Mia Hamm to receive Freedom honor

May 1, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Although she's been retired for five years, Mia Hamm still has those self-conscious moments when she runs into fans at the grocery store.

"Yeah, now it's a different way," she said with a big laugh. "It's, like, I want to make sure I'm putting healthy things in there for my kids, so they're not sitting there going, 'Wow, she feeds that stuff to her kids?' 'What is she thinking?"

The reluctant celebrity who became the most prolific goal-scorer of all time in international soccer, Hamm will be back in the spotlight, at least for a little while, this weekend. She's returning to the nation's capital to be inducted into the "Hall of Freedom" at halftime of the Washington Freedom's WPS game against the Saint Louis Athletica on Sunday.

Hamm played for the original version of the Freedom in the WUSA for three seasons, winning a championship in 2003 in the final game before the league folded. Although there have been far greater honors -- a pair of Olympic gold medals, two World Cup titles, induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame -- Hamm counts her years in Washington as the one time she was a real professional athlete playing in a topflight league.

"I was a professional, and a lot of us talked about that," Hamm said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It was a dream for us. We had compensation for being on the national team, but for us this was about being a professional. It was 24/7, that's what we trained for. We were learning the game each and every day in a structured environment. It was a proud, defining moment for all of us involved."

Hamm scored 158 goals in international play before retiring at the end of 2004, when the U.S. team won gold at the Athens Olympics. She has settled down in California with her husband, Oakland A's infielder Nomar Garciaparra, and has 2-year-old twins, Ava and Grace.

"Grace probably gets more entertainment from the soccer balls than Ava does," Hamm said. "The other day I came home and they were saying 'Mommy plays soccer' and I was laughing. I was like, 'Ah, not so much any more, but thank you."

Although she arguably still remains the biggest name in women's soccer, Hamm always preferred the stuff of normal life to the trappings of fame. She once said she felt as if she were letting the fans down when they saw her doing her own shopping or riding public transportation. She took the Metro every day when Garciaparra's team played a series in Washington last year.

"They would assume that I had all these personal assistants at home," Hamm said. "No, I do my own laundry. When we were in Chicago, it's like 'What are you doing riding the train?' Well, it's nifty and it drops me off right at the stadium."

"I've been given a lot of great opportunities," she said. "But just because of these experiences, it didn't make me better than anyone else. ... That's more so what I want to make sure they understand, that 'please' and 'thank you' to them goes the exact same distance as it does for me. I don't take those things for granted."

This year's launch of the WPS means a lot to Hamm. It ends a five-year gap without a women's major soccer league in the United States, but, at age 37, it has come too late for her to contemplate coming out of retirement.

"I've been out to a couple of national team practices, bring the girls out there and say hi to some old friends," Hamm said. "And I saw those girls, especially the younger players, sprint by me, and I'm like 'There is no way I could do this.' It was a great run, but I really enjoy watching the games on TV."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press