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The shooter's heart froze. She'd been right in front of his camera when he'd started gunning the motor drive. Dammit, he was sure of it.

See, there she was in the first few frames, but they weren't photos worthy of the front page of USA Today and the living hell Robert Hanashiro had gone through to arrange this high-spirited team picture. For weeks this story had ripened, and now—48 hours before 90,000 people would jam the Rose Bowl to watch women play soccer, for crying out loud—every media crew in the country was chewing on it, and he'd had to beg the U.S. women's soccer team to pose on his duct-tape markers as he clicked from atop a ladder and the TV jackals jostled him from below.

He blinked at the images on his laptop. How was it possible, firing 3 1/2 frames every second? Somehow, on the brink of the 1999 World Cup final against China, when he'd finally gathered all the girls of summer around two inflated globes and gotten all the faces of American women's soccer smiling ... the face of American soccer was nowhere to be seen. Poof. The greatest goal scorer in the history of international soccer. Vanished.

Where in the world was Mia Hamm?

Don't read this story. For Mia's sake. Don't read it or even look at the pictures. It might take too long. Then she'd feel like a burden. You might get to know her. Then she'd have to agonize over what you think.

She'll be disappearing soon anyway. For good. She's got one more year, the woman who launched millions of girls across thousands of fields. Two final engagements on the world stage. The first begins this weekend, in the World Cup, which is back on U.S. soil because of the SARS epidemic in China. The second occurs in Athens, at next summer's Olympics. In between she'll marry one of the greatest shortstops in baseball, but there's no way you'll see that.

Perhaps, in spite of her, we'll see her place in history—the first female team-sport superstar—and finally understand how many more complications lay in her path than in those blazed by the women icons of the solo sports, the Babes and Billie Jeans, the Wilmas and Chrissies and Peggys who preceded her.

It's tricky business, being anointed queen amid a circle of female peers, having to dismantle the throne even as you sit on it. Maybe she can pull it off here too. Maybe she can fill a dozen magazine pages without being seen. Maybe at the end you still won't know what makes a woman ignite and extinguish herself all at once.

How will this story start?" Mia asks. She's nervous already. "Will it begin, 'I was born a poor black child....'?"

No. But close. She was baptized as a middle-income black couple's godchild. With a pair of misshapen feet and sharply bowed legs soon to be wrapped in casts, then in orthotic shoes connected by a steel bar. In a small African-American Catholic church in Selma, Ala., because her fighter-pilot father wanted to taste what life was like for blacks in a segregated Southern town and had already bailed out of the white Catholic church with the shallow social conscience. Just a few feet from the church garage where Mia's ballerina mother taught black girls how to pirouette because she'd seen a black man in a civil rights march carrying a crucifix with a sign on it saying, HE DIED FOR US TOO.

Find something else to do. Mia's story is too tangled. Because just when you're coming to grips with Selma, and with a dad who goes from strafing Vietcong from an F-100 to weekend retreats with his wife among rural 'Bama blacks organized by the Taize brothers—antiwar and antimaterialist Christians dedicated to sharing their lives with victims of violence, poverty and racial oppression—you'll be flung from town to town, country to country, all the places our heroine moves to and vanishes from. All the places where neighbors and teammates look up one day and ask, "Where is she? Where's Mia Hamm?"

She's in Florence today. That's Italy. She's two. Banging down the Hamms's long apartment hallway, delighted with the percussion of her new Italian hightops on the hard floor. She's the Hamms's third straight daughter. It's her third home, her family having moved from Selma to Monterey, Calif., for a half year so that Air Force captain Bill Hamm could learn Italian there, and then on to Florence on a two-year grant for overseas graduate study designed to improve understanding between U.S. military officers and their foreign counterparts.

Clomp, clomp, clomp. Mia has bolted out of those leg casts and orthotic shoes as if they were jail, and she hasn't stopped bolting since, except for those astonishing two weeks when she sat on the potty, as still as Buddha, surrounded by books she'd piled up in her determination to meet Mom's challenge: Mia could go to school with her two older sisters only if she was out of diapers. She did it. Turbo potty training, the awed Hamms called it. Now the family's taking its proud housebroken runt to the park. "Andiamo!" Mia keeps hooting, bursting ahead of them all to the next Florence street corner. "Let's go!"

She's flying down a sliding board in her purple dress and white lace tights—every detail in the formaldehyde of family lore—when she sees her first soccer ball, en route from an Italian man's foot to his five-year-old son. It's the sport her father has begun to watch on weekends, bicycling to the stadium and falling in love with the throng and the drama and the way one man with a ball on his foot can bring a city to its feet.

In one whoosh Mia shoots down the sliding board, leaps a puddle and flies across the grass, intercepting the ball and kicking it again and again until the five-year-old boy loses interest and the marveling Italian papa takes up the game with her for nearly half an hour.

Bad accent. Bad clothes. Bad haircut. Those are Mia's first words at age 31 when she's asked what comes to mind as she looks at a picture of herself at a desk as a little girl.

All innocence and exuberance. Nothing can touch her. Those are Mia's words when it's a picture of her as a little girl playing ball.

A funny thing happens. Mia's standing on the fringe of a pack of boys in Wichita Falls, Texas, cooking in the sun and in her own self-consciousness. What'll people think of you? It's the question her mother asks whenever the Hamm girls—four of them now—are out of line. It's 1977. It's Mia's fourth town in her five-year life, and in each new place she has to worry about what a whole new set of people will think of her, and she gets this feeling in her gut as if she's going to vomit, this sick feeling that she's not going to fit in.

