In 1973 Mia Hamm, a year-old Air Force brat living in Florence, Italy, discovered soccer. Whenever she saw children kicking around a ball, she would toddle up and try to steal it. Today—hundreds of goals and countless stolen balls later—Hamm is no brat. In fact, she has grown up to become the most dazzling women's soccer player in the world. With 32 goals and 33 assists this season, Hamm, a junior forward at North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of the world-champion U.S. women's team, not only led the nation in scoring but also led the Tar Heels to a 25-0 record and their seventh straight NCAA title last month.
Forceful yet lithe at 5'5" and 125 pounds, the 20-year-old Hamm inherited some of her nimbleness from her parents—William, a former fighter pilot, and Stephanie, a former ballerina. The rest she developed while playing on boys' teams after she began her career in earnest at age five. By then her family had moved to Texas—to Wichita Falls and San Antonio—where, in 1982 and '86, the six Hamm children watched every World Cup game broadcast by the nearest Mexican TV station.
In 1987 Hamm was invited to a U.S. Soccer Federation tournament in New Orleans, where, as she says, "all of a sudden I was thrown in with Anson Dorrance." Dorrance is the North Carolina and U.S. team's wundercoach who, by then, had guided the Tar Heels to five national titles in six years (they're now 11 for 12) and was preparing to take the U.S. to the first women's World Championship, held in '91. He was impressed by Hamm's raw talent. "She had an incredible ability to shred defenders and get to the goal," he says. Hamm has a different recollection of her debut at the tournament: "I was a nightmare. I had no idea how to play, and when I first did fitness with the national team, I thought I'd die."
But she was hooked. "She came back from that camp and said she wanted two things," her father says. "To go to North Carolina and to win the World Championship." She also wanted to go to college with Kristine Lilly, a superb player on the under-19 national team whom Hamm had met at the tournament, and in the fall of '89 she and Lilly went off to Chapel Hill.
The two quiet freshmen were the top guns at North Carolina, which went undefeated that season. The next year Hamm led the nation in scoring, with 24 goals and 19 assists for a total of 67 points, 15 more than second-place Lilly. But because Lilly was more versatile, she received the lion's share of postseason laurels. Lilly would attack, defend or make plays for all 90 minutes of a game, where-as Hamm would put her marvelous acceleration to use only sporadically.
While Hamm took off the fall of 1991 to train for the U.S. team, Lilly played 19 games for the Tar Heels and then traveled with the national squad to China for the first women's World Championship. There, Lilly started at left midfield. Hamm was at right, a position she had never played in competition.
"We threw Mia in at midfield because we had injuries," says Dorrance, "and she did so well getting back on defense that the official report highlighted her as one of the best attacking defenders in the championship." It was an education for Hamm, who says that as a midfielder she "got a much better understanding of what it takes to be a playmaker."
This fall she brought that knowledge back to college and had her best season ever. "Mia's prodigious talent is being coupled with the type of consistency she admires in Kristine, who is her idol," says Dorrance. Indeed Hamm, who complements Lilly so well on the field and compliments her so frequently off it, wanted to be sure her friend left Carolina a champion. Maybe that's why when Duke led 1-0 in the first half of the NCAA final at Chapel Hill on Nov. 22, Hamm turned on the shredder, scoring two goals in six minutes.
Late in the game, his team ahead 7-1, Dorrance made an unusual decision. "I had taken Mia out in the second half, but she insisted on going back in," he said. "We don't enjoy embarrassing teams, but there's no way I would prevent Mia from playing the final 18 minutes with the person she admires most." And in the 81st minute Hamm struck again, for her fourth hat trick of the season. Final score: Carolina 9, Duke 1.