POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. – Michelle Akers tilts her head to one side and urges the old horse to show off her new trick. The one she learned after being snatched away from a life of abuse and neglect.
“Come on, Zoe,” the former soccer standout said. “Be cute.”
On cue, the black mare jerks her head to the left, mimicking her owner, then gobbles up a handful of peppermint treats as her reward.
“There’s something divine about them,” Akers said, breaking into a contented smile. “Horses choose you. You have to earn it. You have to prove it to them every day. You have to get them to say, ‘You’re cool. I like you. I want to be with you.’ When it happens, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awesome.’ ”
It’s a thrill one of the greatest stars in U.S. soccer history has been seeking since she retired from competition, turning her competitive passion to rescuing abused horses.
“I beef ’em up, love on ’em, then adopt them out,” she said.
Now her dream is in danger of being washed away.
Record flooding in Georgia has left her with some $50,000 in damages to her eight-acre farm, forcing Akers to auction off some of the memorabilia from her storied international career to pay for the repairs.
“This stuff just becomes unimportant when compared to my horses and the ones who are suffering,” Avers told the Associated Press. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something.’ I can’t just sit here and say I don’t have any money when I have something I can do to help.”
Akers, who graduated from Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, Wash., scored 105 goals in 153 games for the U.S. national team. She was a pivotal member of a groundbreaking group that captured two World Cup titles and the first women’s soccer gold medal in Olympic history at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
When Akers retired nine years ago, she began rescuing horses with the same determination she had put into one of her shots. One horse saved. Then another. And another. Soon, Akers realized that she needed more room than her central Florida home, leading her to buy an eight-acre spread in the sprawling suburbs northwest of Atlanta, where rolling pastures mix with cul-de-sacs.
Less than two months after Akers and her horses moved in, the floodwaters did, too.
On a cold, dreary, damp morning, Akers looks toward the threatening skies with apprehension.
There have been far too many days like this since she arrived in Georgia. Torrential showers keep pouring down as if the clouds have mistaken Dixie for a tropical rain forest.
“Uh oh, we’ll be flooding again tonight,” she said.
Her troubles began in late September with the arrival of a once-every-century storm. Akers didn’t have flood insurance. Why would she? She didn’t even live in a flood plain. But her low-lying land was especially vulnerable when the devastating system settled over north Georgia.
A nearby creek spilled over its banks, and suddenly the drainage ditches cutting through Akers’ property were overflowing. The water started to rise, and it didn’t stop until her pastures were covered and only the top half of the barn was visible from the cozy family home, which sits atop a small hill. All four of Akers’ horses – including 30-year-old Zoe, who was rescued a couple of years ago and wound up staying – were hustled off to higher ground.
When the waters receded, Akers was stunned by the damage. The pristine pastures were a muddy mess. Eighty bales of hay she had stored in the barn were ruined. And every time the storms returned, as they have so often over the past three months, her land quickly filled again.
“I wanted to throw up,” she said. “I’m still finding stuff in trees and the woods.”
Akers has already spent thousands trying to keep the waters away from the barn, constructing a makeshift levy out of wood and stone. But the full damage is far more severe, estimated at some $50,000. She and her husband are still trying to sell their Florida home, so money is tight for the family, which also includes 4-year-old son Cody.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. Akers began sifting through the mementos of her soccer career – autographed jerseys, signed balls, one-of-a-kind pictures – and decided it was time to sell.
Framed jerseys, including one autographed by Pele. The ball she used to score her 100th career goal. The cleats she was wearing when the U.S. won its memorable World Cup title at the Rose Bowl a decade ago. Gaudy rings she earned at the World Cup and the Olympics. Even a Wheaties box with her on the front.
She hopes that an auction will cover most of the costs of the flood. She hopes to hang on to a few of her most precious items – including her gold medal from the ’96 Olympics – but isn’t ruling anything out.
“All this stuff is very cool. It brings back a lot of memories,” said Akers, who was born in Santa Clara, Calif., and grew up in suburban Seattle. “But when I’m out there” – she adds, motioning toward her pastures – “I know that’s just way, way more important.”
At 43, Akers doesn’t look much different than she did on the soccer field, still sporting that familiar curly brown hair and trim body. But she bears the inevitable scars of a long career: an aching shoulder, a painful right knee that requires a brace when she’s working and will likely have to be replaced one day.
“It’s a mess in there,” Akers said. “Just bone on bone.”
But her pain pales alongside the unspeakable mistreatment she has seen – horses starved, horses beaten, horses subjected to random acts of violence that defy explanation. Zoe was rescued from an owner who had attempted to bury another horse alive.
“There’s more abuse now because of the economy,” she said. “There’s more pressure in day-to-day living: people losing their jobs, being short on money.”
This love of horses goes all the way back to her childhood, when Akers read “The Black Stallion” and dreamed of having one of her own. Soccer came first, though, and most of her teammates on the U.S. national team didn’t even know about her other desire as they crisscrossed the globe, winning championships and tearing down barriers against female athletes.
“We used to give her a hard time about her tight jeans and those big belt buckles,” former teammate Brandi Chastain said, “but we didn’t know she had this vision to do a horse rescue.”
In 1996, the year of the Atlanta Olympics, Akers got her first horse. She now has Handsome, a tan Palomino; an appropriately named mother-son duo, Stormy and Thunder; and, of course, Zoe.
Akers’ old friends and teammates aren’t surprised that she’s willing to sell off the remnants of a career well played to help her horses.
“She was an incredibly passionate soccer player, someone who had more determination and drive and encouragement than most people you come across,” Chastain said. “I understand why she’d be willing to use those mementoes as a way to help her horses survive and thrive. I’m very proud of her for making that decision.”
Maybe she won’t have to. Even though Akers left soccer in the rearview mirror – asked if she misses it, she quickly replies, “Not for a second” – the tight-knit sport has rallied to her cause.
Her old coach, Tony DiCicco, heard of Akers’ auction plans and began a fundraising effort through his current job with the Boston Breakers, a team in the Women’s Professional Soccer league.
“There has got to be a better way than this,” DiCicco wrote on the team’s Web site. “Michelle is going through a difficult time and needs some assistance and if you know Mich, she is not going to ask for any help.”
DiCicco and Breakers general manager Andy Crossley both made personal donations. The organization pitched in, too, announcing any money raised through season ticket sales by today would be donated fully to Akers’ horse rescue group.
In addition, WPS is planning to sell off autographed memorabilia from its inaugural all-star and championship games to raise money for Akers. Even though she never played in the fledgling league, of course, the MVP award is named in her honor.
“Michelle Akers is a legend not only in the world of women’s soccer, but soccer in general,” said Robert Penner, a league spokesman. “She left it all out on the field. She deserves for soccer fans to recognize not only all she did when she played, but what she’s doing now with her horse rescue farm. The dedication she showed to soccer is now showing in another walk of life.”
Akers’ house is ready for Christmas. A wreath hangs on the gate. Two lighted reindeer stand in the front yard. The tree in the living room is filled with ornaments.
Maybe Santa will bring her what she wants most of all: a thick, grassy field for her horses to run and, more important, a world that treats these majestic animals with the respect they deserve.
“I get so much out of it,” Akers said. “OK, I’m doing something good for them. But it’s really like they’re doing more for me. I want to help other people get to the same kind of relationship with their horses.”
On the Web:
•Akers’ Horse Rescue: www.michelleakershorserescue. com
•Women’s Professional Soccer: www.womensprosoccer.com
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