She doesn't want to play dress-up or dolls with girls, or wear tutus and dance The Nutcracker like her mother. Doesn't matter how many times Stephanie Hamm explains to folks that she's nicknamed her third daughter, Mariel, after a dancer with whom she studied, Mia Slavenska. Nor how many times Mom coos that Mia has the body and athleticism and pixie face to play every gamine in every ballet ever choreographed. Mia had burst into tears and stormed out of her second dance class, recoiling from a life surrounded by mirrors, a life surrounded by Mia.

She wants to do what guys do—make friends and forget about herself by playin' ball—but she can't because she's too shy and shrimpy, and the boys might hoot her off the block. Can't because her skin's so thin that if they do, this powder keg of emotion inside her might detonate right in front of everyone. Can't, most of all, because she's ... a girl.

Suddenly this frail, dark-haired eight-year-old boy with a trace of the Orient in his eyes and skin glides into the group and begins to speak quietly to the leader. And somehow, at the end of it all, the boys break into two teams, and the Thai-American boy waves her into his huddle. He's her ticket in. He's her brand-new brother, Garrett. One of them, at least. The other one's half African-American and half Puerto Rican, a newborn named Martin. The Hamms—weary after four daughters of trying to produce a son—have done the most remarkable thing: adopted two different-colored ones.

Garrett scrawls a play in the dirt. The boys nod. He's a born leader, like Mia's dad. Mia grins. It's funny how vulnerable, how separate she felt a few minutes ago over there on the sidewalk, and how connected she feels to everyone around her now, how safe, on a team. Amazing how so many strangers just turned into pals.

She's got cover now, a big bro she can draft behind on her bike every day when they race off to play ball, one who'll choose her for his side and tout her as his "secret weapon." One she can watch and try to imitate, from his sidearm pitching motion to his shrug over everything except the important stuff—like whether that kid just stepped out of bounds ... or did not! One who can fade right, looking, looking, and launch a spiral to that little mop of brown hair that no one notices, no one even sees, darting deep ... touchdown, Mia!

You're still reading? Cut Mia a break. Skim this part. She's 12. Thick hair still shorn as short as a boy's. She's moved to San Antonio for three years and just moved back to Wichita Falls. She's about to walk off a soccer field where she just drilled four goals and assisted on two others, just torched a team of boys, half the spectators never realizing that the dominant player's packing a pair of X chromosomes. She's about to leave the rectangle, to cross the white stripe, the dividing line between two worlds. On this side it's O.K. to spill everything boiling inside her, O.K. to erupt, explode, dominate, celebrate, to be better than someone else. On the other....

She heads to the bathroom. She's got to be careful. She's always the new kid in the hood, always starting out in a hole, always playing so hard just to feel worthy of being one of the guys, to disappear by blending in. Playing so hard that she keeps standing out, too far out, her hunger and talent carrying her clean past her objective. Now the game's over and she must start shrinking again, fast. Now she feels the opponents' parents' eyes on her, hears them wondering why the star player's waiting in line outside the girls' restroom, and her cheeks are flushing red and her tongue's getting tied and someone's telling her, Hey, the boys' room is over there!

Dad, who has just refereed three games at the same complex, gives her a one-arm hug, hands her two bucks—50 cents a goal—and climbs in the Pumpkin, the orange camper theHamms brought back from Italy and put a quarter-zillion miles on. He's a rare cat. A Democrat fighter pilot. A lieutenant colonel who, years later, will plant an AMERICANS FOR PEACE poster in his front yard amid the drumbeats of war on Iraq. A perfect ref because he's so stoic and rational, but put him in the stands at one of his kids' games, and look out! He rides refs and opponents so hard that he gets the heave-ho from an official in one of Mia's games and a middle finger from one of the players in another. Mia has seen the one thing that brings out the tendons in the stoic's neck. Mia knows how much winning matters.

They pull away from the soccer fields. Dad glimpses Mia's face in the rearview mirror. She sees where they're heading: the Maternity Cottage. She sees her Saturday going up in smoke. She's turning purple. Here it comes....

Fifteen minutes ago, this eruption of feeling went into a steal and a sprint and a 20-yard zzzzt that the goalie never saw—into explosions that made you hold your breath each time she touched the ball. Now there's no ball and no field. How does a dad handle a furnace with so much potential to create magic—or meltdown? Bill cringes, helpless, never quite sure. He's tried sympathy, bedroom banishment, flinging a flip-flop at her, everything except the remedy his eldest daughter, Tiffany, tried once when Mia went over the edge: lashing her to the couch with pantyhose. The family couldn't guess what might set her off. It might be a teasing remark about the hand-me-down sweater she wears on Alternate Dress Day. It could be the skirt Mom tries to funnel her into for holidays and photos, or her failed attempt to slink out of the family picture, or that damn wing of hair flapping off the left side of her head on school picture days. Or, worst of all, losing at something cataclysmic like old maid or Uno or knee football in the hallway.

She quits when she smells defeat coming, because if she waits until it arrives, she'll tear herself to shreds. Her face will contort, her eyes gush, her nose stream, and then the worst thing of all will happen: Everyone will stare at the self-conscious girl. Her one hope is to twist embarrassment into anger—to scream, punch, topple the board game or hurl her sister Lovdy's cookie batter on the floor or threaten to smash Lovdy's collection of porcelain miniature horses into a thousand pieces. To have something else disintegrate instead of her.

The Curse, she'd call her raging emotions. All the Hamm girls have it, genetic dynamite straight from Mom, but none has it more than Mia. I'm sorry, she keeps saying when the dust settles. I'm so sorry. She'll have to spend her life guarding that furnace door. God, it seems so much simpler just to be a boy on a ball field, where you can turn humiliation into a header, fury into a breakaway. Where you get a bonus, as well, a piece of what Garrett's getting so much of: Dad's attention.

