The retiring type

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

AGIA PELAGIA, Greece – The Olympic identification badge hanging from her neck said it all.

Mia Hamm. Athlete. United States of America.

It could have listed so many other things, of course. Role model. Pioneer. Trendsetter. Hamm is arguably the most influential American athlete of the last 20 years.

But simply "athlete" is all Mia Hamm really ever wanted to be known as. It is all she ever wanted the focus to be on.

Monday, here on the island of Crete, Hamm and her U.S. women's soccer teammates will face rival Germany in the Olympic semifinals.

Hamm has said she will retire after this tournament. Monday's game and the one that follows – either a gold-medal matchup or consolation battle for bronze – will be the last of an incomparable 18-year run that made her the most popular, recognizable and powerful female athlete in the world.

"It would probably get too emotional if that is the way you put it," said Hamm.

"I have been thinking about this as the semifinals of the Olympics and what a great opportunity to go out there and try to write another great chapter of this book that we have all been a part of for so long."

That's always been her. Forget the outside stuff; let's just play.

But this is the final act for Hamm, and it is almost impossible to envision what women's soccer, and women's sports, would be like without her.

Sunday she talked at length about her career while sitting just off the lobby of the opulent Capsis Beach Hotel here, with majestic sweeping views of the Mediterranean Ocean. Before Hamm, female athletes didn't have lodging like this.

"You remember [hotels] when the electricity only worked for about five hours a day and you didn't know [which] five hours," she laughed.

In 1987, when she started with the national team at the tender age of 15, there wasn't even women's soccer in the Olympics – the U.S. pushed it through for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Until 1991 there was no women's World Cup.

There was little commitment for training, coaching or equipment. There were no expectations.

"You were just hoping you were able to keep your shoes at the end of the trip," she said.

Women's athletics were mostly about pixie gymnasts, ice queens on skates and tennis divas. It was as much soap opera as sport.

Then came a collection of U.S. women – Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett, Joy Fawcett, Hamm – for that first World Cup in 1991. Most are here, and will end their career with this tournament.

Hamm was the front person. Hamm was the media darling. Talented, telegenic and unapologetically tenacious. She gave a generation of girls a new role model, a new way of thinking about themselves, a new path to follow.

You could be ferocious on the field and feminine off of it. You could be an athlete.

"Her pictures are hanging on my wall," said forward Heather O'Reilly, 21. "I went to the '99 World Cup and I was throwing elbows trying to take a picture of Mia."

"I remember watching [Hamm] when they were in China," said midfielder Shannon Boxx, 27. "I had the tapes for a long time. Then finally, I think I watched them too many times and they wore out.

"Up until that point, I remember it being very difficult to even get a soccer scholarship for women," Boxx continued. "My mom said, 'You might look to softball.'"

Hamm deflects most of this. She is quick to say she is neither solely nor even mostly responsible for the growth of women's sports. She didn't sign Title IX legislation and Foudy was always better as an off-field advocate.

But without the star power of Hamm, none of it would have caught fire the way it did. The youth leagues. The college scholarships. The sponsorship deals. The big dreams of little girls who suddenly wanted to be like Mia, not Mike.

They didn't all wind up in soccer, which is why Hamm's influence is felt in some way on our dominating softball and women's basketball teams here.

Hamm has never been comfortable with any of it.

Athlete. Now that is Mia Hamm. More than 260 caps, 150 goals. Let's talk about that.

Even at 32, she is no less the competitor here – she received a yellow card in the quarterfinal victory over Japan.

She is playing for the moment because there are so few remaining. Germany is the team that defeated the U.S. in the World Cup last year. They are dangerous still.

"They are the best team in the world," Hamm said.

Monday Team USA will try to take that title away, in a tournament Hamm helped create, before a worldwide fan base she helped build, with a team filled with young players whom she helped motivate who now desperately want to repay her by sending her out with gold.

"[There] is enough pressure as is," Hamm said. "We don't need to get caught up in that."

Mia Hamm. Athlete. United States of America.

Let's just play.

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