By Tim Nash
Yesterday was Vin Scully’s last day as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is 88 years old and has called Dodger games for 67 consecutive seasons. A speech Scully gave 34 years ago, helped me understand the remarkable journey of Michelle Akers, and get a little more insight into what drove her through injuries and controversies.
In 1982, I was working as an intern at the Little Falls (N.Y.) Evening News. Little Falls, a cool little town of roughly 5,000 people on the Mohawk River and Erie Canal, was the home of the Little Falls Mets, the Rookie League affiliate of the Major League Baseball team. When I joined the newspaper, the size of the sports department staff doubled from one to two.
My brother Marty was the general manager of the Little Falls Mets, in his first year working in minor league sports. On opening day of the 1982 season, my brother, having secretly hired a parachutist to drop into the field to deliver the game ball, watched nervously as the small plane flew over the field and kept going. As it became clear the parachutist was not in the air, Marty instructed the umpire to start the game. Shortly after the game began, we discovered that the parachutist had landed nine miles away into a group of bewildered softball players in Doglesville. It was an interesting start to a season where I also got to watch John Elway play center field for the Oneonta Yankees.
That’s all beside the point, though. Little Falls happened to be 30 miles south of Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1982 Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were among the inductees. Scully was given the Ford Fricke Award for journalism that day, and listening to his acceptance speech with my elbows on the stage remains as one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
Thirty years later, while writing a section of the book “It’s Not the Glory” on Michelle Akers, Scully’s speech helped me understand the fascinating career of the greatest women’s soccer player of all-time.
Here’s the Chapter.
The Warrior and the Sea
The crowd, about 300 folks who came on a Friday night to listen to her speak, is curious. Like everyone she meets, they are taken by her physical presence, the regal stature and the way she carries herself that screams “athlete.” Over the years, she has become a good public speaker, setting aside one-liners and popular themes to just talk. Her story is captivating, and she delivers it from her heart. This time, though, it’s a little different. As she talks about the 1996 Olympics and her teammates, her eyes well up and her voice uncharacteristically cracks. The microphone drops to her side. She bows her head, steps back, and apologizes to the crowd. The crowd, however, erupts into supportive applause.
Michelle Akers is in Reformation Hall at St. Mark’s Church in Burlington, North Carolina. It turns out the church’s Pastor, Bob Disher, is a big sports fan, able to work into his sermons countless references to long-distance running, baseball, football, and especially Duke University basketball, references to which you learn to see coming several pews away. He’ll use sports as reference points. Every sport, that is, except soccer. He knows nothing about soccer and makes that clear the night before Michelle’s appearance during a meal his wife Susan carefully prepared within the restrictions of Michelle’s diet.
Bob was very helpful in the process of writing Michelle’s second book, Standing Fast, Battles of a Champion. The book described her struggle to the 1996 Gold Medal, an incredible story that involves injuries, a debilitating illness, doctors, misdiagnoses, diets, more doctors, another diet, more diagnosis, and a lot of soccer told through Michelle’s words and personal journals. Most of her story revolved around her faith in God, and Bob was the expert. At dinner, Bob grilled her about being an elite athlete. He is fascinated by the inner-workings of Michelle, her determination, and, of course, her faith in God. She quickly earned a status in the Disher hierarchy just below Grant Hill. The only thing that could have possibly raised Michelle’s status is if she played power forward for the Blue Devils.
That summer in 1999 as the world watched women’s soccer, Bob was a soccer fan. He didn’t miss a game as Michelle and the USA beat Denmark, Nigeria, North Korea, Germany, and Brazil to reach the final. Knowing her story, he worried about Michelle as she suffered through each match. He was concerned as her energy, a precious commodity she guarded extremely carefully, quickly drained. He prayed for her daily. And when it came to the final, he was as nervous as any life-long soccer fanatic.
When he came out for Saturday night service at St. Mark’s on July 10, 1999, Bob addressed the congregation. “This is serious,” he said. “Don’t anyone tell me who won the game. I taped it.”
On that July night, when Bob watched the ending of the USA-China thriller, he wouldn’t see Michelle on the field. He wouldn’t be able to find her in the celebrations, in the interviews, or in any post-game photos. Michelle had lived the clichés—she literally gave it everything she had. She really did leave it all on the field, and she pushed herself to the actual limit. After 90 minutes in 100-degree heat, after waiving off the stretcher and staggering to the bench in a daze, she sat on the ground with cold towels on her head and slowly faded in an out of consciousness while she told her coach, Tony DiCicco, “I can play, Tone.” DiCicco, who would obviously be thrilled if she continued, looked at Dr. Doug Brown. DiCicco then gently said, “You’re done Mish.”
