1970s-1980s Cougars Police Athletic League, Shorelake Thunderbirds, Union Bay Flyers
1984-1989 University of Central Florida
1990, 1992, 1994-present Tyreso Football Club, Sweden
1985-present U.S. WNT
Many mornings before players march into trainer Sue Hammond's hotel room to get ankles wrapped, Michelle Akers is there. Often, Michelle, the author of two books, sits quietly, computer on lap, writing, while Sue readies the supplies for the day. Sometimes they talk. Both have long histories with the WNT. Both have lots of stories to tell about the early years.
The one about their first tournament in France is a favorite. The U.S. Men's National Team, also playing in that tournament, traveled with them. A bus picked the two teams up at the airport and drove them to a bed-and-breakfast outside of Paris that turned out to be a damp old house with little hot water. Once there, the bus driver would not help carry the luggage. The women unloaded theirs, but the men disappeared. When the bus driver threatened to leave and not return the next day to take them to the stadium, the women unloaded the men's luggage, too. Says Michelle, "We needed that bus driver. This was a big tournament, and we weren't about to jeopardize our chances of playing in it."
So much for the glamorous athlete's life.
IN THE BEGINNING
Most everyone calls her Mish, but when the movie The Lion King premiered, Michelle Akers's thick mane of sun-bleached curls inspired teammates to call her Mufasa. The name stuck. When she was little, Michelle's sandy blond shock of curls almost always topped off a body streaked with mud. Her willingness to get dirty was why she played goalkeeper for her first soccer team. She was eight years old. Her mom was coach. They never won a game. Even then she hated losing. Says Michelle, "I cried after every game. I couldn't help it."
At the end of her first soccer season, the Akers family moved from California to Seattle, Washington. Michelle played on two teams there: first the Shorelake Thunderbirds and then the Union Bay Flyers. She credits both teams with teaching her how to play the game.
It was obvious by age twelve that Michelle Akers had all the right moves on the field. Off the field was another matter. Michelle experienced some troubled years that began about the time her parents divorced. She was in sixth grade. Her voice grows soft recalling the day she and her older brother, Mike, stood at his bedroom window and watched their dad move out. Says Michelle, "I was really rocked by it. We both were. I remember we slept in my mom's room that night."
After the divorce Michelle threw herself into soccer. Her efforts paid off. At age fourteen she was invited to join the Union Bay Flyers, an under-nineteen club team. She was also invited to join ODP, but her family couldn't afford it. The club team turned out to be her Olympic Development Program. Says Michelle, "I was playing up with great players who taught me everything I needed to know. I really didn't need ODP."
In high school she met a coach, Al Kovats, who became her mentor. He coached the boys soccer team at Shorecrest High School and let Michelle train with them. He also helped her find her faith. By then Michelle was playing stellar soccer, but her personal life was falling apart because of bad choices that led her down wrong roads, a journey she believes she had to take. She remembers the night Al Kovats drove her home after a practice. Says Michelle, "I sat in his car crying again about how I screwed up. We'd known each other for a long time by then, so I knew about his strong faith. That night I said to him, 'Ko, I want to become a Christian.' I walked in the house knowing that I'd be on punishment for the next eighty months, but somehow it was okay. I found something inside me that was stronger than anything else. Everything was gonna be cool. I just knew it."
For the next few years her soccer game only got better; Michelle married during this time. Then in 1991, after the WNT won the inaugural 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup, Michelle began to experience symptoms that left her feeling as if she had the flu twenty-four hours a day. For the next three years, as her symptoms got progressively worse, she searched for a diagnosis. During this time -- a period she describes as "lower than the basement years" -- Michelle also got divorced. Finally doctors diagnosed symptoms that included insomnia, inability to eat, severe memory loss, and crippling fatigue as Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS). Little was known about the illness. To heighten awareness, Michelle appeared before a congressional committee on behalf of CFIDS victims. Says Michelle, "That was the first time I said out loud, 'I can't beat this.'" This was the first time Michelle Akers felt failure.
