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Akers steps down from Olympic team, citing shoulder injury, fatigue.

(Thursday, August 24, 2000) -- One of the greatest women in the history of American soccer has decided she can play no more.

Michelle Akers
Michelle Akers retired from the United States national team three weeks before she was to compete in her fifth world competition.
United States national team midfielder Michelle Akers -- whose career is in itself a living history of the U.S. women's national team -- announced her retirement today because of an injured shoulder and her long-time battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Thus ended her dream to compete in a fifth world competition, the 2000 Summer Olympics that begin in three weeks in Australia. Previously, Akers competed with the U.S. in the 1991, 1995 and 1999 women's world championships -- winning the 1991 and '99 events and with the American side that captured the first Women's Olympic gold medal in 1996.

"After winning the gold medal in 1996, I promised myself to never again play in the condition I was in during those Olympic games," said Akers, who stepped down with 105 goals in 153 full international appearances. "Since then, retirement has been a big issue with me and the decision to continue on with the national team has always been a prayerful and careful one. This year was no exception, and after the 1999 World Cup, I wrestled for months about whether to play or not, but eventually decided to go for it because I knew unless I was absolutely sure I had spent every possible ounce of myself trying to play, I would beat myself up with second guessing for the rest of my life.

"But after battling back from a messed up shoulder and making the Olympic team, I found myself at the end -- physically and mentally -- with a body ready for a M*A*S*H unit. It has been a hard fought year, and the decision not go to Sydney was just as agonizing, but I have huge peace in knowing I fought to the very end and have nothing else to give."

Akers' retirement from international soccer ends a 15-year international career. of an era. Akers, 34, played in the first-ever U.S. women's match on August 18, 1985, against Italy, and was the top scorer at the first-ever women's world championship in 1991 with 10 goals to become the first American to win a Golden Boot men or women at an event of world governing body FIFA. awarded the Silver Ball as the second most valuable player in the tournament behind teammate Carin Gabarra (nee Jennings).

Akers' combination of speed, power and strength, as well as her artistry with the ball at her feet, made the 5-foot-10 with her distinctive mane of flowing curls a player feared and respected worldwide. She was the first female player to earn a shoe endorsement contract and the first to gain national and global fame in her sport.

During her time with the national team, women's soccer grew from its humble beginnings into one of the most popular sports for girls and women in the U.S., and was pulled into the mainstream through the hard work and dedication of Akers and other American women who became a role model for thousands of young girls across the country. Her warm personality, unique sense of humor and ability to talk to people of all walks of life further endeared her to fans wherever she traveled.

Akers, a member of the "Triple-Edge Sword" which also included fellow strikers Gabarra and present U.S. coach April Heinrichs in 1991, Akers was a thundering center forward, who, at the 1991 word championship, dominated a game like no player before or after her. She changed roles leading up to the 1996 Olympics, dropping into the midfield where her play-making skills and composure on the ball could be better utilized while the beatings she took with her back to the goal would be greatly reduced.

Akers' superior feel for the game, her ability to shoot from distance and her dominance in the air was on display during the '96 Olympics and 1999 Women's World Cup, where fans witnessed her fierce competitiveness. However, she was hampered by injuries throughout her entire career, enduring more than a dozen knee surgeries, numerous concussions, a broken cheekbone and related nasal surgery and, most recently, a dislocated shoulder, suffered last March 27.

Her well-documented struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome hampered her training for the last eight years.

"It is a rare thing for someone with her injuries and illnesses to battle as hard and long as she has to stay on the best women's soccer team in the world," said Dr. Mark Adams, who has served as the American team physician since 1996. "However, this combination of problems and setbacks makes it very difficult for Michelle to play to the level that she expects of herself. She's a warrior in every sense of the word, but it became clear to the team medical staff and to Michelle that this was the time step back."

This year, Akers struggled to return from the shoulder injury and the ensuring surgery on April 6 that caused her to miss almost all of the U.S. Olympic preparation matches, finally returning to the team during its European tour in July and playing well enough to earn a spot on the 18-player Olympic roster.