The Pumpkin rumbles up in front of the Maternity Cottage. Mia stops heaving, rubs away her tears, hangs her head and resigns herself to whiplash, this wrenching between worlds with such different rules, values ... and equipment.

Out come the brooms, mops, buckets, scrub brushes, paintbrushes, sandpaper, rakes, shovels, clippers. Out comes Stephanie Hamm, still stunning at 40, lush dark hair flowing over her shoulders. She's a rare cat. A prospective nun who became a ballerina. The eldest of 11 children, daughter of an Air Force pilot who grew up, like Mia, bouncing from town to town, determined to exhaust her love for dance and fulfill her mother's wish that one of her children become a nun or priest, dedicated to following her Aunt Margaret into a convent. Until, at 15, she met Bill Hamm and fell hard.

Somehow, the nun and the ballerina inside her survived the fall. Six children to raise, a home to pack in cardboard boxes and a new town to learn every few years: They aren't alibi enough for her conscience, aren't freedom from all those expectations. She sees her children off to school, spends the day on the phone or running around town gathering funds, food and clothing for another church campaign or community cause, making the house shine because what if someone comes to the door—what'll people think?—as she's preparing dinner, then rattling off instructions to Bill when he returns from the base and racing off to the theater to choreograph a recital or to perform, off to the dance studio to take or give lessons. She can't say no. She's too kind. If it's Wednesday during Lent, they'll eat peanut soup or potato meal or unseasoned rice and lentils, the blander the better, so the Hammies can learn what it's like to spoon down the grub that African children do, so they can swallow the family's prevailing ethic: You're no better than anyone else. We're all equals in a community, all responsible for one another. She hurries back at 10 p.m., brainstorming the church rummage sale that her children will captain that weekend, her eyes sweeping the floor to make sure the dinner crumbs were swept, because if not, they'll be in a pile on a plate at the offender's place at the table in the morning when the Hamms show up for their bowls of seven-grain gruel. Stephanie is the prettiest and trimmest, the most competent, selfless and giving mother a girl could have, but it's not enough. She doubts all of it. Every one of her mosts should be even more. If someone like that doesn't measure up, how can her daughters begin to think that they do?

It all crests one day when Mia's mom finds herself in a hospital bed. She's a fervent Catholic, ripping herself to pieces because she's just suffered a third-month miscarriage of a baby that, God forgive her, she secretly dreaded having, that she never should've conceived because four daughters and two recently adopted sons and a half-dozen charitable causes and a dancing career have left her feeling as if she's got nothing, God forgive her, left to give. A doctor enters the room and begins to gently chastise the woman on the next bed, scolding her about the abortion she's just undergone and the failure to be responsible about birth control, and the words pierce Stephanie's ripe conscience as if they were arrows targeted for her.

Suddenly Mia's mother is in charge of the Maternity Cottage, a Wichita Falls shelter for unmarried mothers who've been a little lax about birth control as well. Suddenly the Hammsare buying and gutting a dilapidated four-bedroom house, renovating it, maintaining the property, fund-raising to keep it afloat and inviting the spillover into their own home. Suddenly there are pregnant, unhappy strangers and their toddlers occupying what's left of Mia's mom's time and attention, not to mention her family's dinner table and the television set whenMia's favorite show is on. And no matter how much Mia respects her mother's golden heart and her father's generous spirit, she's a 12-year-old kid, for goodness' sake, who just wants to go home after a soccer game, wolf down a half-dozen chocolate-chip cookies that no Ethiopian kid'll ever lay eyes on, and play two-on-two hoops with the three guys on the next block. Instead she picks up a paint scraper and starts chipping away at the misery of the world.

Oh, boy. Here comes a grenade, rolling straight toward the Hamm house: a TV truck. Word's spread about this cute little 13-year-old gal on Notre Dame's junior high football team. That's worth both the six and 10 o'clock news, for sure, in North Texas in 1985.

Sure, her mom said, when Mia asked if she could play on the football team. Go for it, Mia. There's so much encouragement in this house. So much Reach for the stars, girl! But it's all beginning to grow confusing, sometimes even inside the white stripes. Guys who used to be fine about Mia's playing ball, after they saw she had the goods, aren't so fond of the idea now that the testosterone's kicking in and she's still beating them deep on fly patterns. Some have started singling her out, ridiculing her, steamrollering her. She doesn't sob inside the lines, though. You can't do that if you want to play with boys. Nobody bites her bottom lip better than Mia Hamm.

Play on girls' teams? She tried that once. She's just not like other girls. Some of her teammates layered on eye liner and mascara to play soccer. Some looked at boys during games. A few so resented her dominance that they stopped passing her the ball. She'd get it anyway, but how are you supposed to feel knocking some lipsticked center half off the ball and banging home your fourth of the day? She felt apologetic. She felt like the kid always raising her hand in class with the right answer, and so she pulled back sometimes, disappearing right in the middle of games.

The TV truck's nearly here. Mia's in her bedroom sobbing. Her mom's calling, Hey, Mia, you better pull it together fast.What'll people think? But she's flattened. Lovdy, avenging some previous sisterly atrocity, has just lowered the boom, the Hamm hammer, the clan's heaviest guilt mallet. "You think you're better than everyone else, don't you, Mia? Just because you're gonna be on TV, you think you're pretty hot. Well, you're arrogant." Mia? Mia hasn't puffed or crowed in her life, but ohmygod, if that's what people might think....

