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Soccer star raising goals in women's sports

Mia Hamm helps kick off the inaugural game of the Women's United Soccer Association in April 2001 as a forward for the Washington Freedom. Hamm's team defeated the Bay Area CyberRays 1-0.  

(CNN) -- Soccer was once considered the domain of men with bulging quadriceps and an affinity for mud. Then the grace and skill of Mia Hamm flashed across television screens, helping propel women's soccer from the sidelines and into the international spotlight.

Hamm was a star player on the U.S. women's soccer teams that won two world championships and an Olympic gold medal. In 1999, she set the world record for career goals in international soccer competition. Her latest achievement is helping to start the first women's professional soccer league in the United States.

At 29, Hamm is one of the most famous names in athletics. Her winning style has garnered her legions of fans, including young girls throughout the United States who are flocking to soccer fields to imitate their idol. But even after years of adulation, Hamm said she is not comfortable being the center of attention.

"What's hard is talking about myself," she said. "And usually people put you in the environment where they throw out superlatives: 'You're the best. You're this. You're that.' And ever since I was little, I never felt that way."

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Mariel Margaret Hamm, nicknamed Mia, was born in Selma, Alabama, on March 17, 1972, the fourth of six children. It was the same year the United States passed Title IX, an amendment prohibiting sex discrimination at federally funded schools and colleges.

The law gave women's sports equal footing with men's sports in terms of opportunities and funding. Hamm was among those eager to develop their sports ability, but first she had to overcome the birth defect of a partial clubfoot.

"Casts were placed on her feet to try and correct that irregularity," said Hamm's sister Caroline Cruickshank. "As soon as those things were taken off her feet, you could not stop her."

The family moved around frequently since Hamm's father, Bill, was a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force. Her mother, Stephanie, was a former ballerina.

Hamm discovered soccer as a toddler, when the family moved to Italy, a country enamored with the sport.

"Mia was in a park in Italy playing, and the next thing they knew, she went darting across the green. And she was taking away a soccer ball from a kid that was 5 years old, and she was maybe 2," Cruickshank said.

After Italy, the Hamms lived in Wichita, Texas, where Mia joined her first soccer team at age 5. That same year, her parents adopted an 8-year-old Thai-American orphan named Garrett. Hamm said her older brother was a playmate and an athletic role model for her. The youngsters played soccer together, coached by their father.

Accustomed to competing with boys, Hamm thought nothing of joining a boy's football team when she was in the seventh grade.

"It was a bit of a controversy," Cruickshank said. "We went to a small Catholic school, (but) the guys on the team embraced it fully because she was a good player."

Later, Hamm decided to focus on soccer. John Cossaboon coached her on a North Texas regional team when she was 14.

"Skinny, gangly, faster than the wind," Cossaboon said of Hamm. "The athleticism just jumped out at you and then, quickly after that, you could just see the natural instinct."

At 15, Hamm became the youngest player on the women's U.S. national team.

"She was older than her years," said teammate Brandi Chastain.

At 17, Hamm followed her national coach, Anson Dorrance, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a powerhouse in women's soccer. At UNC, Hamm participated in four NCAA championships and met Christiaan Corry in a political science class. The two were married in 1994.

In 1991, the U.S. women's soccer team won the world championship. In 1992 and 1993, Hamm received the All-American and ACC Player of the Year award, the first of many individual accolades.

A painful lesson in perseverance

As a child, Mia Hamm wore casts to help correct her partial clubfoot.  

While Hamm flourished on the field, she suffered a major personal loss.

Garrett had been fighting a rare blood disorder called aplastic anemia since he was 16. Just before the 1996 Olympics, his condition worsened.

"I was there with him when his doctor came out ... saying, with tears in his eyes, 'There's nothing else I can do,' " Hamm said. "I'll never forget that day, where my brother's life is being turned upside down."

But when the U.S. women's team beat China in a heart-stopping match during the Atlanta Olympics, Garrett was there to see his sister bask in the glory of the gold medal.

"He was very sick at the time, and it was difficult physically for him to get around," Cruickshank said. "But he wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Garrett died the following year at age 28 after a bone marrow transplant. He left behind a wife and son.

