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At quitting time, Hamm will go peacefully

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Mia Hamm looks forward to the day when there are no fledgling leagues to promote, no World Cups to win.

After she retires - a notion that prompts Hamm to break off a Mona Lisa smile - she has no plans, or at least none she'll share.

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"I'm doing nothing for six months," she said.

Likewise, Hamm looks forward to the day when she can take a run for the simple pleasure of running.

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No more drills. No more wind sprints. No more chasing people around the soccer pitch, getting kicked in the shins, grabbed.

Just a peaceful run.

"It wouldn't be on a beach. That's too hard. I love trees, so it would be a canopied path or a canopied road under a light rain," she said.

Win and leave.

Prevail on the world stage, then depart for new, more private priorities.

"There comes a time when you have to grow up," Hamm said.

It's after practice at a field adjacent to RFK Stadium. The reluctant star of women's soccer is a little less reluctant these days.

The emphasis here is on the phrase "a little."

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At very least, the inscrutable Hamm has become slightly more scrutable. Times like these, Hamm understands she can't shake free all journalistic attackers, no matter that at age 31, she's in the best shape of her life, playing better than ever - if that's possible, considering how good she already was.

Hamm's Washington Freedom is set to play the Atlanta Beat this weekend for the Women's United Soccer Association championship. The 2003 Women's World Cup kicks off for the U.S. women at RFK Stadium on Sept. 21.

So the WUSA's leading scorer this season (33 points) agreed to an interview.

How is the state of Mia?

"The state of the union is good," she said with a nod.

"I feel good. I'm a little tired at the end of the year, but we're excited about the opportunity to play in the Founders Cup. I would like to win it, for the coaches, the owner."

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With Hamm, it has never been about what she says, rather what she does. The Greta Garbo of international sports long ago showed she'd rather steer clear of the spotlight and stick to her main principle:

Soccer is not about one player.

She seemed to live that out this season in Washington, her best in her three seasons playing in the WUSA.

Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said she's become an even better playmaker, with greater field vision and tactical savvy to go with her creativity and slashing skills.

"She's been tremendous. The first two seasons were a time for her to get used to the league. She wasn't in a comfort zone. She was used to winning and the environment of the U.S. national team. A lot was thrust upon her," Gabarra said.

"But she's been very committed. She's helped her teammates. And her setting the standard in league scoring this season is a tribute to her."

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While the world now has David Beckham to drool over, Hamm is less hampered by the pressures of celebrity. It has helped that she's engaged to Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Hamm now has a sounding board on how to handle the demands of celebrity.

Likewise, with the rise of other WUSA stars, the spotlight now shines on other players. Marinette Pichon of France and the Philadelphia Charge is a terrific, prolific scorer. So is Hamm's teammate, forward Abby Wambach. Brianna Scurry is back in goal, a good story heading into the World Cup. Germany's Birgit Prinz and Maren Meinert and Norway's Dagny Mellgren have shined.

Maybe that's why Hamm has the look of a trailblazer who no longer must shoulder so much of the burden.

"Obviously, there are days when you step back and focus on what's happening. It's easy to burn out, but I try to control what I can control, do what I can and see where it takes us. You can't beat yourself up," she said.

If it's felt like a long road for Hamm, she feels the miles with a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction. Her skill and efforts have opened the door for millions of soccer players around the world. She accepts some of the credit.

"I'm not going to sit here and argue, but ... I think the women who have been on the U.S. national team since the beginning, they set the standard. I'm proud to be part of that," she said.

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But none of the accolades for what she's done, nor new challenges for women's soccer, could prompt Hamm to change her mind about retiring.

"No. Never would I say that I missed out on things, but I basically grew up away from home. Now, my parents are getting old. Every time I see my nieces and nephews, they've changed dramatically," she said.

At that, Hamm picked up her shin guards and stood up.

After 10 minutes of answering a few soul-searching questions - except the most important one about Garciaparra - Hamm extended her delicate hand.

"Thank you," she said.

And if words weren't enough, Hamm's People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful golden-flecked brown eyes delivered the final message.

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Time's up.

Interview over.

No mas.

Her ponytail swayed. Her brown legs pumped. Her jersey number - the only obvious clue about her public persona - blared from her back.

No. 9 was out of there, off to take soccer's center stage for a final round of curtain calls.

Then it's off for that quiet, pleasurable run under the light rain and trees.


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