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Soccer's greatest goal scorer has been retired for seven years, but Mia Hamm is as competitive as ever.
Whether it's the lone loss of her college career at North Carolina, suffered 21 years ago, or a Tar Heels loss last week that was historic for all the wrong reasons, the defeats cut deep and linger long after the final whistle.
"It was a hard-fought game, it was hard to watch," Hamm said by phone Sunday, seven days after witnessing the Tar Heels lose in overtime to Florida State, their first ACC tournament defeat in the 23-year history of the event. "Players have come and gone, but there's a tradition. That is one of the main reasons why I wanted to go there. It's always hard to see friends and a program you care so much about not succeed."
With 158 goals in international play, more than any other man or woman, Hamm is perhaps best known for all she accomplished with the U.S. national team in the Women's World Cup and the Olympics. But her college career resonates with Hamm two decades later. It was the time she spent in Chapel Hill that honed her talent and helped shape her into the star who would take the game to the next level and pave the way for today's players.
Ask Hamm what her greatest memory of college is, and she doesn't focus on the four championships, two national player of the year awards or 92 victories in 95 contests. She says it was the camaraderie, and finally finding a place where she fit in.
"It was about being in an environment that celebrated the individual but at the same time really made those individuals understand the concept and power of team," said Hamm, who spent much of her youth playing on soccer teams comprised mostly of boys. "As I got older, fewer and fewer girls played, and that was OK. But [at North Carolina], here I was in an empowering environment where it was OK to really care about the result and demand of yourself and expect yourself to be better every single day."
On many occasions, North Carolina has been better than the rest, having won 20 national championships since the NCAA tournament was first held for women's soccer in 1982. The program is one of the most successful dynasties in all of sports, but has perhaps seemed more mortal in recent weeks. With their uncharacteristic current three-game losing streak, which includes two overtime defeats, the Tar Heels (11-5-1) have lost five games in a season for only the second time.
Hamm has always followed UNC closely since she left campus, but this season she has been able to watch many games in person. Hamm and her family -- she has twin girls with husband Nomar Garciaparra -- typically live in Los Angeles but have spent the majority of 2011 back in North Carolina. Garciaparra worked as a Major League Baseball analyst for ESPN, covering many East Coast games and spending time on the set in Bristol. The only downside has been seeing head coach Anson Dorrance and assistant Bill "Dino" Palladino lose a few games.
"I haven't talked to [Dorrance] about the [ACC tournament] loss, but I saw his wife a couple days later and she said he was taking it pretty hard," Hamm said. "If there's anybody who's going to dissect what happened, it's that coaching staff. For them, they'll think about it and move on."
But as Hamm's sharp memory proves, that's not always easy. Two minutes into our conversation, Hamm was describing in vivid detail that aforementioned single loss in a Carolina uniform. Although the date of Connecticut's 3-2, double-overtime victory (Sept. 22, 1990) escaped her, nothing else did.
"The field [at Connecticut] was a real intimate setting; a fence surrounded the field and bleachers, and the fans could stand right there, and all the students were very vocal," Hamm recalled. "I remember two things. One, it was a hard loss because Kristine Lilly is from Connecticut, and she probably felt the loss more than the rest of us. But then you tack on the fact we had a 15-hour bus ride to think about it."
Hamm and North Carolina got the last word, though. The Tar Heels went unbeaten the rest of the way, then exacted revenge two months later, routing UConn 6-0 in the NCAA championship game.
This year's crop at Carolina get its first shot at redemption Saturday. The NCAA tournament bracket was announced Monday, and it has third-seeded North Carolina hosting Colonial Athletic Association champion William & Mary (17-2-2) at 2 p.m. ET Saturday. Though there was no question the No. 17-ranked Tar Heels would receive an at-large bid in this year's field, the recent skid likely had them on the edge of their seats a little more than usual as the pairings were unveiled.
Hamm says seeing the bracket for the first time was typically one of the best days of the year, even in her senior season, when North Carolina had won seven consecutive NCAA championships.
"I loved it," she said. "We wanted everyone's best shot. I wanted to see how strong our defense was. I wanted to play against the best defender. Because that's how you test yourself and all the hard work that you put into it."
