On a very good day, Michelle Akers feels exhilarated after soccer practice, just like a healthy person. On a very bad day, she wakes up sweating, lacking the energy to get out of bed, with a migraine so painful she keeps a forearm over her eyes to keep the light out. On days like that, she leaves her bed only to vomit. And, even then, she needs assistance to get to the bathroom.
"I don't think even her teammates have a full comprehension of it," said Amanda Cromwell, Akers's roommate in Lake Mary, Fla., and a former member of the U.S. women's national team. "I think very few realize what she does, day in and day out."
Akers's occupation and public identity -- starting midfielder for a U.S. team favored to win the Women's World Cup, which begins June 19 -- seem incompatible with the disease she has fought for six years. Akers, 33, has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an illness known to strike women under 45 that is characterized by spates of inexplicable and incapacitating exhaustion. The disease crept up on Akers gradually, showing up in full force during the 1993 Olympic Sports Festival. There, Akers staggered around the field, delirious, and had to be guided to the locker room.
The fatigue frequently interferes with Akers's training and playing schedule, and requires her to adhere to a mostly dairy-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free and alcohol-free diet. Akers takes a mechanical juicer on the road, so she can mix nutritious fruit and vegetable shakes in her hotel room. She rarely ventures from her room, except for games or practices. She nearly always skips team functions, such as dinners or trips to the movies or mall. She is careful not to deplete her finite energy supply.
"Many times I thought I would retire, and I'm still considering it," Akers said recently after a workout with the national team in Milwaukee. "My battle isn't over. And it's every day. . . . If I wake up and my tank is empty, that's the end of that. There's no negotiating."
With diligent adherence to her diet and rest schedule, Akers can often play and practice with the breakneck intensity and at the high skill level that earned her recognition as the first superstar female soccer player in the United States. Akers, who scored the first goal for the U.S. team in 1985, is one of only four women to have scored more than 100 international goals.
On a good day -- and there are more of them now than in 1994-95, when Akers knew little about the illness -- Akers's problems are imperceptible, and she remains one of the top players in the world. Last year, she was named to an international soccer commission to study the game's future along with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini, among others.
But even the most careful maintenance can't stave off what Cromwell calls "the awful days." On one such day in February, Cromwell hauled Akers, pale and exhausted, into her car and drove her to a local emergency room, where doctors pumped her with fluids for several hours. The lapse, fortunately, occurred during a week off for the national team. Akers returned to training a few days later.
Akers often cannot play full games or finish practice sessions, a pattern likely to be repeated during the Women's World Cup, a 16-team, three-week world championship that takes place at eight U.S. sites, including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. "She's physically fit, but I think you'll see some ups and downs," said her father, Bob Akers of Seattle. "I think the travel is the key -- how well she handles it."
U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco never questions Akers when she asks to be removed from the lineup. She often plays only one half, or less. Akers's postgame meal consists of intravenous fluids, fed into her while she reclines on a training table. On most bus rides, she sits silently, resting while teammates around her socialize. Akers once worried that she would be perceived as a head case, a player with a psychological rather than physiological problem. After 14 years of service to the national team, however, she has won a substantial base of credibility.
"Everyone trusts that if she can go, she'll go," longtime U.S. teammate Julie Foudy said. "She'd put her life on the line if she could."
Akers, who in 1991 became the first U.S. female soccer player to win a shoe contract, is now the only star on the U.S. team without a shoe deal. Recently, she gave up a contract with Reebok that would have paid her "close to six figures," she said, because she preferred to conserve her limited energy for the World Cup rather than trying to satisfy the company's appearance requirements.
"My life is streamlined to achieve certain goals," Akers said, "and everything else has to go."
Akers lives on her salary from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which pays players for their nearly year-round participation in the program. Longtime veterans such as Akers and Mia Hamm earn the highest sums, which are believed to be less than $50,000.
Before contracting the fatigue syndrome, Akers enjoyed her status as the most popular female player in the world. In 1991, the U.S. team won the inaugural Women's World Cup in China and Akers was the leading scorer in the tournament with 10 goals. In one match, she scored five goals.
She was easily recognizable on the field with her distinctive long and curly hair, which was always flying this way and that. "She was always the one fighting and throwing herself in front of the ball," said U.S. teammate Kristine Lilly, "and wearing herself out completely."
The fatigue syndrome has been Akers's most difficult physical challenge, but not her only one. In the first game of the 1995 Women's World Cup, in which the United States lost to eventual champion Norway in the semifinals and finished third overall, Akers suffered a concussion and a knee injury, which kept her out until the semifinal loss. Throughout her career, she has undergone more knee operations than she can count.
In the 1996 Olympics, in which the U.S. team defeated China 2-1 to win the first gold medal awarded to female soccer players, Akers scored the tying goal on a penalty kick. Shortly before the Games, Akers gave testimony about her illness to Congress. "I am hanging on the very will and courage that helped me attain my status as an elite athlete," Akers testified.
Most recently, during a match in mid-February, Akers broke three bones below her left eye in a head-to-head collision with another player. She received 25 stitches and was expected to be out of action until April.
She returned to the lineup in the middle of March. She started in three of the team's four games in the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
The U.S. team media notes called it a "somewhat miraculous" recovery, but to Akers's teammates, her early return was nothing less than expected.
"There have been times when she said she didn't have anything in her tank and she's out there doing great," said Cromwell. "Something out there is keeping her going. It's amazing to watch her. It's inspirational to the whole team. Even though they don't know what I know, they're in awe."
CAPTION: For six years, midfielder Michelle Akers has had fatigue syndrome. "Many times I thought I would retire."