Although she describes her playing level today as less than it once was, that level is still good enough. In the 1996 Olympic semifinal game, she scored the crucial tying goal on a penalty kick in the WNT's 2-1 victory over Norway. Her teammates call her the Grand Dame of soccer and speak in nearly reverential tones about her, the woman who was first among them to be confronted by negative voices insinuating women couldn't deliver an exciting game. Says Michelle, "I've never determined my life course by someone else's opinion. To those who said women couldn't deliver the goods, I simply said, 'Just watch me play.'"
ON THE FIELD
Michelle Akers plays forward and attacking midfielder. She compares her position to an American football quarterback. Says Michelle, "I either get the ball and score, or I pass it to a striker to score."
Until illness struck she led the WNT in goals scored. Her signature bombs to the net from impossible ranges have been clocked at over fifty miles per hour. Mia Hamm calls her the deadliest free kicker in the world. The press often uses phrases like "a hurricane pounding through" to describe her playing style. Comparisons to Mia Hamm are frequent. Michelle distinguishes their playing styles in this way: "I'm pure effort. Mia is pure grace."
The senior member of the team is a leader on the field. The role took time to develop. In the early years she wasn't vocal. Says Michelle, "I used to think my presence and work effort was enough, but I learned that in order to be a leader, you have to offer encouraging words." A smile curls the corners of her mouth. She winks. "And sometimes words that aren't so encouraging."
Best game moment: Winning the 1996 Olympics. Says Michelle, "I remember standing on the podium looking up to heaven. I could see all my family and friends from where I stood." She pauses. Tears brim her eyes. "It was a glorious moment I'll always remember."
Red card: She was red-carded once, in a game prior to the 1991 Women's World Cup. Michelle points to a grizzly-looking scar running down her left leg and says, "Before the Cup, everything that could go wrong went wrong. First, I fell on a sprinkler head and got this gash during practice. Then we played China and this player kept whacking the you-know-what out of me. I got the ball, she came up' slammed me from behind, and I fell on top of her." The Ref called the foul on Michelle, who said, "I got up screaming, so he red-carded me. Then Anson [WNT coach] ran out screaming and he red-carded him. The two of us watched the rest of that game from the stands."
Superstitions/lucky clothing/rituals: Michelles only ritual is saying a prayer during the National Anthem before games.
In the zone: Says Michelle, "When I'm in the zone, just give me the ball. I'll do it. Just give me the ball."
Injuries: Opponents know when they come up against the 5'10" midfielder, there's no backing down. As much as her aggressiveness has defined her as a player, this same aggressiveness has also worked against her. Michelle blames "too much aggression" for at least some of the twelve knee surgeries, multiple stitches, and two missing front teeth she's suffered. Says Michelle, "I wanted to win so bad that I'd run over opponents even when I didn't have to."
WNT's first head coach, Anson Dorrance, used to say, "choose your moments," but it took getting sick with CFIDS for her to listen. Says Michelle, "Now, if I don't choose my moments I can't stay in the game." These days if WNT is winning, Michelle isn't likely to do a diving header into a goal filled with opponents waiting to kick it off.
Jersey number: She's worn the number 10 since college. Historically, coaches reserve the number 10 for elite players like Pelé and Michelle Akers.
Blooper: "I do them daily," says Michelle. "I'm always putting my foot in my mouth by saying something I shouldn't say. I also trip over my feet all the time. There's too many to pick just one. It's constant, just ask my teammates."
SOCCER IS MY LIFE
At what age did Michelle Akers realize soccer was her life? She laughs and says, "Last year." Actually, soccer took top spot from the start, a fact that worried her father. Michelle played soccer as if there were a future in the game long before there was.
Says Michelle, "I remember Dad saying, 'After college, there's no place else to go, Michelle.' I knew he was trying to nudge me into expanding my athletic focus, but I couln't. My blood and guts were in the game. I followed my heart. That's how I've always tried to live my life."