She's a Hamm. She does the right thing. She exits her room when the doorbell rings, and tries to be polite. She gives the microphone and camera a few monosyllables, so no one can possibly think that she thinks she's hot stuff. The family gathers around the TV that night when her big moment comes. Where in the world is Mia Hamm? Holed up in her room.

Let her stay there. She'll loathe this section of the story, about what a phenomenal soccer player she turns into, and how a small girl from a small town gets discovered. It's full of compliments, which are almost as painful to Mia as insults.

She's 14. It's 1986. She tries out for the North Texas Olympic Development girls' team 150 miles away in Dallas, and when the players split up for a scrimmage and a defender belts one skyward to clear it out of her end, every coach jotting notes on a clipboard stops and stares. Some little bitty gal bolts into the path of that clearing pass, wheels and drills it before it ever hits the ground, a 35-yard rocket volley into the upper right-hand corner of the net. Whoever she is, she's on the team ... and six months later she's jumped to the women's team.

The team travels to Metairie, La., to play in a regional tournament. Her coach, John Cossaboon, alerts Anson Dorrance that there's a player he needs to look at.

Dorrance is 35, but already he's the lord of U.S. women's soccer. Already he's coached North Carolina to three national titles and been named coach of the U.S. national women's team. "Don't tell me which one she is," he tells Cossaboon. It's his way of testing the supposed phenom, and himself. She should appear to him on her own.

Dorrance watches the first minute of the first game and heads straight to Cossaboon. He nods toward the littlest one, the youngest one, the streak of light. The one who knifes right at a defender, knocks the ball a yard past her and then beats her to it, rubbing her out in a footrace. "That's her, right?" Dorrance says.

"No," deadpans Cossaboon. "You got it wrong."

Dorrance blinks, then shakes his head. Nice try, pal. She's his. Just like that. On his national team at 15 and will be on his college team the minute she finds her way out of high school. She shows up at that first national camp with a mullet haircut and a deer-in-the-headlights stare ... and comes home with fire on her face. She can't stop babbling at the dinner table: How marvelous Michelle and April are, how wonderful Kristine and Wendy and Joy. Women who knock her off the ball after she knocks them off the ball. Vicious competitors. A whole community. They exist. Females just like her.

Well, not exactly like her. Lots of them wear skirts now and then, even makeup. Women she can study, women she can draft behind when they go to a restaurant or mall, women who can introduce her to sides of herself she's never met. Good Lord, in just a few years they'll have her standing in a fitting room, trying on a bikini!

Look at her, this new person in the mirror. Not bad. Legs not half so bowed as she thought. But she could lose her so easily: One mediocre tournament could make her vanish. It's not enough, the hour and a half of dribbling and shooting drills she does alone at school on summer mornings, chasing down every shot on a netless goal in the Texas heat. Mianeeds to get her first pair of running shoes and go for miles. She needs to pack up and move, for the seventh time, to some place where the competition will force her game to grow. Alone this time. That's how badly she needs to be with those girls she's just discovered.

It scares the hell out of her, walking out of tiny Notre Dame High in Wichita Falls and her class of 35 in February of her sophomore year, with her basketball teammates fighting to recapture the state championship that she'd led them to as a freshman. She clamps back her emotions, says goodbye to her family and friends, and she's gone.

She walks into a school, Lake Braddock, with more than 5,000 students. Sick to her stomach. Silent. It's in Burke, Va., a soccer hotbed, where she'll live with a man she barely knows, her aunt's brother-in-law. There's no Garrett anymore to give her cover. He's back in Wichita Falls, still trying to come to terms with the diagnosis that doctors gave him two years before: aplastic anemia, a bone marrow disorder that at the time was usually fatal.

If she were a boy, she wouldn't have to agonize over joining a new team, because boys understand that sports create hierarchies and that the ball will go to the dominant player the moment he asserts himself. But girls have to assess you first; they have to decide they like you before they let you fit in. How can Mia—with no time to chat because she's cramming in extra courses in order to graduate a year early and start at North Carolina, and missing entire weeks of practice because she's off training with the best women in the world—pull this one off amid a pack of teenage girls who have played together for years?

Like this: By shrinking in team meetings and schlepping the team's gear. By taking the team's worst ball for individual drills and feeding all the girls the most wonderful passes and compliments. By making it clear to the coach, Carolyn Rice, that she's only to praise Mia fleetingly, furtively, amid kudos for the other girls. By erasing herself as she imposes herself and carries Lake Braddock to the state championship.

She returns from her first trip overseas with the national team bubbling with things to tell her family—what she's just seen and done in China, and the new world opening before her. But what awaits her are two coffins, a pair of funerals and a family lost in grief. Her mother's dad and brother have gone down together in a Cessna.

It's almost as if fate's conspiring to hammer home her life's theme, in case she forgets it for an instant: It's not about you, Mia Hamm.

You've got the potential, Mia. You can be the best soccer player in the world. But do you know what it takes? It's a decision you make. You can't make it halfway. You have to make it in your heart and mind, completely. You don't make the decision slowly. It's like turning on a light switch."

Mia and Anson Dorrance sit in darkness in his office. She's never met anyone like this. A man handing her a hall pass from guilt, from 19 years of conditioning about what a female owes everyone around her. A man offering her an environment, both at Chapel Hill and on the national team, where it's O.K. for women to be sisters off the field and cutthroats on it. Where you step on the foot of an opponent shadowing you too closely; where the results of every day's drills are posted to show who's Top Gun in each and who's breathing down her neck; where losers of intrasquad scrimmages must bend over in front of the goal and clutch their ankles so winners can blast 20-yard bullets at their butts. Where Mia finally feels it's safe to start growing out her hair.

