The second year of play in the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) begins Saturday, and one of the league's marquee players, American Mia Hamm, will miss some early season games due to injury. Hamm is working hard to recover from knee surgery and to forget one of the most trying years of a spectacular career.
Don't expect Mia Hamm to look back on 2001 and smile. Her WUSA professional club, the Washington Freedom, failed miserably in the first year of the league, finishing seventh of eight teams, with only six wins in 21 games. Slowed by shoulder surgery during the offseason and burnout, Hamm was not ready to play.
"Last year, I wasn't there psychologically. And physically, I wasn't fit. I was heavy," she said. "It had been a long three years for a lot of us. Prior to the  World Cup, and the  Olympics, and not faring well in the Olympics [taking silver medal after an expected gold], all of the off-season appearances and games we were doing. I was tired. I was burned out on soccer. I just wanted to get away from pretty much anything physical. The [shoulder] injury gave me some time to get away from it, but at the same time I didn't take care of my body the way I needed to."
With 129 goals in a 14-year career, Mia Hamm is the top scorer in women's international soccer history. She was voted FIFA's first women's world player of the year for 2000. But she scored only six goals last season, and barely made the domestic league's top 10 list. Hamm's goal numbers last season could easily have been better. Seven of her shots hit the crossbar or the post.
Last year, Hamm felt knee pain that increased in the off-season. Still, with fewer national team and league promotional appearances on her schedule, Hamm spent the fall and winter months working hard to regain her fitness.
"I was as strong as I've ever been," the soccer star said.
But the nagging knee injury did not improve. With qualifying for the 2003 World Cup beginning later this year, Hamm opted for a late-February surgery to repair damaged knee cartilage and upper leg bone.
"We looked at the next year-and-a-half-to-two years. There are some really important things going on. The season, World Cup qualifying, the World Cup next year. All these things I wanted to be a part of. I could have played this season in pain and not up to the level I need. The injury would not have gone away."
Hamm resumed running last week, and hopes to dress for the Washington Freedom's third game May 5, at San Diego.
"I'll probably have a little pain playing, but I'll know it's getting better. I know I will be on the upside, as opposed to the uncertainty of it."
Mia Hamm hopes her return will not be too late to help her team rebound from a disappointing 2001 season.
"Last year, we didn't live up to the standards we set for ourselves. All we can do is try to learn from our mistakes last year. Players have come in more fit this year. They know what to expect in terms of a professional lifestyle. They know what it's like to live in a different city. All this is a part of being a professional athlete."
Hamm is trying to be patient as she recovers from the injury.
"I don't help my team if I don't come back early and play at the level I want to. I'm not in it to set records. I'm in it to make sure, when I am ready to come back, I help my team the best way that I can."
Minus Mia Hamm, the WUSA's Washington Freedom opens its 2002 season against the New York Power on April 13.