Soccer Icon Mia Hamm on How Being ‘Intense and Focused and Raw’ Can Heal After Loss
Mia Hamm was at the height of her career in 1996 after the Atlanta Olympics when the U.S. Women’s team won a gold medal in the first Olympics where women’s soccer had ever been introduced. Things turned the following year, when Hamm lost her 28-year-old brother, Garrett, due to complications following his bone marrow transplant for aplastic anemia—a rare blood disorder that the Mayo Clinic explains causes a deficiency in the blood cells the body is meant to produce.
Now Hamm, a 51-year-old mom of three, reveals she found solace by turning her raw emotions into focus on the field. In the 25 years since, she’s become a dedicated advocate for the bone marrow transplant community by raising awareness for complications such as graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), like Garrett faced.
Hamm recently spoke with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest about how the final months with her brother converged with the biggest moment of her career, how work helped her grieve, and what she thinks about this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Mia Hamm on the World Cup
The Healthy @Readers Digest: First, we can’t talk with you in summer 2023 without bringing up the World Cup. This year, the U.S. team finished in round 16, which was the earliest they’d ever departed the World Cup. What was it like for you watching this year?
Mia Hamm: I think it was an amazing tournament overall. I know the US exit was sooner than everyone had anticipated. But so much good soccer was played throughout the tournament, the largest field ever to play in a Women’s World Cup. Teams that have never made it to the knockout did.
So many positives to take away from the tournament as a whole. As a former player, even when you have to take the jersey off, you’re still very much a part of that program and want nothing but the best for them. It was hard. But I think they’re going to use it as motivation to come back stronger for next summer in the Olympics.
The Healthy: Spain’s win was somewhat overshadowed by discussion around how the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation kissed a player during the awards ceremony. What did you think when you saw that?
Mia Hamm: I didn’t see it in real time. I think a lot of people, they went back just disgusted and heartbroken for this team that has done so much, where it’s the biggest game of their lives and that’s what we should be celebrating. Not just the fact that they won, but how they won. They played beautiful, amazing soccer, and this is what we’re talking about instead of these players.
I just look at how they’ve been incredibly unified, not just as a team, but so many players from across the world have backed them and supported them. I think their strength on the field was how committed they were to each other. And you can see that off the field.
Mia Hamm on grieving her brother
David Madison/getty images
The Healthy: You’re arguably one of the most important female figures in sports, but a lot of people don’t know that at the height of your career when you were 25, you lost your older brother to complications following his bone marrow transplant. Tell us what happened to him, how he found out he had a rare bone marrow disease.
Mia Hamm: We adopted him when he was eight. I was almost five. [He was] just an incredible role model for me on the athletic field. He was really good at every sport he played. A lot of my teammates, we always talk about like, “Oh, it was my older brother that really pushed me.”
He found out his senior year in high school that he had aplastic anemia. He was told that he had to stop playing any contact sports, which for someone whose identity was so wrapped up in being a really great athlete, that was difficult. He went through remission. But then when he came out of remission, he had what’s called myelodysplasia where his body wasn’t really really producing any healthy blood cells and he was told he had to have a bone marrow transplant. His biological father was his marrow match and had the transplant. The transplant was a success, but he ended up having a fungal infection that ended up taking his life. It’s something you and I fight every single day. It’s no big deal, but [for] someone that’s immunosuppressed, it was really difficult.
What we’re trying to do is raise awareness of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). That’s one of the potential complications of a bone marrow transplant. [I want] to really help, urge families, patients that are on this bone marrow transplant journey to learn about the symptoms, what to look out for, so pre- and post-transplant, they’re ready to act. They can contact their healthcare team and make good healthcare decisions for themselves.
The Healthy: What should people know about bone marrow transplants and GVHD?
Mia Hamm: Well, first of all that GVHD—graft-versus-host disease—impacts every patient differently. So a symptom you have might differ from myself, and that’s why it’s important to educate yourself, but to have those open lines of communication with your doctors. A great resource for them is gvhdnow.com.
The Healthy: We were trying to look at the timelines when he died, I believe this was right after the famous Olympic tournament in 1996 where you had sprained your left ankle in an early match, but you only missed one game. The US won 2-1 against China.
Mia Hamm: It was.
The Healthy: What was it like for you to go through such a big high like that, and such a low low while your brother was sick?
Mia Hamm: We won the gold medal, but another [exciting] part was the fact that he could attend. At first, we were unsure because he was really sick, but he ended up making it to Atlanta and was able to watch us play in the final. So I have all these amazing photos from that. I remember coming out of the van at the family house where we would all meet, and I was one of the last ones back. I had to do drug testing and he waited for me. So he was the first person I saw when I got out of the van and just kept telling me how proud he was of me. He got to put on my gold medal, which was pretty awesome to see. And less than seven months later, eight months later, he was gone. Having the entire family there in the room when he took his last breath, I think was something we were all grateful for.
The Healthy: After he passed, how did that experience affect your life, and how did you deal with that grief?
Mia Hamm: I’ve always found such strength and solace in the game of soccer. I remember watching one of the games that I missed and the entire team is lining up before the game, and they’re all wearing black armbands in Garrett’s honor. I just remember just thinking how lucky I was to have them. They’d been so supportive in helping me raise money, and I wanted to get back on the field to thank them but also to celebrate and do what I love to do because I knew my brother couldn’t. It helped carry me through that difficult time. I am just a really emotional person. On the field, I could be intense and focused and raw.
Mia Hamm on life today
The Healthy: That’s beautiful. Tell us what your life looks like now.
Mia Hamm: I am a mom. We have three kids, twin girls, 16, and a son that’s 11. It’s amazing and scary and all at the same [time]. There are days you think you’ve got it and then the following day you’re like, “What the heck happened?” Whether it’s your reaction to a certain situation or your kid just wakes up tired, you’re like, “Is this the same house that we had yesterday?” But I wouldn’t change it for anything. Just to be able to see the world through their eyes and try as you might to tell them it’s going to be OK. It still is hard.
The Healthy: We talk a lot about nutrition and fitness on the site. How has your routine changed from when you were a professional athlete?
Mia Hamm: A lot. All I used to do is wake up, and everything I did had to do with performance. So everything I ate, everything I drank, every physical activity, every amount of sleep was all geared towards performance. So it’s a very selfish act, but yet you’re also doing it because you’re responsible to a team. Your fitness is the one thing you can control when you’re not with your team. People always ask, what do you miss? I go, “I miss being that fit, and I miss seeing my friends on a daily basis.” I used to commit every single day to being that fit. Now I just don’t have 12 hours to do that. I mean, I’m lucky if I get one hour. So a lot of the time, whether it be strength-training, bootcamp, riding the bike, or going for a run, that’s what I do.
The Healthy: Is there one self-care ritual that you refuse to skip?
Mia Hamm: No, because usually what happens is I’ll skip working out because I just want one more hours of sleep.
The Healthy: How many moms can relate to that?! So maybe sleep.
Mia Hamm: Yeah, maybe sleep. Maybe that’s it. But I wish I slept better. I need to commit to that.