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Michelle’s higher goal

A World Cup and Olympic gold medal are only the beginning for a determined Michelle Akers.

By Judith A. Nelson

Throw a mountain in the path of soccer player Michelle Akers and you’ve made her day. Tell Michelle she can’t do something, and the two-time World Champion and Olympic gold medalist will say, "Watch me."

It’s the unattainable — the very challenge of it — that fuels the most decorated woman in soccer history. What else accounts for her scoring more than 100 international goals while overcoming concussions, lost teeth, countless stitches, broken facial bones and 13 knee surgeries?

"I think that’s the right number," Michelle says. "I lost count somewhere around 10 or 11. I’d have to check with my doc to be sure."

The 5-foot, 10-inch midfielder demonstrates the passion and drive every coach wishes in a player. "Michelle Akers inspires me," says former National Team coach Tony DiCicco. "One word comes to mind every time I think of her: ‘champion.’ "

Growing up in Seattle, Wash., Michelle was the pigtailed spitfire with the double knee patches on her jeans. She grew into a lanky tomboy who cried because her teacher told her girls don’t play football.

To harness some of her daughter’s energy, Michelle’s mom signed her up for softball, basketball, volleyball and soccer. In high school, soccer became her true love.

Success and pain
By college, Michelle had become an All-America soccer star, earning ESPN’s woman athlete of the year in 1985 – the same year the United States formed its first women’s national team, with Michelle a starter.

In 1991 the U.S. team won the first-ever Women’s World Cup and Michelle scored 10 goals in five games, including the championship winner. She became the first woman soccer player to have a paid sponsor.

She played professionally in Sweden. Michelle’s drive and tenacity were beginning to pay off. She even tried out as the place kicker for the Dallas Cowboys: Her longest attempt reached 52 yards.

But just as her star was rising, Michelle’s health was declining. By 1993, the woman who used grit and determination to make life happen found her life unmanageable.

"Each day I felt like I had flown to Europe with no food or sleep, then flown right back and trained for hours," Michelle says.

She suffered from chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), a debilitating disease affecting more than half a million adult Americans. "When it was really bad, I couldn’t sit up in a chair. The racking migraines stranded me at home, unable even to get up to brush my teeth or eat."

For the first time, Michelle could no longer count on her old friends — strength and hard work. She had to find a new way to cope.

"I couldn’t bear not to be the best in the world, not to be the one who could bounce back from any injury," she says. "It was the only me I knew." When her marriage of four years broke up in 1994, Michelle had reached the end of herself.

"I was so sick I couldn’t take a five-minute walk without needing two days on the couch to recover. I was forced to spend a lot of time thinking about who I was. I didn’t like what I saw."

‘God, I’m Yours’
Michelle had put her trust in Christ as a high school student, but ignored God in college and after graduation. Now sick and alone, Michelle reluctantly accepted an invitation from a strength coach to attend his church in Longwood, Fla. Although she couldn’t articulate it at the time, in retrospect Michelle says she knew she "needed to get things right with God."

She explains: "Looking back, I think God was gently, patiently tapping me on the shoulder and calling my name for years. It took total devastation before I would acquiesce and say, ‘OK, God. You can have my life. Please, help me.’

"My struggles were a wake-up call. God was saying to me, ‘Pay attention — this is important. Rely on Me, and I will give you what you need.’

"You can have this body," she finally told God. "You can have this life. You can have me, because I’ve made a mess of everything."

One Sunday, Michelle sensed God saying He wanted her to use her soccer platform to tell people about Him. The thought so terrified the athlete that Michelle fled the church building.

But the thought stayed with her, and Michelle set about her renewed faith with the same drive and determination with which she faced opposing teams and fitness training. She became immersed in God’s Word. During a trip overseas with the National Team, she read St. Augustine’s Confessions and books about walking with God and dealing with suffering. She began journaling her prayers and spiritual insights.

The guarded athlete began opening up to a few close friends about her renewed faith and then speaking publicly about what God had done in her life. By the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Michelle was boldly telling TV networks and sports magazines that God enabled her to play while ill and win gold that summer.

Michelle faced her latest mountain last summer during the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The grueling schedule and physical battering of the tournament tested her growing faith. Michelle required two liters of intravenous fluid following each game. Her right knee troubled her; and, in a freak accident, a fan grabbed her hand and yanked her shoulder out of the socket.

But Michelle’s focus only intensified through the injuries and pressure. While her teammates did talk shows and photo shoots, Michelle kept more and more to herself. "The tension of ‘do-or-die’ produces steel-minded strength. I could feel myself sharpening mentally," Michelle says. "Still I was bracing myself for the [physical] cost of going 90 minutes."

Paying the price
That preparation paid off at the World Cup final for 90,187 fans at the Rose Bowl and 40 million who watched on television — the most ever for a women’s sporting event.

Michelle played the game of her life in 110-degree heat. At the 90-minute mark, she had expended her last ounce of energy and landed in a heap on the field. As her teammates played into overtime and penalty kicks, the 15-year veteran was in the locker room, hooked up to a heart monitor, IVs in each arm.

Then from the tunnel she could hear the fans chanting: "Akers! Akers! Akers!" Amanda Cromwell, Michelle’s Orlando roommate, remembers the moment of suspense: "I kept looking toward the locker room," she says, "hoping she could make it out and enjoy the moment she had worked so hard for." Eventually, Michelle wobbled out to the medal podium and managed a smile and wave to the celebrating fans.

From all over the world, Michelle drew admiration for her performance and heart. Teammate Mia Hamm called her "my hero." Coach Tony DiCicco told the world they had witnessed "one of the greatest woman athletes in history — a true champion leaving it all on the field, fighting for her teammates."

Nothing could please Michelle more than influencing kids with her story. "After the 2000 Olympics, I’m going to retire and devote myself full-time to reaching kids for Christ. It’s become my passion — even more than soccer."

With all the goals Michelle has reached in her life, her highest — winning kids to Christ — is before her. Given her track record, expect her to succeed.

Judith A. Nelson lives in Orlando, Fla.

Reprinted with permission from Christian Reader, March/April 2000.

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