Mia's parents have moved to Italy, where Bill is a U.S. Air Force attache, but first Stephanie has sent Dorrance a long letter attempting to explain in advance in case her daughter's emotions run amok. Dorrance shrugs it off. He's never had a player like Mia, who can't eat or talk at the team's pregame buffet. Who goes off alone before a game, cutting through imaginary opponents, dancing with the ball like a ballerina. Then paces the sideline inside her own private tunnel. Then, before the big games, bolts to the toilet or nearest trash can and vomits. Bile. There's nothing in her to vomit. Then brings the crowd to its feet, chanting, "Mia! Mia!" when her foot touches the ball. Then flogs herself at halftime if she hasn't scored—Dammit, I suck, I'm worthless, the world's ending—as if she's about to become the outcast, the stranger over on the sidewalk the next time teams are chosen; as if she owes her girls a pair of goals to prove she belongs, must dominate to feel like an equal. Then she does what's so hard for her to do outside the rectangle: exposes her soul, lets go, explodes, slams two into the back of the net and fist-pumps or slides or bull-rushes the stands, not in celebration of Mia but in release from the pressure she keeps heaping upon herself. You have to take responsibility for the community. You have to be perfect. But you're no better than anyone else.

Dorrance doesn't want to resolve this tension inside her. He wants it to flow like molten metal on a hundred soccer fields across the globe. He wants the furnace at full blast; he'll live with the collateral damage when Mia's anxiety over losing or not scoring sends the blaze the wrong way.

"Please tell Mia to stop yelling at me!" Tar Heels teammates ask captain Angela Kelly as they race upfield.

"It's all right, Hammer!" Angela insists.

"But we're playing lousy!" Mia shouts.

"Sure, you can tell them to step it up, but not so mean, Hammer!"

Let them work it out, Dorrance figures. Let Tony DiCicco, who replaces him in 1994 as coach of the national team, pick up the pieces and the chairs after Mia hisses, "Shut up!" at him during a game in France, then gets in a screaming match with him at halftime and starts knocking over seats in the locker room.

Dorrance will live with first-stage meltdown. It's stage two that's more worrisome. That's when Mia, sometimes because she's pulled back her game for fear of doing too much and upsetting her teammates, loses her rhythm and confidence and grows so frustrated at not living up to her own standards that her whole body sags. She can't run away when failure's coming, as she used to as a child, but her heart and soul do. She stops chasing balls. "Take her out!" captain Carla Overbeck shouts at the coach when that happens.

Dorrance has players around Mia, like Kelly and Overbeck, who can act as a firewall. He builds the sisterhood strong enough to heal the wounds. He knows Mia will feel so awful the next day that she'll mend the fences. It's worth it, all of it, because this is the player he's been searching for ever since he became a coach, one who catches fire each time the flint of her values is struck: You're doing this for 19 teammates, Mia. For American soccer. For millions of girls you can inspire. You can give by taking, Mia.

But now he wants her to take the next step—to choose athletic immortality, to give and take more. Mia's silent. He's asking something of her that happens only on the other side of the stripe: spontaneity, a light-switch decision, a go-for-broker.

It's 1991. Title IX, mandating equal opportunities for women in collegiate sports, has just begun to bear fruit. Sometimes only a few hundred people show up to watch the U.S. team play: There's no such thing as a female spectator team sport. Mia and her teammates do their own laundry, carry their own gear, sometimes drive their team vans. There's so little interest in their games that they send faxes to inform friends in the U.S. of how they're doing in the inaugural '91 World Cup, in China, and return with the championship to a welcoming party of three. They function in darkness.

"It's a decision, Mia," Dorrance says quietly, "that you make like that." His hand strikes the switch. Light floods the room. She hasn't said a word, but she's decided, she's going for it. Never dreaming how much light she'll cast, and how much of her the light will expose.

Does the face launch the movement? Or does the movement launch the face? At some point the two entwine, and no one can say. At some point little girls begin roaming the team's hotel hallways, looking for Mia, and after she poses for a picture and begins to walk away, they say, our whole team's waiting outside for you, can you come? At some point they begin falling asleep with her face on their walls and ceilings, the last image on their retinas each day, this woman who convinces them, without uttering a word, that it's O.K. to sweat, seethe, leap, let go. They begin writing her letters, wearing her ponytail and number 9 jersey to her games and shrieking, "Mia! Mia!" at the same pitch and frenzy as starving baby birds.

At some point she agrees, in spite of all her misgivings, to do the Letterman show and the Pert Plus commercial and the Barbie doll and the Gatorade and the Nike sneakers, because people she trusts persuade her that doing so will liberate even more girls who stand on the sidewalk as teams are chosen. Convince more girls that anything's possible, even a Barbie doll that plays soccer.

The movement needs the face because the face, no longer a pixie tomboy's, offers the femininity, the beauty and the naked passion that the sport and the camera need. The face needs the movement because it offers the sense of mission, the justification for all those solitary three-a-day workouts, that a Hamm needs. Where else can the lenses go when the U.S. women's team wins the 1996 Olympic gold medal on U.S. soil in front of 76,489 fans but to the burning hazel eyes of the team's leading scorer, the woman who led UNC to four national titles? She becomes, according to surveys, the most recognized and appealing female athlete in America, and the fourth-most-admired one, behind Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. One of the select few whose first name suffices. One of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People. Nike names its largest building after her, and people she's never laid eyes on begin saying, "If you need me, I'll be in Mia at 3:30 today." The shyest one becomes the anointed one.

