World Cup and Olympic gold medal are only the beginning for a
determined Michelle Akers.
Throw a mountain in
the path of soccer player Michelle Akers and youve made
her day. Tell Michelle she cant do something, and the two-time
World Champion and Olympic gold medalist will say, "Watch
Its 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?
think thats the right number," Michelle says. "I
lost count somewhere around 10 or 11. Id 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 dont play football.
To harness some of
her daughters energy, Michelles 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
ESPNs woman athlete of the year in 1985 the same
year the United States formed its first womens national
team, with Michelle a starter.
In 1991 the U.S. team
won the first-ever Womens 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. Michelles 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, Michelles 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 couldnt 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.
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 couldnt 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 didnt like what I saw."
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 couldnt
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.
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 can have
this body," she finally told God. "You can have this
life. You can have me, because Ive 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 Gods Word. During
a trip overseas with the National Team, she read St. Augustines
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 Womens 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.
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 womens 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, Michelles 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
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, Im going to retire and devote myself
full-time to reaching kids for Christ. Its 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.
A. Nelson lives in Orlando, Fla.
Reprinted with permission
from Christian Reader, March/April 2000.