The story of Michelle’s illness really starts six years earlier. Late in 1993, in a match at the Olympic Sports Festival in San Antonio, Michelle collapsed on the soccer field, something she hadn’t done before. Of course, her collapse sounded alarms throughout the national team, and Michelle was forced to face the reasons. She had been suffering from migraines and fatigue. She had been struggling to do routine things, tasks that had always come easy. She said it sometimes seemed she was looking at the world through a tunnel. And there was this fog. Her collapse was her worst nightmare because it caused others to get involved. In any description of Michelle Akers, two of the first words used are usually strong, which was apparent by looking at her, and independent, which was obvious after you had any kind of interaction with her. She knew who she was and what she wanted. She would do it and succeed, and she really didn’t need any help. That mentality, that temperament, formed the relentless competitor, the determined, goal-achieving star that earned her the label of FIFA Co-Player of the Century, along with China’s Sun Wen.
The diagnosis she finally received—the correct one after years of misdiagnoses—was of an illness that caused her to change nearly everything that had gotten her to where she was in life. It was not something she could battle one-on-one like a defender between her and the goal, not something she could fix through pure will, stubbornness, and hard work, like one of the countless injuries she had overcome. And it wasn’t something that could be broken, like the spirit of so many soccer opponents over the years that had just simply chosen to give up rather than sacrifice another piece of their body for a soccer ball. But she tried. Feeling tired? Go work out. Not feeling 100 percent? Who cares? Work through it! Let’s play! Come on. This was nothing. After all, a week before the 1991 World Championship opener, she slid into a sprinkler head and ripped her knee open. She scored 10 goals in six games anyway. When was she ever 100 percent? But her chosen method of cure was exactly wrong for this new thing. The more she worked, the more she fought, the worse she got.
At first they called it mono. When it didn’t go away, it was obvious they were wrong. Then they called it the Epstein Barr virus, which Michelle understood to be a more serious, more debilitating form of mono. When it didn’t go away, it was obvious they were wrong again. And Michelle became frustrated and scared. Finally, the doctors hit on the right diagnosis—Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, an illness of which little was known at the time. What was known was that it was very dangerous for Michelle to be working as hard as she had been. Really she should stop. That’s what the available information said. But she happened upon an expert living in Charlotte, North Carolina—Dr. Paul Cheney. Dr. Cheney and two of Michelle’s most trusted allies, Dr. Mark Adams and Dr. Doug Brown, both U.S. National team doctors, learned how to help Michelle. And without those three, Michelle Akers might not have ever played in the 1996 Olympics or the 1995 or 1999 World Cups.
First, though, she had to learn to accept help from others. And that was hard for her. “I have always been a low-maintenance person, no special attention or needs,” she wrote in her journal. “Now I see all these special considerations, excuses and rules to live by. I am high-maintenance. I’m fragile.”
She found, however, that her teammates wanted to help. They had been trying to help. But she didn’t want to be a burden. She just figured they had their own things to do to get ready, so why bring hers into it. Turns out, they admired what she was doing and learned lessons from it. Michelle chose to eat disgusting food that she couldn’t stand to smell—the dreaded Elimination Diet. She chose to train and sleep, nothing else. It was her decision to stay home when others went to a movie or shopping, knowing the choice was simple—go to a movie or train tomorrow.
Why? That’s a really good question. Why did she put herself through it all? The answer is nowhere to be found in the usual clichés, the easy answers we read about all the time because they are, well, easy. It wasn’t for the love the game. It wasn’t for the joy of competition, or any of the others. Only Michelle can answer why, but you can be relatively sure that it was a test. It was administered by Michelle and God. Her faith pushed her because that was God’s plan for her. She did the rest with the help of those around her. Numerous setbacks didn’t deter her from her path. But every now and then, she needed a reminder, like when team psychologist Colleen Hacker told her, “God can’t guide your steps unless you are taking some.” And in the early history of women’s soccer, when Michelle Akers took steps, the world went with her. She was there from the start—the first training camp, the first game, the first trip abroad.
In 1995, at the second Women’s World Cup, after working years to get ready, she lasted six minutes before being knocked unconscious. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Doesn’t hard work pay off? Isn’t effort rewarded? What about clean-living? Was her reward six minutes of soccer, 24 straight hours of sleep, and three games of sitting and watching, which by the way is something she is really bad at? Publicly, she was able to maintain dignity and even a sense of humor. When she was interviewed on ESPN by her longtime friend and college roommate Amy Allmann, Amy asked her what she remembered about the play that sidelined her. “Nothing, Amy,” she laughed. “I was unconscious, remember?” When they watched the replay together, Michelle said, “Ow! That must have hurt.” But she hid her red eyes behind sunglasses and tried to be the supportive teammate. She perfected the composed exterior while expecting to erupt at any moment.