A 19-0-1 record and a No. 1 seed might indicate Stanford is the one looking to withstand everyone's best test this year. Hamm hasn't seen the Cardinal play this season, but really liked what she saw from them last fall.
"I just like their style. They play a possession-oriented but attacking style of soccer. It's exciting to watch and I can only imagine it's a great environment to play in," Hamm said. "Everyone's involved. The backs aren't just sending a long ball forward. The outside backs and flank midfielders are always trying to find space and room to get behind or pinch in, and it's entertaining."
And sometimes, entertainment is all you need. Hamm's twins, Grace and Ava, will be 5 next spring, but already are lacing up the cleats.
"They play. They're enjoying themselves. It's simple, throw the ball out and run around for 45 minutes," Hamm said. "It's nothing serious, and the two of us want that.
"For them, it's about hanging out with friends and probably the snacks afterward. It's about getting a cool purple jersey. They haven't said they wanted to stop, which is all we're looking for. As they get older, we'll see where their passions take them."
Q: Are you watching Hope Solo on "Dancing with the Stars"?
A: I've caught a little bit of it. It's hard with the kids and trying to get them to bed and just life in general. I've been keeping tabs and wish her the best. It's not easy. She's got more courage than I do, that's for sure. I just hope she enjoys it and comes out healthy. [The U.S. national team has] an important run ahead of them, just in qualifying [for the World Cup] and obviously in the Olympics. She's a vital part of that team.
Q: Which of your four NCAA championship teams was the best?
A: I think my junior year . That team was so special. That's the year we played Duke in the final and just across the board, I felt that our team did not have any weaknesses. We had very tenacious marking backs. We had a really strong goalkeeper and sweeper. We had Tisha [Venturini-Hoch] as our playmaker in the center of the field, and Kristine [Lilly] and myself. We had so many different dimensions. It was a fun year to play.
Q: Who's the best teammate you ever had and why?
A: So many. Obviously some of us are very good friends. Kristine, Tisha and I were lucky enough to go on and play on the national team together. I learned so much from all of my teammates. One of the things we always talked about was the players who maybe didn't get all the accolades. Whether you knew you were going to play or start, the intensity and commitment from all the players, and just the diversity of personalities, was always there. One of the things I loved about [head coach] Anson [Dorrance] and [assistant coach] Dino [Palladino] was that they really embraced all the personalities. They didn't want us to be one way.
And if you ask Anson, some of the players he was closest to weren't the stars, but the people that just really completed the chemistry and the team. They might not score a goal all year, but they're just as important as the leading scorer in maintaining the focus and temperament and commitment from everyone.
Q: Are players today any different than they were when you were playing?
A: Sure, absolutely. I just think they're in a better environment. The game, the coaching, the level of competition have improved so much. Technically and tactically, it has advanced.
I do wish that young kids competed against each other until a certain age. We're so quick to say, "This is an all-girls team" when kids are only 7 or 6 years old. But at that age, it really doesn't matter. There's so much we can learn from one another. And that's based on personal experience.
Q: How did Title IX impact you, your career and opportunities?
A: First and foremost, I got an education. That's what I was there for. It was to give women at state-funded schools an opportunity to go to school and get a scholarship. They found a loophole to include athletics in that. For me, it was being able to go to the University of North Carolina on a scholarship. And then, obviously, I got to play one of my loves and passions through my college years.
Q: Who is your favorite female athlete in the Title IX era?
A: Growing up, most of the time on TV we got to watch women's tennis, and I remember watching Chris Evert. And then in the Olympics, seeing -- whether through Nike or other avenues -- Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She's just the best. You watch her and you feel like you've known her forever.
Q: Where was your favorite place to play soccer?
A: Obviously collegiately, [North Carolina] was very special to me. One of my favorite venues in the United States that we played was in Chicago [at Soldier Field] in the 1999 World Cup. Internationally -- and there's a big difference from playing somewhere and visiting -- we got to go to Tromsø, in the northern part of Norway near the arctic circle. It was in the middle of July and it was beautiful.
Melanie Jackson is an editor for ESPN.com who covered the 1999 and 2004 Women's World Cups. Email her at Melanie.J.Jackson.-email@example.com.
For more on North Carolina this season, read Graham Hays' article on Anson Dorrance and the Tar Heels.