Then in 1985, when Michelle was a sophomore in college, her future opened up. The Women's National Team formed. She joined the roster immediately. When younger players Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Biefeld (Fawcett), Carla Overbeck, and Kristine Lilly joined in 1987, they immediately looked to her for leadership. Until illness hit, she was the team's most recognized player. Getting sick forced her to change focus. She explains, I had to come to terms with this very scary reality: if soccer was my whole life and I couldn't play anymore, what did I have left?" In the time it took to diagnose CFIDS, Michelle Akers redefined her priorities. Although still her passion, soccer now is a means to other ends. "Soccer gives me a platform for writing, sharing my faith, helping kids who need my help, and for educating the public about issues I feel passionately about, but it's no longer my only priority."
People who inspire are people with good hearts, according to Michelle Akers. Like her dad. When her parents divorced, he fought to stay in his children's lives. He never missed a game. He and stepmom Sue have followed her around the globe. Bob Akers also gave his daughter her best advice. She smiles. "Dad has always believed that having fun was the most important part of this game. Even now, hell ask me, 'Did you have fun, Michelle?'" Today, his words are endearing to her. That wasn't always so. Michelle explains, "I remember this one game, I was probably nine or ten, we got creamed. I was so mad. I walked off the field, and there was Dad holding out my water bottle. 'Did you have fun, Michelle?' I wanted to yell back, 'That's a stupid question, Dad! Of course I didn't have fun. We just lost!' Instead, I just stormed off the field."
Michelle laughs when she describes her mom as "no June Cleaver." Her mother, Anne, is a woman whose own life showed Michelle that she didn't have to be locked into any one role. When Michelle was eight, her mom became the first woman firefighter in Seattle, Washington. Says Michelle, "She got tons of grief for it, but her dream was to be a firefighter, and nothing they dished out was gonna make her quit."
Offering inspiration to young people pleases Michelle Akers. In fact, she founded Soccer Outreach International for that very reason. The organization's goal is to use soccer to inspire the next generation to lead. Michelle says, "I'm always telling kids, don't worship sports figures just because they play their game well. Look at how they live their lives before you decide to follow in their footsteps."
ADVICE TO YOUNG ATHLETES
Her advice is simple. Says Michelle, "If you're true to your heart and listen to what your God is saying, You're going to be in the right place at the right time." After that, set goals. For those who don't have the ideal support systems, achieving goals is tough but not impossible. Michelle explains, "Parents of other players, coaches, relatives are all people who can help, but they have to know you need it." To parents, she offers this advice -- make sure that the coaches who have so much influence over your children are people who have the whole person in mind, not just that part that wins them games. Lastly, Michelle echoes her dad's advice. "Soccer isn't brain surgery. Have fun. If you're not, figure out what's wrong and it. This game should always be a joy to play."
* * *
Sponsor: Currently, none.
Causes: Founder, Soccer Outreach International (to find out more -- home page is www.michelleakers.com).
Coaching/camps: Michelle Akers Soccer Camp, Tampa Florida, 1998; Northwest Soccer Camp, Michelle Akers Week, 1997 and 1998; Michelle Akers Week at Northwest Soccer Camp, Seattle, WA.
Awards (partial list): 4-time All-American, University of Central Florida; 1987 NCAA Final Four offensive MVP; 1991 FIFA World Cup Champion; 1991 FIFA Golden Boot; 1995 FIFA World Cup Bronze Medal; 1996 Olympic Gold Medal; author of Face to Face and Standing Fast.
Foods: Starbucks coffee, brownies, Mystic Mints, B-B-Q, oatmeal.
Hobbies: Riding her Arabian horse, Vinnie; reading; hiking.
Movies: Mission Impossible, Babe, The Black Stallion.
Movie stars: Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Rosie O'Donnell.
TV shows: Seinfeld, Animal Planet Channel.
Copyright © 1999 by Marla Miller
As it happened, the year the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (WNT) made its debut (1985), my oldest daughter made her soccer debut. She was five, a brand-new AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) player. Founding WNT players were a bit older and included Michelle Akers, who is still going strong, recently scoring her one hundredth goal at a 1999 Women's World Cup qualifying match.
