Mia Hamm was unbelievable in her prime. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

By Michael Lewis

Forget about Mia Hamm being a role model for girls and women soccer players in this country. She is a role model for boys and men as well. In fact, many pro athletes can take a cue or two from whom many observers call the best women’s soccer player in the world.

Her attitude toward her team, her sport and herself was never more apparent than during the Summer Olympics. She put her team above herself, playing hurt – with a severely sprained ankle – and helped the United States win the women’s soccer gold medal in the very first time the sport was held in the Olympics.

No wonder Hamm, 24, was named the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Female Player of the Year for the third consecutive time and chosen as Soccer Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1997.

“Mia is an outstanding choice,” U.S. national coach Tony DiCicco said. “She epitomizes everything that is wonderful with girls and women’s soccer in America. She is the role model for all U.S. female players.”

And then some.

Hamm was her typical humble self when she was awarded the USSF honor, which made her eligible for the U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete of the Year, to be selected in January.

“The past year has been extremely humbling, despite the success we’ve had,” she said. “Everyone had to make a sacrifice. We learned that it wasn’t going to be one player. Every single player made a difference whether they stepped on the field or not.

“To be singled out as athlete of the year is an incredible honor. But I didn’t do it by myself.”

That was vintage Mia Hamm. So, DiCicco said he wasn’t all surprised that Hamm played hurt in the biggest tournament of her life. She went down with a sprained left ankle during the 2-1 first-round Olympic victory over Sweden. She didn’t play in the scoreless tie against China, but suited up and performed a vital role in the 2-1 semifinal win over Norway and then the 2-1 gold medal triumph over China. She played wide, running up and down the right flanks, usually taking two players with her to open up holes for her teammates.

“She hadn’t showed me anything that she hadn’t showed me before,” DiCicco said.

Against Norway, Hamm went up to DiCicco and asked, “Am I hurting us out there? Am I hurting us out there?”

To which DiCicco replied, “Are you kidding me?”

Added DiCicco: “She is a wonderfully team-oriented player, which is unusual for a player that talented. “Mia just played through the pain. It’s as simple as that.”

Entering 1997, the 5-5, 125-lb. Hamm has been a part of nearly a goal a game, scoring 63 and setting up 50 others in 120 international matches. By the time she hangs up her boots, Hamm could have more than 200 international appearances.

“Every team that plays the United States has to figure out how to stop Mia Hamm,” DiCicco said. “Her presence on the soccer, it’s huge.”

As is her reputation as the best player in the world.

“She doesn’t like that baggage,” DiCicco said. “She has a lot of pride in her play. She doesn’t like to be singled out.”

But, according to DiCicco . . .

“When she is on, playing her game, she is the best player in the world,” he said.

Hamm, who calls Chapel Hill, N.C. home, downplayed the “best player” tag.

“Games are one thing,” she said. “I look at practice and consistency. I know am not the most consistent player on the team. I look at Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck. They are the true leaders. They are the people who truly count and really matter.”

After the Olympics, Hamm had plenty of time to rest and let the ankle heal.

“The ankle feels pretty good,” she said. “I don’t know how it will hold up [in a game]. I’ve been more training and running than actual playing.”

Hamm said that she had the option of playing in Japan, but instead chose to stay at home and promote the sport with appearances and clinics.

“It was important for me to stay here,” she said. “I’m hoping to get the league started.”

The league is an elite, professional women’s league that will allow the top women’s players in the country play more frequently instead of going overseas or waiting for national team matches.

“It can be successful because of the players here in this country,” Hamm said. “The talent pool here is unbelievable.”

And Hamm is at the top of the heap.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Mia Hamm is that she hasn’t reached her prime as a soccer player yet. At 24, she just might be coming into her own.

“Nothing she does surprises me,” U.S. assistant coach Lauren Gregg said. “There is no more complete player in the world. What is so exciting is that she hasn’t reach her best yet. I still think there’s much more in there.”

Which is pretty imposing for the best women’s soccer player in the world.