Even the great Pele is in awe of her.
"When I was playing," the Brazilian legend once acknowledged, "they said soccer was a man's world and that women should remain on the sidelines. All I can say is I'm glad I never had to go up against Mia Hamm."
As Sydney cover-girl and track superstar Marion Jones captures headlines in her pursuit of five gold medals in the coming days, Hamm and her U.S. national team pals are shooting for their second consecutive Olympic gold. Like Jones, Hamm's journey to stardom began as a Tar Heel.
You could have forgiven Mia Hamm if she seemed a bit tired upon her arrival in Chapel Hill in the fall of 1989. Just 17, the daughter of an Air Force colonel had already lived in Selma, Ala.; Monterey, Calif.; Florence, Italy; Annandale, Va.; Wichita Falls, Texas; San Antonio; and Lake Braddock, Va. You could get tired just tracing your finger across the map.
A year earlier, the high school junior and highly touted soccer prospect had made some big decisions. Her father was being transferred to Rome--her parents were leaving the country. Instead of joining them, Hamm opted to take night courses and graduate a year early.
"I felt that I needed it, and my game needed it," she recalls. In addition, Hamm accepted an offer to play at the University of North Carolina for Anson Dorrance, also her coach on the U.S. women's national team.
Not only did Dorrance the coach gain a new star player, he and his wife Melissa gained a surrogate daughter, agreeing to become Mia's legal guardians. Hamm says the Dorrance family became a big part of her life.
"I was 17, and someone had to sign all those papers," she laughs. "They pretty much brought me in and took care of me. They made sure that emotionally I was fine, because there's only so much you can reach out to your parents when they're thousands of miles away."
Dorrance says the adjustment wasn't as dramatic as it sounds, especially with Hamm living on campus.
"We just brought her home periodically and fed her an occasional meal," he says. "She was very self-reliant. It wasn't like she was in desperate need of constant monitoring. She was fiercely independent, a very strong personality and a good student."
Hamm believes the smooth adjustment off the field actually helped her on the field.
"It was nice to be in an environment where I could develop my game to the fullest," she says. "I didn't have to feel bad for that, I didn't have to apologize for wanting to be the best."
By the time she accepted her political science degree from Carolina in 1994, Hamm simply was the best: two-time national college player of the year, three-time All-American and four-time national champion. She was the NCAA's all-time leader in goals (103), assists (72) and points (278). And she was a world champion, having redshirted to play for Dorrance in the 1991 Women's World Cup in China.
Dorrance first met Hamm at a tournament in Louisiana when she was 14.
"She was a huge talent," he recalls. "We were stunned at how good she was. The decision you've got to make is do you bring her in [to the national team] right away, because you can bring in a kid at that age and just destroy them."
Dorrance took the chance, giving Mia a shot with the under-19 national team and then the full squad when she was just 15.
"I swear every year she got better," he says. "And it never went to her head. Her game went on a never-ending ascension."
Kristine Lilly remembers those early days well, having roomed with Hamm on the national team while both were still in high school.
"We were young kids having fun," recalls Lilly. "We used to listen to 'ABC' by the Jackson 5 and sing along and jump on the bed. We were 16, away from home, playing soccer and loving life." The pair would enter UNC together in 1989 and have their numbers simultaneously retired at a 1994 ceremony.
Mia's exploits since college--two World Cups, two Olympic Games and numerous Gatorade commercials with Jordan--have been well-documented, but her continued connection to the Chapel Hill community has remained a well-kept secret. For example, she remains active in a Chapel Hill-based charity that bears her name. The Mia Hamm Foundation raises money for research into bone marrow disease, which claimed the life of her brother Garrett in 1997.
Mia quietly returned to Chapel Hill on a recent afternoon to host a golf tournament benefiting the foundation. In attendance were fellow national teamers Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Carla Overbeck and Lilly, as well as Marion Jones.
Mia's former legal guardian was there, too. Dorrance insists the little things--small gestures from Mia--mean the most to him.
"Even in her early days on the national team, I would look at the roster and she would have listed Chapel Hill as her hometown," he says. "That spoke volumes about how Mia feels about this place."
Hamm corroborates that assessment.
"When it's all said and done," she says, "you can define success by the relationships you have and how they endure. I feel like the people I've gotten to know here will be a part of my life forever."
As if to prove the point, Hamm spent the last two years in Chapel Hill as a volunteer assistant coach under Dorrance. He chuckles as he explains that, under NCAA rules, he wasn't permitted to pay his famous sidekick.
"She's a millionaire, you know," Dorrance says.
Hamm's first outing was at a game in Colorado.
"Naturally," Dorrance recalls, "we hadn't advertised that Mia was our volunteer. She was ripping shots into our goalkeepers and she had this hat pulled down over her eyes. A girl in the crowd figured out that it was Mia. She got a couple of her friends, and before you knew it the entire youth population in the crowd had gathered behind the goal."
On another occasion, Dorrance bumped into UNC basketball coaching legend Dean Smith at an airport.
"Dean comes up and he says, 'Anson, is that Mia over there? What is she doing here?' And I told him she's our volunteer assistant. He was stunned. He walked over to Mia--he was obviously joking--and he said, 'Mia, do you think we could get Michael to come back and do the same thing?'"
Joking aside, Dorrance says he hasn't lost sight of what Hamm's return means to the future of the women's soccer program as well as the current team.
What she did in coming back to help us is a gift," he says. "Obviously, it impacts our recruiting. And obviously, the girls on the team have a huge amount of respect for anything Mia tells them."
Susan Bush, a sophomore forward at UNC, overcame her awe of Hamm while training with the under-21 national team. But the respect remains.
"She's very quiet," Bush says, "so when she offers you information, you know she's not just talking to talk."
"I owe so much to the people that are here in Chapel Hill," says Hamm, "not only in terms of the development of my game but also the sense of family that I have here. This is home for me. It's home because of the way people treat you, the way they make you feel about yourself. You feel that you belong here."
With such effusive praise, it's hard to take it personally that Mia recently left Chapel Hill, relocating to her parents' latest hometown of Austin, Texas. But while her new street address may say Austin, there's little question as to where her heart continues to reside.