Sure, that month saw Americans around the country catch World Cup fever. As the U.S. men crashed out the group stage, they made some noise again four years later in France.
What has sustained the popularity of soccer in America is the fantastic USWNT. And no other figure in American soccer history has had more success and given hope to little girls everywhere that they too can become a champion than Mia Hamm.
In a span of 17 years, Hamm lifted two World Cups and received two Olympic gold medals and until 2013, she held the record for most goals by an American woman in the game.
Mia Hamm wasn’t just a great soccer player she was an inspiration.
Hamm was born in 1972 in Salem, Alabama, the daughter of a U.S. Air Force pilot and the fourth of six children for her parents.
Since she was a military brat, her family moved around from Texas and then to Italy for a period of time. While living in Italy, she was introduced to soccer and took high interest in the sport.
When the family returned to America, she would attend various private high schools playing both soccer and football. That’s right, Ms. Hamm could keep up with the boys and play their game.
She told Time magazine in 2014: “I was a really young, shy kid who was also from a military family, so we moved every 2-3 years. And sports was an easy way to make a connection when we moved to a new base, a new town to people with similar interests. And I think it really helped give me confidence not only with that move but with feeling that I could contribute.”
Her performances caught the attention of the USWNT where she was the youngest lady in history to ever be called up by the national team. She was 15. She later attended UNC for college where she helped the Tar Heels women’s soccer team win four NCAA championships.
She made her debut for the women’s national team at 19 for the inaugural Women’s World Cup in China. She would win the World Cup after the USWNT beat Norway.
In 1995, at 23, she led the USWNT in the second World Cup in Sweden where the ladies came in third place.
The following summer, as Atlanta, Georgia, hosted the Olympics, Hamm led the women to their first gold medal in the tournament.
As the USWNT continued to win, the popularity of the game rose in America.
In 1999, five years after America hosted the men’s World Cup, the country did it again welcoming the globe for the Women’s World Cup. The U.S. would win after they beat China in front of a sold-out 90,000-person crowd at California’s Rose Bowl.
Winning became much more than lifting trophies as it was giving America a name in a game where they didn’t have much say. The women were doing what ordinarily was expected of the men – but in America, things are not done the same way they are in the rest of the world; that is what makes this country so special.
Hamm wasn’t just scoring goals and leading a team of brilliant athletes, she was giving hope to millions of girls around the globe who were told they could never make a career out of game they love.
Hamm wasn’t just an athlete she was a symbol.
The same generation that grew up wanting to “Be Like Mike” watching Jordan fly in the air for the Bulls or watched “The Great One” dismantle teams on the hockey rink, now had another icon. She wasn’t a he and that is what made her better.
Hamm became so popular; she even squared off against Jordan in an infamous Gatorade commercial.
“I took every opportunity as a responsibility to not only help our sport grow but also to support female athletics. I felt it was important. And it was also a way for me to say thank you to all the people that invested in me and who, whether I knew them or not, made changes to compete at this level,” she told Time magazine in 2014.
At the turn of the century, a professional women’s league was founded and Hamm would join the club of the country’s capital – playing for Washington Freedom from 2001 to 2004.
In 2004, Hamm won gold again winning the USWNT’s second at the Athens Olympics. That Olympics would be her last.
Hamm hung up her boots that summer scoring 183 goals in all competitions. She would become the highest goal scorer for America until 2013, when Abby Wambach broke her record.
By the time of her retirement, she was the second-most capped player in all of soccer for her country for both men and women with 274 caps.
Stars and Stripes Forever
For Hamm, retiring didn’t mean slowing down.
The former forward published the motivational nonfiction book “Go For the Goal: A Champion’s Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life” and the fictional tale, “Winners Never Quit.”
She stays active running her charity, The Mia Hamm Foundation, which raises awareness and funds for families who need bone marrow or cord blood transplants.
In 2014, she was named to the board of directors of Italian club, AS Roma and was named as an ambassador for FC Barcelona. That same year, she linked up with funnyman Will Farrell and became a co-owner of the upcoming MLS franchise LAFC.
She sometimes is a contributor to ESPN for their men’s and women’s World Cup coverage.
Yet, her greatest contribution is the millions of girls and women around the country who kick a soccer ball.