Earlier in her playing days, it was those bus rides, those “times I can’t get back” with her second family, that fueled a remarkable career, lifting her sport from obscurity, and ultimately prompting yesterday’s well-earned recognition from the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Her comment echoed in my head in August 2002 as I raced to the front of our Atlanta hotel to meet the Washington Freedom bus as it left for the final practice ahead of the second WUSA championship game. A columnist back home needed a quote from Hamm, and one of my many editors at The Washington Post insisted on throwing me under that bus in order to get it. I made it in time, Hamm slowly descended, and I readied myself for the inevitable discomfort — a snide comment, a robotic answer, or perhaps the arms-crossed/feet-shuffling/head-down Mia that would rather be anywhere at that moment but on the curb talking into a tape recorder.
Instead, I witnessed that famous change of pace. She delivered a sudden and disarming joke, referencing the possible link between the Freedom’s exclusion from the WUSA’s year-end awards and the league public relations staff’s scandalous failure to recognize me as the media game most valuable player that morning (the Freedom coaching staff had, incredibly, come to watch me play). Before I knew it, I was heading inside with my quote and a smile, and she was back inside the bus with her teammates.
She was as impossible to predict as she was to defend.
As far as I know, I’m the only person ever assigned full-time to the Mia Hamm beat. I’m sure she had reporters follow her throughout college and during tournaments with the National Team, or get close to her while working on books and features. But I was there day-in, day-out for nearly three years trying to balance coverage of the Freedom, the WUSA and women’s soccer, thanks to my bosses’ insatiable appetite for all things Mia.
I could relate early on to her frustration at the media attention, as I came to realize that she was expected to feature as the lead in nearly every story I wrote, even if she was only a bit player on the day. This exceptional athlete, who seemed to want only to compete and be part of something larger than herself, was being constantly elevated, separated and dissected in the press.
Covering Mia properly meant learning to strike a balance between giving the readers and editors what they wanted on the one hand, and maintaining our relationship on the other.
The narrative is common knowledge. First, there was the brilliant international play through her twenties. Then came the adulation and the teeming throngs of pony-tailed hooligans, followed by the brutal inaugural season with the Freedom, during which she suffered through injury, divorce, the pressure to carry a league, and more defeats than at any point in her career.
After that came the revival in 2002, when she subtly re-tailored her game and her demands on herself and others, thus building the foundation for the Freedom’s 2003 title. To round it all off came the final World Cup, the Olympic Gold Medal, and the “Garciaparra” jersey in her farewell game. Her story wrote itself.
But to cover her took some ingenuity, and involved a bit of trial and error. You could almost feel her pain on occasion as she tried to negotiate questions from personality reporters in town for a one-off story. Over time I found certain tactics proved more effective than others. Let Mia see you interview a teammate or two after practice, so she doesn’t feel as if you’re only there for her. Don’t ask for her after a game if she was not a critical factor. Your restraint will pay dividends later. Don’t start off with a tactical question, because it’ll be hard to steer her away once she gets talking soccer specifics.
Strategies aside, nearly every time when I thought I knew what was coming, like on that late morning in Atlanta, she’d wrong-foot me. Her ability to find that extra gear, to lull a defense into complacency, to change pace at an instant and strike from anywhere separated her from her peers on the field and kept this reporter on his toes.
She would challenge questions and drop hints in public if she wasn’t happy with a line in a story. She’d take conversations where you least expected them to, like when she told me in the RFK Stadium weight room how she knew she’d met “The One”. She sent me an email when I left The Post, thanking me for helping to spread the word and for listening to her “sarcastic wit”.
It will be interesting to see how she handles her induction to the Hall, singled out for her individual greatness. My hunch is that she’d rather go in as part of a group with several of her teammates — not just Julie Foudy.
If I had to pick a quintessential Mia quote, both in delivery and substance, it would be this the following, from a few months before the 2003 World Cup:
“I just always wanted to win, and it’s never about me. It will never be about me. This tournament isn’t about me; ’99 wasn’t about me. For some people it’s hard for them to understand why that is. I need to base it on the people that know me and care about me, and not what someone wants to write or what someone wants to say.”
She was, simply, impossible to pin down, pigeonhole or analyze. She was impossible to contain, defend, stop or defeat.
Mia Hamm was, without a doubt, the most competitive athlete I’ve ever seen.
Brian Straus covered soccer for the Washington Post for five years and now writes for several other publications.