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Hamm cements her legacy

She began her career as Mia Hamm, and ended it as Mia Garciaparra, wearing the last name of her shortstop husband on the back of her jersey for the first time during the second half of her final match on Wednesday night. But for the overwhelming majority of her 18-year soccer career with the U.S. Women's national team, she was simply Mia.

For a sport that has struggled to gain mainstream popularity in the United States on both the men's and women's sides, there was no mistaking who No. 9 was. The image of her ponytail bouncing as she ran at a defender as well-known as any image in the history of women's sports. For many, she personified the girl next door: Katie Holmes in cleats. They even made a soccer-playing Barbie doll in Hamm's likeness.

That was the Mia that all the adoring young girls -- the "Screaming Mia's," as they were known -- and those in corporate America saw. Yet, when you looked closer, there was a steely, almost cold, look of determination that rarely left her face over the course of a 90-minute match. It was as omnipresent as Magic's smile or Earnhardt's stare. It was as distant as Tiger Woods's eyes on a Sunday when he's five shots back and stalking the leaders.

It was a look that was there when she joined the national team in the summer of 1987 as a scared 15-year-old Air Force brat. It was even there for a moment or two during her team's 5-0 victory over Mexico (in a match that was played with the lightness of an All-Star Game and more as a celebration of her career along with those of retiring teammates Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett).

"She always had an intense concentration about her," said former national team coach Tony DiCicco.

Rarely could that level of concentration be broken, even while she was dazzling crowds with her quick, cutting moves along the right flank that usually led to either a hard, right-footed shot or a precise cross through the box. Although she set new standards by scoring a world record 158 goals, to go with 144 assists, Hamm was rarely satisfied on the playing field.

"There's a voice in her mind that continually says 'That's not good enough,' " said Anson Dorrance, who was Hamm's coach at the University of North Carolina and with the national team from 1987-1994. "That's a quality that puts Mia under a lot of stress, but also one that drives her."

DiCicco agreed.

"It's a combination of an incredible drive to succeed and an equal concern of fearing to fail," he said. "I'm not sure which is the driving force. Both are dominant forces. On the field, there was no one more driven to win that Mia. It defines her as a person."

For most of Hamm's career, there was the added pressure of being the face of women's soccer. She was the player the fans were coming to see. She was the one they expected to score the goals. She was also the one that was going to lift the sport to new heights. By leading her squad to two World Cup titles (1991 and 1999) and two Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2004), Hamm was able to do that. Without her popularity, it's doubtful the Women's United Soccer Association would have even started up back in 2001. Her star power made it all possible.

Yet, Hamm always stood on a pedestal that she never strove to be on. She wanted to be the best player in the world and win every scrimmage of every training session just as badly as she wanted to win in a World Cup match, but stardom was hardly a reward for her. Just as Sports Illustrated dubbed her as a cover girl back in 2003, Hamm was a "Reluctant Superstar," who never fully felt comfortable in the spotlight throughout her career.

"She was one of the rare superstars who never wanted to be a superstar," said Dorrance. "Even when she could have commanded so much more money, she made a point to get paid the same amount -- $85,000 -- as her teammates when they started the WUSA. That sort of extraordinary behavior is really unprecedented in this era."

Whether she played under Dorrance, DiCicco, or April Heinrichs with the national team, or Jim Gabarra with the Washington Freedom, Hamm's humility and wanting to be just one of the girls made it easier on her teammates and coaches.

Mia Hamm had two assists in her final game.
Mia Hamm had two assists in her final game.

"You really can't draw it up any better than to have your number one star -- the number one star on the planet -- have such a strong sense of team," said DiCicco. "Every time someone would call her the best player in the world, she would cringe."

Now that she is retired, the debates over who was the best player of all time will live on. It's not a given that it is Hamm. While the star striker accomplished as much as anyone who has ever played the game and found the back of the net more times than any female player of all time, Hamm's former teammate Michelle Akers is generally considered at the top of that list.

What cannot be debated, however, is which player had the greater impact on the sport. Not only was Mia Hamm the most important female soccer player to ever lace up cleats, she also can be thrown in the same sentence with powerful women such as Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Billie Jean King, as the most important female athletes in history.

"There are few sports out there that has everything written about one person," said Dorrance. "In that respect, only someone like Tiger Woods compares to Mia. She was the definitive face of the sport, and that was not a responsibility that she took lightly. She knew she was carrying the torch, and never forgot how important it was to represent herself and her teammates well."

"She was also one of the most important people the game of soccer in America has ever seen," said DiCicco. "For men and women. I can't think of anyone who has helped soccer for boys and girls in this country than Mia."

With Hamm as the poster girl, the national team's popularity grew to unbelievable heights during the summer of 1999 during the Women's World Cup. Without a doubt, the fact that the world's biggest superstar kicked off the tournament with a highlight-reel goal in Team USA's opening match against Denmark at Giants Stadium helped sell the event.

Hamm helped turn the team's journey to the victory podium into a national phenomenon that summer. Of course, it culminated in a nail-biting final that was witnessed by a crowd of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl, and an additional 40 million viewers on television.

After the U.S. outlasted China in a thrilling penalty-kick shootout that introduced the world to Brandi Chastain's sports bra, you could see a different set of emotions on Hamm's face than the ones that existed on those of her teammates.

During the penalty shootout, Hamm had initially shied away from being in DiCicco's original lineup of kickers. It was only after DiCicco, assistant coach Lauren Gregg and a few of her teammates talked her into it and made her feel confident, that Mia was able to calmly take the kick and execute successfully.

No one else had to bear the pressure of not only winning the World Cup, but selling it to a nation, the way Hamm did that summer. You could almost see all the tension and stress of the Women's World Cup in her postgame tears in the victory tent outside the Rose Bowl.

In many ways the incident summed up Mia's career. She had all the tools, yet harbored an element of doubt and needed to feed off her teammates to get the best out of herself and to eventually succeed like few have in women's sports history.

"It was the relief of having lived up to expectations," recalled DiCicco. "And those expectations were on a Michael Jordan level."

Right to the end, Hamm was never a letdown. Just four months ago, the 32-year-old played some of the best soccer of her entire career during her team's run to the gold medal in Athens. In a tournament where she totaled two goals and two assists, Hamm hardly looked like a player that was considering retirement. She displayed more creativity and was more dynamic than she was during her best years in the '90s, when her athleticism, hard work and strong nose for the goal defined her game.

It was Hamm's patented move to her right foot down to get behind the defense and quickly cross the ball into the box that resulted in the team's 2-1 victory over Germany in the semifinals and put them into the gold-medal game where they beat Brazil 2-1.

Much of the same was seen during her last hurrah. Just eight minutes into the match against Mexico, she spun a defender in circles by beating her to the left and to the right before sending a precise ball right to the 12-yard line to make for an easy goal for Abby Wambach. It was classic Hamm. And a highlight that's been seen so often that it almost felt like déjà vu.

Years from now, people will forget all about the U.S. victory tour that followed the Olympics and even her farewell game against a hapless Mexican side at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. on a chilly mid-December night.

Instead, it will be the vision of Hamm wearing yet another gold medal standing there hugging her longtime teammates on the podium. Hoping, of course, that she wouldn't be singled out.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.

Watch highlights of Mia Hamm's last game on ESPN Motion here.