Sometimes it's beautiful. When she knows a public moment's coming, when she has agreed to it and prepared herself, she might still pace and fret, but when the moment comes to perform, the performer turns on. She's eloquent, gracious, funny. People walk away dazzled by Mia.

Sometimes it's painful. She's walking off the practice field. A pack of reporters she didn't expect walks right past all her teammates and surrounds her. They're asking her the question that paralyzes her: What's it like to be the best woman player in the world? They're creating more responsibility, more expectations. They're asking her to put herself first. She can't do it.

"Ask me that question when I can dominate on both offense and defense like [teammate] Kristine Lilly does," she replies. "Ask me when I can head a ball like Tisha Venturini, defend as well as Joy Fawcett, play an all-around game like Julie Foudy." It's how she feels. It's a way of disappearing. It's both.

The reporters roll their eyes. A pack of fans gathers around the pack of reporters. Mothers and daughters begging for autographs. Mia! Meeee-aaaaaa! Over here! A hundred baby birds to feed, and the mother bird must choose which ones. The team bus revs. The media want more, much more, but she has no quick answers: They all require so much thought. Her mates are waiting. They're the ones she wants to be with. They're why she works out eight hours a day—to be good enough just to be part of them.

The vise tightens around the woman who makes all those girls feel so free. It's all on her face. Everything's being squeezed through layers and folds of intellect and feeling, being measured once, measured twice. What'll people think? What'll her teammates think if she keeps standing here, separate, consenting to all this attention? So she must say no. But what'll the reporters and fans think if she spurns them, and what about her responsibility to women's soccer? So she can't say no. But she's determined to have boundaries. No matter how much she loves her mother, she's not going to be her, she's not going to live her life by other people's expectations. So she must say no.

Yes or no, a strange thing happens. There's so much heat inside her, people sometimes walk away thinking that Mia's cold.

She's not built for celebrity. She can't play the game—any game—lightly, can't make breezy chitchat with strangers while all that's grinding inside her; she can't fake it. She's too busy trying to decide what's the right thing to do, too caught in her own crossfire, too wary of what lurks just below it. When a girl rises in a roomful of eight-to 14-year-olds in Sydney and asks Mia what her main goal in life is, she replies, "Not to embarrass myself." She's kidding. Sort of. Maybe.

She finds her way into the corner or the foyer at receptions and cocktail parties, or onto the floor to play with somebody's child. She lowers a ball-cap brim over her eyes on the street. She lowers her eyes. "I'm sure I miss some things about the world," she tells people, "but I can tell you a lot about my shoes."

That's what the world misses about her, what teammates who've known her for years cherish: her wicked sarcasm, her honesty, her vulnerability, days when her guard comes down and she's positively giddy. They get her dead-on Noo Yawk and Brit and Aussie accents, her impersonations, her rocking Rocky Top on karaoke nights. They get long notes so heartfelt that some keep them and read them before every game. They get her on their doorstep after a five-hour flight when their parents die. They get a teammate whose eyes well up in compassion when they're feeling down and need to talk, one who crisscrosses headbands over her nose in commiseration when they suffer a fracture and have to wear a face guard. They get her hauling the equipment bag out of the bus when they're trudging to their hotel rooms at midnight. Doing all the community work. They get appearances in her commercials, they get cash, because she takes less and insists that they be included. Newcomers keep their distance at first, wary of her moods, but by their third year on the team they love her: They've seen so much goodness unfold.

The U.S. team becomes sisters, more than any team of men ever became brothers, because their star will have it no other way. They yank her onto elevators when the autograph stalkers become too much. They pretend to be her to throw the hounds off her scent. They help her disappear.

They're there for her when darkness falls. A doctor walks into the waiting room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in 1996 and tells Mia, her mother and her brother Garrett that there's only one chance left for him, a Hail Mary bone-marrow transplant. She reels out of that room, punishing herself for every day she chased a ball across the world and forgot about her family. Two months after the transplant in 1997, his immune system fails, his left arm goes numb, and a fungal infection attacks his brain. She feels the full power of her parents' hearts, gratitude that they opened up to a boy born in Bangkok 28 years before, as the family encircles his bed. She looks at her siblings, red eye to red eye, and realizes that all the old explosions are meaningless now, and that she will never again go months without calling them.

She takes a long, hard look at stardom, too. It has never seemed more foolish. She's never wanted more to vanish. Then she looks again. Her choice in the matter is fading, just like her brother. She'll never embrace celebrity, but now she's got to grip its hand. Because she's found her higher calling, her purpose, here on this bed: to reach even deeper on the field, and off it too, to play like Bill Hamm's daughter so she can give like Stephanie Hamm's. To use fame to channel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Mia HammFoundation, to provide athletic opportunities for girls and funds to people desperate for bone-marrow transplants. To write letters to inspire sick children, to visit them and take them to arcades.

She watches her brother's breath hitch, his eyes open for an instant. "Ohhh, Garrett," she calls. And then he's gone: the boy who first brought her in from the sideline, and now won't let her go back.

Now place the ball on a white dot 12 yards from the goal. Fix the eyes of 90,185 people on it, the most ever to watch a women's competition, and lock the gaze of 40 million more on it on television. Turn up the heat: 105° on the field, players dizzy from dehydration. Turn it up higher: World Cup final, 0-0, U.S. and China deadlocked after 90 minutes of regulation and two 15-minute overtimes. And higher: birth of a women's professional league possibly riding on the five penalty kicks each team will take from the white dot on the floor of the Rose Bowl to break the tie.

