As the U.S. team's celebration erupted at the conclusion of today's Women's World Cup final, veteran midfielder Michelle Akers stood in the tunnel in the south end of the Rose Bowl. Her legs barely kept her upright, her mind wobbled. Her teammates waved for her to join the party, but she had reached her limit.
Suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration, taking fluids intravenously and unable to push her bruised body any more, Akers enjoyed the moment with some of the medical staff and tournament officials.
"We were trying to get her out there for the medal ceremony," defender Carla Overbeck said. "She showed up eventually right at the very end, but it was a struggle for her. She was hurting."
In perhaps the most courageous performance of her 14-year international career, Akers was the foundation of the Americans' defensive effort against China's dangerous attack. She clogged the middle of the field, disrupted the Chinese team's flow and helped spark the American attack.
She had several mid-air collisions with forward Jin Yan, crashed to the turf at least three times and slid into an advertising board beyond the end line in the second half. Finally, as time expired in regulation, she could go no farther, collapsing in front of the goal she was defending. It took about five minutes for her to stand, braced by two trainers who kept her from falling over.
As the team gathered before the start of overtime, Akers sat slumped on the bench, her head covered with a wet towel. As the match proceeded, few of the 90,185 in attendance noticed her being taken to the locker room for further examination.
"The fans were treated today to witnessing one of the greatest women athletes in history -- a true champion leaving it all on the field, fighting for her teammates," Coach Tony DiCicco said. "Michelle Akers inspires me and I know she does the same for everybody on the U.S. team."
At 33, Akers is the oldest U.S. player and the only one remaining from 1985, when the national team was formed. Her role has been reduced over the years and she has struggled with chronic fatigue syndrome, which has limited her playing time.
But in the biggest -- and perhaps final -- game of her distinguished international career, Akers stood tall. While the rest of the team met the media after the game, Akers remained in the locker room and was unavailable to comment. Her teammates, however, had plenty of things to say about Akers.
"Every time I look at Michelle I shake my head in disbelief," midfielder Julie Foudy said. "She just amazes me. She never stops giving to this team. She waited until she couldn't go anymore. But that's Michelle. She never, ever gives up."
Said Overbeck: "She basically plays and plays and plays until she can't play anymore. That's the way she is. I hope she didn't take it a little too far today. But playing in the World Cup final, she didn't want to come out. That's just her warrior mentality."
The impact of Akers's departure was felt immediately as China dominated the first 15-minute overtime period. Akers's replacement, 23-year-old Sara Whalen, was exploited by the opportunistic Chinese players, but the U.S. team survived.
In the penalty kick tiebreaker, Akers would have been a natural to take a shot. But once she was removed from the match, she was ineligible to return. Not that she had the strength to swing her powerful right leg one more time.
"We could see she was tired out there," DiCicco said. "But she didn't want to come out of the game. She went as long as she could until there was absolutely nothing left. She is an amazing woman and an amazing soccer player."
CAPTION: U.S. Forward Shannon MacMillan (8) leaps for a header while sandwiched between Chinese defenders Liu Ailing (10) and Bai Jie.
CAPTION: U.S. Coach Tony DeCicco says 33-year-old Michelle Akers, right, is "one of the greatest women athletes in history."