In the next few years my daughter transitioned from playing "swarm ball" to playing a game that looked a lot like soccer. Meanwhile, the WNT was going through its own changes. In 1986, while visiting an ODP (Olympic Development Program) regional camp, the WNT head coach, Anson Dorrance, spotted a group of players he took an instant liking to. He called them "the kids" -- their names were Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Carla Overbeck, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, and Carin Gabarra. In 1987 he caused a ruckus by "cleaning house" to make room for them. Returning WNT players included Akers, the team's heart, and April Heinrichs, team captain, whose "take no prisoners" approach had formed the foundation of the Women's National Team. Dorrance and Heinrichs had met years earlier at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he coached her on the Tar Heels, the women's team nationally known for producing extraordinary soccer players. What Dorrance had noticed then about Heinrichs was her lack of interest in being liked. "April came in and absolutely tore everybody apart. Without remorse. She just wasn't willing to compromise her level of excellence to be mediocre but well liked," Anson Dorrance once commented. When she met "the kids," April Heinrichs met her kindred spirits.
For the next four years, the WNT trained hard, always looking for competitions and ways to improve. In 1991 they got the chance to show off their stuff at the inaugural Women's World Cup held in China. FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association), soccer's international ruling body, had decided it was time to see what the women could do. The WNT made all the right moves and beat Norway, capturing the first Women's World Cup gold medal, an important victory for several reasons. First, in beating Norway, they beat a worthy opponent. Of all the competitors, Norway had the strongest record in women's soccer, supporting the sport since 1978. Second, the win earned "respect" from the American press. Michelle Akers said it best: "Before 1991 we couldn't buy press coverage. I'd wait around after games praying a reporter would show up. We knew without them we couldn't bring the game to the people. Winning the ninety-one Cup changed all that."
The World Cup win also attracted the attention of marketers. Finally, if soccer moms looked hard enough, we could find "WNT" imprinted paraphernalia to buy for our girls who had started talking about "Mia and Michelle" as if they were friends. The year 1991 also brought a change in the WNT's leadership when April Heinrichs hung up her cleats to coach, and Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck took over as team captains.
Between the 1991 and 1995 Women's World Cup, the WNT continued gaining respect by winning important competitions. In 1994 Anson Dorrance retired from international coaching and handed the job over to Tony DiCicco, a U.S. Men's National Team goalie who had been the WNT's goalkeeping coach since 1991. Nineteen ninety-four was also the year the United States hosted the first U.S. Women's Cup, which the WNT won by beating Germany, China, and Norway.
By the 1995 Women's World Cup, my younger two daughters had joined their older sister on the soccer field and I began to notice changes. Club teams were sprouting up. Soccer clinics aggressively began to pursue girls for training sessions. In those few short years, my younger daughters enjoyed options my older daughter didn't.
In the following pages of All-American Girls, WNT players tell what happened at the 1995 Women's World Cup, and why they believe the devastating third-place showing was a weird kind of blessing, or "our wake-up call," as Kristine Lilly called it. Players will also share how they felt as 78,000 fans in Georgia cheered them on to the 1996 Olympic gold medal win.
As All-American Girls traces the WNT's path to the Olympic podium, it also traces the development of the youth soccer programs in this country. Like their faithful fans, the WNT players are products of these programs. Some players started on AYSO teams. Some switched to club teams as young as age eight. Some lived in communities that offered no girls teams at all. Some players were selected by ODP. Others were overlooked. Some had never heard of the program that has identified elite youth players since 1982, and some had to say "no, thank you" when that coveted invitation came, because their families couldn't afford ODP fees.
For one special week, this soccer mom tried her best to keep up as WNT players trained and competed in the 1998 Goodwill Games. In between training sessions, meals, team meetings, massages, shopping sprees -- yes, these girls love to shop -- and press conferences, I interviewed each member. Some told their personal story straight through, while others meandered down roads lined with memories.
Each story in All-American Girls is as unique as each player. A shared passion for this game has turned them into world champions and national treasures. Across the country, soccer moms and dads are grateful to the members of the U.S. Women's National Team. Their love for this team and each other makes them the best kind of role models for all-American girls and boys.
Copyright © 1999 by Marla Miller
Excerpted from All American Girls by Miller, Marla Copyright © 1999 by Miller, Marla. Excerpted by permission.
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