Call Mia Hamm's name. Put her on the spot. She can't possibly disappear, not in front of 40,090,185 people—can she?

Holy smoke! She's trying to. She's telling assistant coach Lauren Gregg that she doesn't want to take one of the five penalty kicks. "Why isn't Mac taking one?" she asks, referring to teammate Shannon MacMillan. "Mac should be taking one."

"Mia, you're taking one," says Gregg.

"Why?" asks Mia.

Why? Her agent's fielding, and refusing, 15 requests a day for interviews and appearances and photo shoots of the best female player in the world as the girls of summer become the sizzle story of 1999. She's in a Gatorade commercial going one-on-one with Michael Jordan in a variety of sports as Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better jingles in the background. It's crunch time. It's when superstars demand the ball. They have no conscience. They're sharks.

In a skybox sits Bill Clinton, pulled so near the edge of his seat by this game that he has nearly fallen out of it. On the sideline stands Robert Hanashiro, discovering that his front-page USA Today team photo isn't the failure he feared. "Nice photo," people at the Rose Bowl tell him. "It's fitting. That's Mia." In the stands, flown here from Japan by the U.S. military at President Clinton's request, is Mia's husband, Christiaan Corry.

Wait a minute. Mia's married? Absolutely. Well, sort of. To a quiet, intense young man she met in a class at UNC and wedded at 22. His intensity and easy wit remind her of her father's, and his career choice—he becomes a Marine helicopter pilot—does too. What she miscalculates is how much energy and time marriage takes, how little she has left for it when her soccer devours so much. She and Christiaan are so busy following their dreams that they're rarely on the same continent, let alone the same bed. So her marriage often seems invisible, too, and she makes sure it is to the world, pleading with reporters who write about her to steer clear of it.

A hush falls over the Rose Bowl in anticipation of the shootout. Mia's teammates wrap themselves in iced towels and pour water over their heads, but it's too late for Mia, the white dot has set all her combustibles aflame. Doesn't matter that just a few months before, she became, at 27, the leading international scorer in soccer history, male or female; that she left Pele in the dust 34 goals ago. Doesn't count that her defense and passing have improved so relentlessly that she no longer needs to score to alter a game, and that opponents double-team her, freeing her pals to score. Mia scored two goals early in the World Cup tournament, then ran dry, and the questions have begun again, reporters digging up those stats about her dearth of offense in major tournaments, spinning their cute little MIA puns and tying her in so many knots over failing to meet so many people's expectations that it becomes harder and harder for her to explode. An eight-game drought just a few months ago brought her into Tony DiCicco's office in tears. Do you know how scary it is to be MiaHamm and not feel like playing?

If she misses the kick that decides this World Cup, she'll have to live inside those flames until her final breath. Her penalty kicks in practice have been shaky. Oh, no. What if the coach thinks he has to choose her because she's supposedly the star? She has to let him know he's not obligated. Oh, no. A hierarchy's being created here, a threat to sisterhood and equality and all the potato meal that ever stuck to the roof of her mouth, a thing loathsome enough when it's being foisted on the team by outsiders—the media or a sneaker corporation or a soccer federation presenting awards—but unbearable when it's the coach doing it, the family's father figure. She has to show her teammates that she doesn't feel entitled to one of these five kicks. Oh, no. What if she protests too much and they think she doesn't want to contribute, that she fears the responsibility, that she's foisting it on somebody else? Trust me. You don't want to be in Mia at 3:51 PDT on July 10, 1999.

Mia fails. She can't airbrush herself out of the biggest moment of her career. She is chosen to kick fourth for the Americans. They're up 3-2—the third Chinese attempt was punched away by U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry—when Mia approaches the white dot. If she scores, the Chinese are against the wall. She places the ball on the dot, pushes a strand of hair from her face. She will remember nothing from then until the ball strikes the net, and the Rose Bowl explodes.

She screams, but her face never relaxes, never smiles, her eyes still burning and her jaw clenched as she races back to her teammates. She is not a woman celebrating. She's a woman howling I beat you, goddammit, at all her fear and doubt.

She passes out in the locker room an hour and a half after the game, awakens on a table with IV tubes in her arms and spends the rest of the night in her hotel room, vomiting bile, going hot and cold, unable to speak or even open her eyes, they burn so much. Fried as much by months of anxiety over the World Cup as by the blazing sun over the Rose Bowl.

At the jubilant team party at the hotel that night, everyone asks the same question that people asked at Mia's prom, at her school sports banquet, on her high school team picture day, and at 11:30 p.m. when her college teammates hit the Chapel Hill bars to celebrate another championship: Where's Mia Hamm?

How much do they pay you to write a story?" she asks. "Maybe I could pay you that much not to write it." She's joking. Sort of. Maybe.

Goodness, we're on the 12th page of a story that she hoped to God, if it had to be written at all, wouldn't last more than four. So let's not linger on the depressing loss to Norway in the 2000 Olympic final or the two goals Mia is limited to in the tournament. Let's skip past the new league kicking off in 2001, the Women's United Soccer Association, thanks to Miaand her national teammates' agreeing to play for peanuts. Let's zip past the burden placed on her, as the only household name, to sell her new team, the Washington Freedom, and the WUSA itself—and the feeling that she's doing too much ... but never enough.

Let's hurry past the shoulder problem and knee surgery that hamper her during her first two seasons with the Freedom, and all the losing that miserable first summer, when the sisterhood disperses and leaves her surrounded by strangers again: the new kid who still finds it so hard to fit in. When she's named the Freedom's captain and discovers once more, as she did in her senior year at UNC, that she's not cut out for it. When she barks at players who don't know her well enough to say, "Oh, that's just Mia," the way her USA mates do; when she's too intense for teammates cowed by a captain running sprints with her own stopwatch; when she's just not sure enough that everyone wants to hear what she has to say.