Michelle, however, never expected anything she didn’t earn herself. And she expected the earning part of it be very difficult. So she went back to work, setting her sights on 1996, the first-ever Olympic Soccer Tournament for women. She got her Gold medal in ’96, and you felt a certain amount of vindication for her. It was much more than all that, though. The meaning, it’s now evident, was not something easily explained. And that’s what makes Michelle Akers so interesting, so complex, and so mysterious.
Pushing yourself to exhaustion. It’s such a common phrase, one used by people who sit at desks and athletes who think they are working hard, but don’t really know what hard work is. They have never experienced the truest sense of the word exhaustion. Would you do it? Would you push yourself, literally, to exhaustion every single day? Would you do it if you knew that when that day is done, you would struggle mightily just to get home? Or knowing that once you got home, you might not make it past the kitchen floor because it felt so cool lying there? Or knowing that you would be waking up several times during the night and have to change the shirt you sweated through—again? Would you insist on playing a game in 100-degree heat knowing that IVs would be required for you to have enough energy to get dressed? What would the reward have to be for you to go through all that and more? A Gold medal, maybe? Fame? Glory? How about the pure satisfaction of accomplishment? Or just for the test?
Why do people climb a mountain? Contrary to popular folklore, it’s not because “It was there.” Michelle climbed mountains with her dad. It was their idea of fun. They ran 5ks and marathons. Why do people do those things? Because they’re tests—they’re competitions. The mountain and the finish line are opponents. You can either win or lose, and winning and losing were very important to Michelle. Once after a youth soccer game, Michelle’s father Bob asked his daughter, “Did you have fun?” Michelle thought, “What a stupid question? He obviously doesn’t understand sports. You play to win. If you don’t win, you failed.”
Anson Dorrance described her by explaining that “All great players have a button they can reach down and press that takes them to another level. Michelle hit that button constantly.” What did Tony DiCicco call her? Right, a warrior. Warriors are in it to win. But don’t warriors go to battle so they can make a triumphant return to adoring crowds? Don’t they sometimes relish in the spotlight? Some do, probably. Some don’t. Michelle never had the triumphant return, no final bow. There was a brief appearance on the awards stage after the final where she received gentle hugs from her teammates, who seemed afraid that a firm embrace would send her into more pain. Then there was an introduction and a wave to the crowd at the opening game of the new professional league in Washington, D.C. two years later.
Oddly enough, in 1982, in Cooperstown, New York, a speech by Vin Scully, the legendary L.A. Dodgers announcer, explained it. Scully received the Ford Fricke award for journalism that day at the Baseball Hall of Fame. In that unmistakable tone and in the captivating style only Scully could use, he told a story about a Native American chief who wanted to test the manhood of his tribesmen by making them run up the side of a mountain to see how far they could go.
“Early on the appointed morning, four braves left camp at sunrise,” Scully began. “Later that afternoon, one of the braves came back with a twig of spruce. Later still, another came with a bough of pine. And it was late in the afternoon when a third brave arrived with an alpine shrub. But it wasn’t until late at night by a full moon that the fourth brave arrived back in camp. ‘How high did you climb? What did you bring?’ asked the chief.”
“The brave said, ‘Where I ran, there was no spruce, no pine to shield me from the sun. There were no flowers to cheer my path. There were only sharp rocks and snow and barren land. My feet are torn, I come back late. I am empty-handed and I’m exhausted.’”
“And then a wondrous look came in his eye, and he said, ‘But I saw the sea!’”
In 1999, when the final penalty kick was made and China was defeated, and her teammates were on the field hugging and crying with confetti flying around the Rose Bowl and 90,185 people cheering wildly and millions of people across the country, Bob and Susan Disher included, jumping up and down in front of TV sets, Michelle was in the locker room, shoulder throbbing, head pounding, I.V.s in her arm. She played 90 dominant minutes, during which she intimidated, even frightened, the Chinese players around her. She got I.V.s and drank coffee at halftime to get her energy up. She got punched in the head by her own goalkeeper and was knocked out. Where she had gone there was nothing to shield her from the sun, no glory, no flowers to cheer her path. The path was paved with illness, injury, and sacrifice. Like the Native American warrior, she was exhausted but not empty-handed. She had won. She passed her own test on her own terms, and on July 10, 1999, Michelle Akers finally saw the sea.