"I learned so much through him -- about perseverance, about grace, about dignity," Hamm said.

She launched the Mia Hamm Foundation to support research on diseases of the bone marrow. The U.S. women's team and top college soccer players turn out for the foundation's annual fund-raising event, the Garrett Game.

Media frenzy over women's soccer

Hamm with her nephew Dillon and brother Garrett, who died in 1997 of complications from a blood disorder.  

Hamm continued to dedicate herself to the sport her brother loved. In the run-up to the 1999 Women's World Cup, she notched her 108th international goal, setting a new world record for scoring in international competition -- for both men and women players.

The media attention on Hamm and her teammates intensified.

Television talk show host David Letterman boosted the team further into the realm of popular culture by dubbing it "Babe City."

"There were a lot of doubters," said Aaron Heifetz, a press officer for the U.S. women's national team. "U.S. soccer and the women's World Cup organizing committee made the decision to go from small stadiums to large stadiums, which was a gutsy decision because many people said it couldn't be done."

When the 1999 Women's World Cup opened June 19, Giants Stadium in New Jersey was overflowing with 79,000 spectators.

"It was just extraordinary. It took your breath away," said Donna de Varona, chair of the 1999 Women's World Cup organizing committee. "You saw fathers and daughters and families and young boys cheering on these great players."

For the final game between the United States and China, 90,000 people packed the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. Another 40 million tuned in to the game on U.S. television, making the match the most watched women's sporting event in history.

After 90 grueling minutes of regulation play and 30 minutes of overtime, the match was scoreless. The United States finally claimed victory in a penalty kick shootout, and the image of U.S. player Brandi Chastain ripping her jersey off in excitement was broadcast around the world.

"It was just a pure emotional reaction to the best moment you could ever dream up on the playground," Chastain said. "The last shot in the NBA final, the final home run that wins the World Series."

Hamm added, "It was overwhelming, but at the same time, it was one of the proudest moments for all of us, just in terms of where the sport has come, and not just our sport, but women's sports."

Fresh off their World Cup conquest, the U.S. women players had high hopes when they headed into the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. But the Americans lost to Norway in the final match and went home with the silver medal.

"It took me awhile to get over it," Hamm said.

A league of their own

Many young girls flock to soccer fields to imitate their idol.  

Hamm occupied herself with a new goal -- starting a professional women's soccer league in the United States.

"I think the environment is right. I think the audience is there," Hamm said.

Before the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) began its first season in April 2001, the only way for women to compete at an advanced level outside the national team, which enlisted different players for each tournament, was to organize start-up games or join other women's leagues overseas.

The WUSA, which has eight teams in different U.S. cities, gives women soccer players the chance to make a career of the sport by providing solid contracts and consistent playing schedules.

Hamm plays forward position for the Washington Freedom team and sometimes faces off with former national teammates. The maximum salary earned by a WUSA player is $85,000 -- a low figure in the world of professional athletics. Hamm graciously accepts her payment.

"Players like Mia Hamm put a salary cap on themselves because they want the league to flourish," de Varona said.

Although Hamm's base salary is lower than other professional athletes, endorsements come from every corner of the advertising world. Nike, Gatorade and Nabisco are among Hamm's sponsors. In 1999, Nike named a building at its Oregon headquarters after Hamm.

Hamm makes many personal sacrifices to play the game she loves. Her relationship with her husband, Corry, now a Marine helicopter pilot, suffered due to the time spent apart and the pressures of two challenging careers. After six years of marriage, Hamm and her college sweetheart decided to divorce.

"It hasn't been easy," Hamm said. "But you do what you can. And I've been playing soccer for a long time and this is extremely important to me, and I know what he does is extremely important to him."

Despite her superstar status, Hamm remains humble and a team player.

"Every speech she gives, every award she claims, you feel and you know that she is really grateful to her teammates," said Julie Foudy, who has played with Hamm for years.

"I think what her legacy will be is she built the game for everyone. She didn't build the game for herself," Dorrance said.

Hamm does not take her success or the surging popularity of women's soccer for granted.

"We are extremely lucky to be able to do what we do and play the game that we love to play and to play in the greatest stage in the biggest game," she said.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16