Let's even jump past the turnaround, the second year with the Freedom, when she relinquishes the captaincy and plays mostly the second halves of games as she recovers from her knee injury, and still hushes the whispers that she's past her prime by leading the league in assists, tying for the lead in points and taking her team to the title game before finally losing. Let's triple-jump past the divorce in 2001—yes, please, croaks Mia—when marriage by e-mail finally collapses. Past all the sleepless and headache-racked nights holed up in her bedroom, haunted by her failure to keep a vow made in front of her family and friends.

Let's run straight to joy—unfettered, uncluttered, unmeasured. Let's fly to Nomar.

On the white dot, of all places. That's where they meet. At a promotional event in 1998 at Harvard, where she and Nomar end up in a shootout, five kicks each, to entertain the fans. He makes three. She makes four.

"Thanks for throwing it," Mia says.

"I had to let you win," Nomar replies.

Nine months later, during the most painful patch of her career. That's when they really talk for the first time, during her eight-game slump in early '99. She's so desperate that she digs up the phone number he gave her and begs his forgiveness for bothering him. "I'm struggling right now," she says. "Do you have any ideas? What do you do when you're in a slump?"

"I pick out something small," he says. "Something I can control, something I can manage. And I just focus on that."

"O.K.," she says.

"Are you winning?" he asks.


"Are you playing well, outside of your scoring?"

"Well ... yeah."

"Then you've got to just enjoy the game. You've got to stop worrying."

She tries that for a change. And not long afterward, on a give-and-go with Foudy against Japan, she scores and races to midfield, screaming to Julie, "Can you get a f—-ing 500-pound gorilla off my back?" When Julie pretends to grab the beast and fling it away, she cries, "Thank you!" and swoons to the ground.

Just don't spoil it. Don't ask what Nomar's last name is. That's part of his allure, that he's one of a select few athletes whose first name suffices, a star big and bright enough to eclipse her—a cover for the cover girl. God, it's a relief when slack-jawed strangers approach and walk right past her, to him. Lord, it's a lesson to see how much easier he is with fame, comfortable enough to set boundaries and live by them without anguish, to give freely without feeling threatened when it's time to, and to say no thank you when it's not. A man she can study, a man she can draft behind when they go to a restaurant or mall, a man who can introduce her to sides of herself she has never met ... and to her oldest self, the nine-year-old whose best buddies were ballplayin' guys.

He's a freak on fitness and perfecting technique, just as she is. They spend seven-hour days together for six weeks during the winters of 2002 and '03 at Athletes' Performance, a fitness and biomechanics center in Tempe, Ariz., where they hone every muscle and movement that they use in their games, Mia even perfecting how her feet touch the ground when she runs. She doesn't need that when she's with Nomar, of course. Her feet don't touch it.

Happy-go-lucky, playful, carefree, a real goofball ... her friends use words like those to describe Mia these days. Why, she even wears skirts and flowing dresses at the drop of a ball cap. She's begun to paint abstract shapes, sharing a canvas and colors with Nomar on one of them. She glows when she's with him, teammates marvel. It's so wonderful that neither one wants to talk about it. And on the soccer field she's sounder of body and mind than she ever was, a better all-around player.

He flies her to the Caribbean last Thanksgiving, gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him. For once in her life, Mia answers a question without having to think.

I want to enjoy this World Cup and Olympics. That's what I want to do with my last year. I'm learning to realize this is awesome, that the positives so outweigh the negatives or the pressures. It's a waste of energy and emotion to focus on what you can't control, to brood over each play. It's not the message I want to give to the younger players.

"I'm trying to make relationships my first priority. In the end the medals never say, 'I love you.' They tarnish and collect dust. People tried to tell me that before. You can read it in books and hear it on Oprah and say, 'Oh, yeah.' But it has to be in your gut, and I guess it wasn't. Your perception is your reality. I'm starting to trust myself."

Yes, let's let Mia talk for a change, before she hangs it up next August along with most of the other women at the heart of the sisterhood who've been playing together since the late '80s. Mia, Julie, Joy, Kristine and Brandi Chastain are already planning reunions at which they'll gather and laugh over all the silly things they did. Like the time that everyone misinterpreted, when a teammate yanked Mia's shorts up to her chest just as that photographer was snapping that front-page picture for USA Today, and she felt laughter coming on so hard that she had to duck behind a teammate.

Mia actually seems to be relishing the prospect of retirement, something no one could've imagined of her two years ago. To be looking forward to making little Nomars, to sitting in a backyard with her siblings and parents and watching all the Hamm grandchildren play touch football for as long as a Hamm can bear to sit and watch.

Of course, that's when she's not worrying about getting cut from the U.S. team any moment now, or writhing over what you think about every word in this story. Remember, she's just starting to trust herself. Just starting a long trip.

Let's let her savor the WUSA championship she helped lead her team to last month, even though the league into which she poured so much of herself folded three weeks later. Let's let her get married in private after the World Cup and then vanish with the balloons and the doves and the fireworks at the closing ceremonies next summer in Athens. She's spun enough gold, forged enough steel in that furnace. Let's remember her as the bridge, the one all the ponytailed phenoms are climbing across to leave behind the 20th century, when so many women had to feel apologetic about going for it all, in order to reach the 21st, when they'll all be standing on the white dot waiting for the ball, and the photo op, and the commercial.

She's 31. It's time. Sometimes you've got to disappear before you can really see yourself.