She is the first real star of women's football: Michelle Akers. World Champion in 1991, bronze medallist in 1995, historic Olympic title, the high point of her career so far. Is there more to come?
As a veteran of 109 full international matches (after the Olympic final), Michelle Akers has experienced plenty of highs and lows in her football career. The USA's all-time leading goal scorer with 92 and the first worldwide women's football star, she played nearly every minute of every match during her team's run to the gold medal in the Centennial Olympics. The USA defeated China 2:1 in the final.
Akers scored five goals in one game during the inaugural FIFA Women's World Championship in China in 1991 and earned the adidas Golden Boot as the tournament's top goal scorer with ten goals.
She knows the feeling of disappointment, which Akers and her teammates felt after being eliminated by eventual-winner Norway in the semifinals of the 1995 FIFA Women's World Championship in Sweden. And, since she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an ailment which saps the strength from its victims, Akers understands what it is like not to be able to play the sport she loves.
FIFA Magazine: How does it feel to have won the first-ever women's Olympic football gold medal?
Michelle Akers: It is difficult to put into words. It's a feeling of immense joy and incredible satisfaction.
You have been involved in women's football since 1985 and have seen first-hand many changes. What are the most significant changes you have seen over the years?
We didn't know what to expect when we played in our first international game (a 0:1 loss to Italy in Jesolo, ed.). We didn't look like a national team. All we had were these lime-green and purple uniforms. No one was fit. It just felt like we were off to Italy on a vacation. We were just a bunch of kids, we didn't know what we were getting into and we lost three of our first four games.
What really was the turning-point in the status of the women's game?
Since the 1991 world championship, women's football has just exploded. There are so many good players now, and many countries have formed or are forming women's leagues. The promotional support provided by FIFA has been important, and the support of our Federation for women's football in the U.S. has been incredible. We hope to develop an elite league in the U.S. very soon. We'll need it to keep pace with the players from around the world.
And the Olympics was an important milestone, too . . .
Yes, I think the Olympics demonstrated just how good some players and countries are. The fact that 76'000 people came to the gold medal game, and the amount of media coverage we received, are indications of the growing support for the women's game.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has forced you to make many changes in your lifestyle. What's it like for a world-class athlete to be forced to take a breather?
It sucks, especially for me because I like to be in the game for the long haul, for 90 minutes. To relinquish my role at times because I'm sick is very frustrating. Some days it is all I can do just to get through the day, let alone be an elite athlete. The medical community isn't sure what causes the disease. General symptoms are bone-weary fatigue to the point where it affects your daily living. You get migraine headaches. It causes chemical imbalance. The illness demands attention in every detail of my life and if I don't pay attention, it punishes me mercilessly.
Has your condition affected your attitude to the game in any way?
I have gained a lot from this illness. Nothing that can be touched or measured, but through the suffering and heartache I have gained a strength and purpose that carries me when I cannot do it myself. I have seen and experienced God's grace and peace only because I have been in the "valley".
How do you combat the illness and still play at such a high level?
I was struggling to get through a one-hour practice, but my doctor put me on a new diet that changed my performance. I can't have dairy products, bakery goods or alcohol. I drink a lot of juice. I haven't felt as good as I do today for a long time.
You often play in midflield rather than at forward. Is that change in deference to the impact Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and your other injuries have had on you?
I'm still trying to figure out what kind of player I am right now. Previously, I played in a rage. I could go 100 percent the entire 90 minutes. I did what I wanted. I commanded the field. Now, I have to conserve my energy. I have to choose when to go and when to stay. This year's Olympic team is different from the '91 team because we have more depth; we really had 16 starters and whoever came off the bench could help the team win.
You have said that winning the gold medal at the Olympics was a great experience and that you plan to move from Orlando to Seattle. What are your plans for the future. Do you intend to continue your playing career? What about coaching?
I hope to compete in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup when it's played in the USA and in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and then hang up my boots. I have no aspirations to coach, but I will stay involved in the game. Walking off the field in Athens after beating China, after the last five years of ups and downs, it's all been worth it. That day made up for every struggle our team has been through. But now I'm ready for a vacation. I miss the mountains, miss my family. It's time for a change.