CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. As she prepares for her fourth and final World Cup, Mia Hamm is happy, healthy and confident again, not an aging superstar hanging on for another year or so.
Her world-record tally of 142 international goals is certain to grow by the time she retires from the international scene after next year's Olympics.
''I know I can't do this forever, and I'm going to give it one more go,'' said the 31-year-old Hamm, whose quest for another World Cup title begins Sunday when the U.S. team hosts Sweden at RFK Stadium.
For several years, Hamm looked more likely to fade away rather than go out on top. The goals weren't coming the way they used to. She was no longer the most dangerous scorer in the world. She wasn't even close.
She had knee surgery. She divorced her military husband of six years. Her notoriously fragile confidence was splintering, to the point that she felt the need to hug U.S. national team coach April Heinrichs and say ''Thanks for not giving up on me'' after scoring a goal at an Olympic warmup game in 2000.
So, asked whether the main reason for her slump was physical, personal or psychological, Hamm gave the only response she could: all of the above.
''They all play on one another,'' Hamm said. ''But I didn't want to say, 'Well, this is the reason.' Not that you shouldn't try to find the reason, but if I said it's because I'm not happy, or because I'm injured, then when you become healthy again and they still don't happen, you're totally freaked out. You're like, 'Should I just quit?
''So what I tried to do is focus on the things I could control.''
That meant rehabbing her knee as hard as she could, relying on ''wonderful friends and an amazing family'' as her marriage ended and a new romance began with Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, and improving her playmaking and defense skills to compensate for her lack of scoring.
''It's easy to finger-point. It's easy to blame everyone else,'' she said. ''But I don't think I ever did that. I tried to reassess what I was doing, what I wasn't doing. Then, at times, you try to get in your own way, and it makes it even worse.''
The comeback began 15 months ago, when Hamm needed just seven minutes to score for the WUSA's Washington Freedom in her first game after the surgery. This season, she was the Hamm of old but more so with a well-rounded game that was the perfect complement for Freedom youngster Abby Wambach. Together, they tied for the WUSA's scoring lead and won the league title.
''Having Abby up there made it a lot easier,'' Hamm said. ''It took a lot of the pressure off me.''
Her personal life has rebounded. She plans to marry Garciaparra later this year. The self-doubting has faded. Her 20-yard free-kick against San Diego in July was one of the most powerful, confident goals of the year no tender hugs needed after that one.
''She has become the complete player, in every aspect of the game, that she's always wanted to be,'' Heinrichs said.
That made this week's demise of the WUSA even tougher for Hamm to swallow. The league was the perfect setting for her to refine her game and regain her health and confidence; it would have been much more difficult to work her way back through the national team's intermittent camps and games.
''We're sad. We're all sad,'' Hamm said. ''This isn't like a bus that you missed. This is something that we've all invested so much time and energy.''
Casual sports fans might be surprised to learn that Hamm was ever in a slump. After all, she remained by far the most popular female player in the world, even winning back-to-back FIFA player of the year awards when other players were clearly more deserving. She remains the queen of endorsements, despite a shy public demeanor sometimes mistaken for frosty aloofness.
But Hamm is congenial and full of fun away from the formal spotlight. She took a boom mike from a TV crew at the end of Saturday's practice and laughingly stuck it in teammates' faces, urging them to perform their best karaoke.
The question of image and leadership reveals another of Hamm's inner battles. Teammates Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain are born leaders, naturals in front of a camera. People want the same from Hamm.
''To be honest with you, there were times I'd beat myself up for not having the qualities of Julie, not having the qualities of Kristine (Lilly) or Carla (Overbeck),'' Hamm said. ''And I can't be that. I will never be able to be that. That's what I finally realized.''
So Hamm leads in more subtle ways. She was the one who went up to every teammate on the medal podium, saying ''Hold your head high and be proud'' after the overtime loss in the gold medal game at the Sydney Olympics.
''She's easy misunderstood,'' Heinrichs said. ''She has this serious look on her face. Everybody in our society wants the female sports figure to be glamorous, gorgeous and smiling every minute. Let's value the qualities Mia has: intelligent, articulate and humble. Let's write that story.''
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