the U.S. national team
considered moving her to marking back.
''I've always wanted to be a more complete player,'' says Hamm.
''Being thought of as a scorer sounds so one-dimensional.''
The daughter of a former ballerina and a former fighter pilot, the
5 ft. 5 in., 125-pound Hamm is petite and graceful enough to be the
dancer her mother thought she might become. But the physical gifts
that really set Hamm apart on the soccer field are what Dorrance
calls ''an uncanny ability to go through defenders, as if by
molecular displacement,'' and an afterburner speed that Dorrance
first glimpsed when the 14-year-old Hamm, a native of Burke, Va., was
playing in a tournament in Texas. ''She had the best acceleration of
any soccer player I had ever seen,'' he says. ''And she had skill and
composure. I knew she'd be on the national team. It was just a matter
of when.''
One year later, Hamm became the youngest member in the history of
the national team. In 1991, when the U.S. won the first FIFA Women's
World Championship, in China, she was still the youngest player on
the team. Now, newly married and holding a degree in political
science, she is back on the national team, preparing to help the U.S.
defend its title in Sweden in June. And she will take the world stage
in the summer of '96, when the U.S. team will be among the favorites
for a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Just don't expect her to
get too comfortable in the meantime.