In all of her experiences as an Olympian and as an international competitor in women's soccer, Mia Hamm has seen a common bond among the athletes who have become the best of the best.
Each Olympian she has met has a collective appreciation of the journey, of the give-and-take and the sweat equity that he or she has invested in order to reach the pinnacle of one's sport, whether it's been her American soccer teammates or a weight lifter from a small country halfway around the world.
"You understand the sacrifice that each of us have made," said Hamm, who helped the United States win gold medals in women's soccer in 1996 and 2004. "The sacrifice, the things you've gained and the things you've given up, and the people you've met."
Hamm and two of her Olympic and World Cup teammates, Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini-Hoch, led more than 250 soccer players Tuesday at the University of Toledo, the second day of the three-day TeamFirst Soccer Academy.
The camp is being held less than two weeks prior to the start of the 2012 London Olympics. The United States opens pool competition in women's soccer on July 25 against France in Glasgow, Scotland, two days before the Games' opening ceremonies in London.
"The camp reinforces that whole factor," said Todd Strayer, a former youth soccer coach who initiated the campaign to bring the TeamFirst camp to Toledo. "Now, these girls can watch the U.S. team and they can take the aspects they've learned here at the camp and they can build on that. That's what they're instilling at this camp, what it takes to get to the next level. They're talking about the commitment level it takes, the training, even nutrition and hydration."
Hamm, 40, retired in 2004 as arguably one of the sport's most accomplished athletes. A four-time NCAA champion at North Carolina, she helped the United States win the women's World Cup in 1991 and 1999 and two Olympic gold medals. Hamm is also the all-time leading goal scorer among men and women in international competition, with 158 goals.
But Hamm was also part of a generation of women who became full-fledged beneficiaries of Title IX, a law passed in 1972 that requires gender equity for boys and girls in educational programs that receive federal funding -- including interscholastic athletics.
Hamm has seen growth in soccer, both at the international level and at the grass-roots level. Olympic women's soccer rosters have expanded from 16 players to 22, and this year's Olympic field includes 12 teams -- four more than the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
In the last 10 years, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that the number of girls playing high school soccer nationally has grown from 301,450 to 361,556; in Ohio, it's gone from 12,301 to 14,617.
But when Hamm played soccer growing up, she explained, she and many of her teammates didn't have community, recreational, or club teams of entirely girls; Hamm played on co-ed teams or was the only girl on boys teams during her childhood. Likewise, they didn't have the experienced and specialized coaching that club teams and summer teams have now; her youth coaches, Hamm said, were usually parents of teammates.
"We might have been one of two girls on the team," Hamm said. "These young girls have so many other people playing the game, like their friends and their neighbors, and you have such a high level of coaches, people who are investing their time to help make these kids better."
But as she has remained a participant in soccer, now as a coach and an ambassador, she's also learned to be an observer. She's the mother of two children who are learning the sport of soccer.
"I'd love for them to play soccer, just because I think it's such a healthy game for them," Hamm said. "I'm trying to teach my daughters lessons like, be polite, take your turn. But in soccer, you roll out the ball and it's survival of the fittest! They look at me and they're like, 'wait, when is it my turn to touch the ball? When do I shoot on goal?' "
But in the journey from being an Olympian and a world champion to a parent, she also considers the values she gained in that path.
"Patience," she said. "But at the same time, communication, tone when you're delivering a message, cooperation, and time. Time for your family and kids, especially. You just can't wake up, get out of bed and expect great things to happen if you don't put in the time."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.