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Michelle Akers: A true warrior and champion.

By Tim Nash
Special to SoccerTimes

Michelle Akers STANFORD, Calif. (Wednesday, July 7, 1999) -- Michelle Akers left the Stanford Stadium field Sunday much the way she had exited Jack Kent Cook Stadium in Landover, Md., three days earlier following the United States hard-fought 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Germany.

Anxious to begin her crucial recovery process following the 2-0 semifinal victory over Brazil, she ventured through the stadiumís tunnel system to her locker room.

Akers had played a crucial role in disposing of Brazil, taking a cleat to the face among a series of bumps and bruises, playing 90 painful minutes, just as she had against Germany. She fought through the energy-draining symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, as well as the obvious pain of a separated shoulder, to play an intense defensive role in addition to springing Mia Hamm for a late breakaway. Hamm was taken down in the box and Akers buried the resultant penalty kick to for the second and clinching goal.

After the game, all she wanted to do was get to the locker room, where ice goes on her shoulder and IVs go in her veins. On the way to the locker room, she certainly did not slap any high fives with the fans as she did after the U.S.ís 3-0 first-round win over North Korea at Foxboro (Mass.) on June 27.

"I was running along slapping hands with fans, thinking 'This is a pretty cool way for me to interact with the fans,' " Akers said. "Then one guy thought it would be funny if he grabbed my hand."

When the fan latched on to her, he actually pulled her to the ground and pulling her arm out of socket at the same time.

Against Germany, Akers, who has numerous shoulder injuries in her prolific career, took nearly a dozen tumbles to the turf and with each one she grimaced in pain. By the time the game was 10 minutes old, Akers was holding her right arm as if it were in a sling. However, after the game was 10 minutes old, Akers' team was also losing 1-0. And she knew they needed her.

An often overlooked part of Akers' game is her heading ability, especially on corner kicks and opponents goal kicks and punts. Early in each match, Akers mentally measures the opposing goalkeepers punts. Then she will battle for -- and win nearly everything that comes within a 20-yard radius of her. The result is that opponents punts and goal kicks almost become a scoring opportunity for the U.S. In the 80th minute against Brazil, it did lead to the insurance tally.

Despite her shoulder pain, Akers was sending German keeper Silke Rottenberg's offerings back at the goal like they hit one of those backyard kick-back structures.

But as the first half went on, it took her longer and longer to pull herself off the turf. On one occasion, in the 33rd minute, she was laid out on her back gripping her shoulder and kicking her feet in pain. Then she inexplicably rose and resumed play.

"In the first half, we thought she might have to come out," explained assistant coach Lauren Gregg. Just donít tell that to Akers.

In the locker room at halftime, when Gregg approached Akers to inquire about her health, Akers answered the question before it could be asked. "As I came up to her, she said, 'I can do it,' " Gregg said. "That was good enough for me. As the game went on, she seemed to get stronger."

In games where the midfield is the main battleground, Akers' warrior spirit is essential. "If you want to see guts personified, look at Michelle Akers," said U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "When I think of Michelle, I think of one word -- Champion."

After games, the "Champion" drags her brittle, battered body back to the locker room for her post-game ritual -- a prayer of thanks, intravenous fluids and some ice . . . a whole lot of ice.

One more game remains: Saturdayís meeting with China to decide the Womenís World Cup champion.

Tim Nash is editor of College Soccer Weekly and can be e-mailed at tim@collegesoccer.com.

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