Michelle Akers overcame so much as one of the greatest women’s soccer players of all time.  (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

This story originally was published in Soccer Magazine in 1999

By Michael Lewis

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Her body has taken more physical abuse in its 33 years than most mortals do in a lifetime.

Let’s see. Michelle Akers has undergone 12 knee operations, suffers chronic fatigue syndrome and has endured enough bumps and bruises to fill every nook and cranny of her body. And that’s the short list.

Yet, Michelle Akers manages to persevere as the ultimate symbol of the U.S. women’s national team.

“It is a privilege to be her coach,” U.S. coach Tony DiCicco said. “There has been no woman who has played the game to her level. It is her level of commitment. She is a warrior. She is a champion. Once again she left it all on the field.”

The most recent field was Stanford Stadium, where Akers was a factor from one end of it to the other, connecting for a penalty kick in the 2-0 Women’s World Cup semifinal victory over Brazil on July 4.

Akers has become an inspiration to her teammates. If someone in her condition throws her body around without abandon, then why shouldn’t they?

“Every time I think she amazes me just about as much as she can, she amazes me with something else,” said Julie Foudy, who plays alongside her at midfield. “It’s unbelievable.”

At one time, Akers was an unbelievable scoring machine.

Before Mia Hamm, Akers was the first women’s soccer superstar. Quite appropriately, she scored the first U.S. international goal in 1985.

She had it all as a player — a fierce shot, a physical presence (5-10 and 150 lbs.) and a deceptive, trot that make her look like a graceful giraffe when she strode past startled foes into the penalty area.

Her prolific scoring pace once was a goal per game, although it has slowed down some to 104 goals in 145 appearances. That’s still good enough for second only to Hamm’s 111. Her 12 World Cup goals, thanks to 10 in 1991, is a record as well.

But in 1993 she suddenly developed chronic fatigue syndrome. She looks pale and drained after games. After the 2-0 win over Brazil on July 4, she needed IVs and sat down during her post-match interview.

“They’re still trying to figure out what it is,” she said. “Environment or genetics or a virus. They still don’t know.”

She had no energy. She couldn’t walk, let alone run. She tried diets, various programs and turned to religion. She is a devout Christian, which has helped her get through it.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘Why me, why me? Poor Michelle,” Akers said. “It was more, ‘What does this mean? How do you want me to change?’ That was the question I would shout at God.”

She experienced one change already on the field. Because she was getting beaten up as a forward, DiCicco decided to switch Akers to midfield.

“She thought it was a demotion at first,” he said. “She’s a heck of a distributor. I think that got her was when I told her, ‘I think I can extend your career as a midfielder.’ She understood that.”

Now, she gets beat up and sometimes dishes it out in a different way — as a defensive midfielder. In the championship game on July 10, she probably will shadow either China’s Sun Wen, who is tied with Sissi for the scoring lead with seven goals apiece, or midfield general Liu Ailing.

Akers knows she and the team will have to take it up a notch vs. China.

“I don’t think we’re completely satisfied with our performance yet,” she said. “We haven’t done it for 90 minutes.”

Knowing her history, Akers will somehow find a way.

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.