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SPORTS HERO

Golden Feat

By Tim Branson
700 Club Producer

CBN.com -

Retirement isn't something you spend much time thinking about while traveling from one continent to the next, especially while winning World Cups and capturing gold medals. But eventually, time catches up with us all, and so it has with Michelle Akers. She's women's soccer's first, and only, living legend. She walked away from the U.S. National team for good in August 2000, ending a 15-year career as the team's central figure.

"I just wanted to stop playing soccer and stop beating myself to death on the soccer field. And yet, God had told me last year, 'No, you're not done,' says Michelle. "I have been waiting and waiting and waiting, so when He finally gave me the thumb's up to quit, I was, like, 'Oh, yes! Rock on.' I was so happy. I mean, I was sad because I was ending my international career, but I was so happy that I had been faithful to the plan He had for me."

It hadn't been an easy road. She battled chronic fatigue syndrome and she struggled much of her career with an injured shoulder that, even after 13 operations, refused to heal. She injured it again during practice for the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. It was a moment she'll never forget.

"I was in Annapolis training with the team. We were playing Russia a couple of times. And, actually, I got in and played a couple of halves. I re-injured my shoulder, so I came off the field and I looked out at my trainer. I was like, 'Now what are we going to do?' because this thing's hanging off and I was in so much pain. So I knew it was kind of over."

But Michelle was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of peace. And though a flood of emotions would come later, time seemed to slow down that day and seconds seemed like minutes.

"I sat on the field with the team warming down, stretching out. I was just looking at my teammates and chatting with them and looking at the stadium and they were screaming our names. I just knew that was it, I was done," she says. "It was really neat to be able to relish the moment and really spend time with my teammates and appreciate them. I would kind of stand outside of myself and look at the big picture and really enjoy myself."

And then it was done.

Michelle Akers"I flew home to Florida and cried the entire way on the plane and cried for a week straight, really, because I was just so upset and so sad. But I still knew it was the right decision. It was just the process of grief you have to go through in saying good-bye to a lot of people you love and going for what God wants for you."

Michelle endured one more surgery to repair the damage from the latest injury. Now she's trusting in God to restore her and to provide an oasis where she can gather strength for the next phase of her journey.

"He's going to give me the rest I need because we've done so much. We have been walking through the desert and climbing all the mountains," says Michelle. "Now it's time to kind of sit by the water and rejuvenate.

"Right now my greatest passion is to spend time with people I really care about and haven't really had time to see over the years because of the soccer and the health issues. Then I've got a lot of things that are swirling in my head and in my heart. But I'm waiting for God to kind of heal one or two of those things before I really take off in one direction."

One of those things is hosting the Michelle Akers Invitational Golf Tournament. Michelle started the tournament to raise support for a ministry she founded called Soccer Outreach International. Its goal is to teach children the fundamentals of the game and the value of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

"I'll be using Soccer Outreach International and the platform of soccer in general to influence people and get to know people and share my faith," she says. "I'm sort of seeing how my story and how my life and how I've handled things and how that has really impacted people all over the world and in so many different ways. I've had a lot of tears, but there's also been a lot of smiles just hearing from people and what God's done in their lives, through all the tough stuff in my own life."

Michelle maintains close contact with her friends and former teammates from the U.S. national team. And while her presence on the field is clearly missed, she continues to influence those she left behind.

"The way you impact people is how you act and how you treat them. I think that's what she's done," says former U.S. soccer teammate Mia Hamm. "You see the strength of her faith in that and not in trying to tell people that the way they live their lives is wrong. I think you just see her happier and more fulfilled now than you have in the past. I attribute that to her growth and faith in her life."

Adds former teammate Siri Mullinax, "You could tell how much she depended on her faith. You can just see that in her actions. She wasn't necessarily out preaching. She got her word out just by what she did. You knew what she stood for and you knew what kept her going and what her driving force was."

"She was just a tremendous leader. Obviously, her faith is a huge part of her life," says former teammate Cindy Parlow, "and I think it's helped her tremendously to get through a lot of the battles that she's been fighting with the past couple of years."

Michelle Akers"It's the life stuff and it's the God stuff and it's the spiritual encouragement or inspiration over the years where I was totally oblivious that even anybody was watching or noticing and now those comments are coming back," Michelle concludes. "You hear it from an eight-year-old kid or somebody who's fighting through cancer or an elite athlete at the top of their game. It just means so much to my faith, as well, to know that He's working even when He's not talking to me or even when I don't feel close to Him, even when things are so hard I want to give up and just die and He's still doing his stuff. And the fruit comes out of it later. So I've learned a lot of patience and a lot of trust and the fact that I don't hear from Him to know that He's doing His thing."

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