Akers re-injured her shoulder against Russia on August 15, and citing a weariness of the constant maintenance of her CFS in order to perform at the international level, she decided to retire from international play. She is still planning on playing for the Women's United Soccer Association franchise in Orlando, Fla., when the new women's professional league starts up in April.

"The shoulder injury has definitely been one of the toughest ever," Akers said. "Not only because of the physical pain, the surgery, and the rehabilitation, but because of the mental anguish that goes along with trying to come back in a short time frame to make the Olympic team and then having to deal with setback after setback and complication after complication, all the while knowing that every day and every hour counts as to whether you will make it back in time or not.

"This year just seems to have been a non-stop climb of Mount Everest with 80-mile gale winds at my face. But even in saying that, I know that to climb a mountain, one only needs to put one foot in front of the other and hopefully, if you do that long enough, you eventually reach the summit. That's how it has been in years past for me, and that's how I fully expected it to be this year. I knew it would be tough and I knew I would want to quit at times, but I have always been able to find something from somewhere to pull me through. Unfortunately, though, things did not relent, and instead of catching a much-needed break as in the past, this time, things only got tougher. I finally said to myself, this is insane.

One of just four players in soccer history too score more than 100 career goals, her 105 puts her in a tie for third all-time with long-retired Italian Carolina Morace. She scored her 100th goal against Portugal on January 30, 1999, in Fort Lauderdale.

Akers scored her first goal on August 21, 1985, in a 2-2 tie with Denmark in the second-ever women's national-team match. Her final tally came August 13 in a 7-1 rout of Russia in Annapolis, Md.

Akers scored both goals in the 1991 world championship final 2-1 triumph over Norway in Guangzhou, China.

Akers started suffering extreme fatigue and a litany of medical problems in 1992, and after months of struggles to not only diagnose her CFS, but also to find ways to cope with it, she recovered enough to start in the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden, only to suffer a concussion and injured knee during a head-to-head collision with a Chinese player just seven minutes into the opening game. She did not play again until the semifinal, when she went 90 minutes on the damaged knee as the U.S. lost its only game in world championship play, 1-0 to eventual champion Norway.

Akers rebounded to play a critical and emotional role when the Americans won the first Olympic gold medal for women's soccer in 1996. She scored crucial goals in both the 1996 Olympics and 1999 Women's World Cup -- where she was named to the all-tournament team -- to help the USA to championships.

Akers, a three-time U.S. Soccer Women's "Player of the Year," retires as the national team's second all-time leading scorer (behind Mia Hamm) with 105 goals, 37 assists and 247 total points. She is currently seventh in all-time appearances with 153 and is tied for the U.S. record for most goals in a game: five against Taiwan in the 1991 world championship.

She is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the three world championships now called the Women's World Cup -- with 12 goals. She holds the U.S. record for most goals and points in a calendar year when she pumped in 39 goals in 26 matches in 1991. She also holds the record for most consecutive games with a goal with nine. "Up to this point, I haven't had the opportunity to look back over my career," Akers said. "But I have to say all the trophies and championships are a far second to all the incredible people I have played along side and worked with over the years. Really and truly, my team is world class, more so off the field than they are on and they are a big part of the reason I have lasted 15 years as a national team player. I will miss them tremendously."

Just prior to the men's World Cup in France in 1998, Akers received the highest international honor, the FIFA Order of Merit. for her positive contributions to the game. She recently published her second book - "The Game and the Glory" -- which chronicles her life, her struggles and her triumphs.

"I plan to cheer my team on to win gold in Sydney," Akers said of the Olympics. "But I also plan on getting my body fixed and taking a much needed vacation in a top secret place with lots of horseback riding. Beyond that, I will be involved in the WUSA and soccer in some capacity . . . Lastly, but definitely not least, I will begin my long awaited career as a cowgirl on my farm in Georgia."

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