Despite big health woes, veteran U.S. star Michelle Akers soldiers on
Forget Margaret Thatcher. If there was ever a woman deserving of the nickname Iron Lady, It's U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers. In her 14 years with the national team, Akers, 33, has been the Lenny Dykstra of women's soccer, crashing into defenders, cross-checking attackers, hurtling headlong for the good of the team—and the bad of her body. The damage? Double-digit knee surgeries ("Twelve or 13, I forget," she says), a couple of concussions and, in February, three fractured bones below her left eye. "People are sick of seeing me get hurt," Akers says, "but that's who I am. I take big risks. Sometimes I fall flat on my face, but I also get some mountaintop moments."
Some? Try a few dozen. Talking about team history with Akers is like discussing the Constitutional Convention with James Madison. She scored the Americans' first goal, in 1985; had both goals in the U.S. victory in the 1991 World Cup final in China; and drilled the crucial game-tying penalty kick with just 13 minutes left in the '96 Olympic semifinal against Norway.
Akers can tell you more: that on the U.S. team's first trip to Italy, in '85, then coach Mike Ryan, believing his charges didn't grasp the significance of playing on a national team, forced them to sing The Star-Spangled Banner in the middle of practice; that at the '91 Cup, Akers brought her new friend Pel� to the team's Thanksgiving dinner (for which the Chinese hotel delivered three live turkeys); and that she celebrated the '96 Olympic gold medal victory while hooked up to an IV on the porch of a University of Georgia frat house.
For more than four years Akers has waged a Sisyphean battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, which caused her to sit out almost all of 1997 with debilitating symptoms. "There's the fatigue, but you also have migraines, you don't sleep, your balance and short-term memory are gone," Akers says. "I've gotten lost going to the grocery store."
Unable to run hard for 30 minutes, much less 90, Akers has transformed herself from the world's best striker into merely the world's best defensive midfielder, a feat not unlike Michael Jordan's transition from slasher to fadeaway jump shooter. The opponent's penalty box, where Akers once roamed freely, is now foreign territory to her, except on set plays. She follows a simple dictum: "Walk when you don't have to run, jog when you don't have to sprint," she says. "I've learned to be a lot more efficient with my touches, too."
While Akers's energy level is diminished, her skills aren't. As a holding midfielder she is responsible not only for reading the Stratego board in front of her but also for maintaining the shape of the U.S. defense. In January she became the fourth woman to score 100 career goals, and U.S. coach Tony DiCicco asserts that she can still solve defensive pressure better than anyone. "If Michelle has two players on her, she can free herself and make the pass," he says. "And it's not just an ordinary pass. She almost always gives somebody the opportunity to break the defense."
The physical side of the game, however, will always be a problem for her. Lately Akers has been fighting high blood pressure brought on by chronic fatigue. Because the medication used to treat her condition is banned by the U.S. Olympic Committee, she has been searching for home remedies, to no avail. Two weeks ago she suffered heat stroke at practice, and on April 22, when the U.S. played China in Hershey, Pa., she pulled herself from the game at halftime—but not before scoring the Americans' first goal, on a penalty kick The U.S. went on to win 2-1.
By losing 2-1 to China on Sunday at Giants Stadium, the Americans split with a bitter rival—not a great sign with six weeks remaining before their World Cup opener against Denmark at the same site. But while Akers may be the team's resident clairvoyant (she says she foresaw the U.S.'s '91 World Cup title and '96 Olympic gold medal, not to mention its disappointing third-place showing at World Cup '95), her vision of the July 10 final at the Rose Bowl is still blurred. "Most of the pieces are in place, and I have a good feeling about where we are," Akers says, "but I won't be able to tell until it's time to go."
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