Instead of continuing to reap the benefits of the U.S. Women's World Cup soccer triumph this summer and ride the wave of excitement that has swept the nation along the way, Lorrie Fair chose to return to the less-glamorous world of college athletics.

Instead of participating in the U.S. team's victory tour at sold-out venues across the country and pocketing additional money to the roughly $90,000 she was entitled to for winning the World Cup, Fair decided to turn it all down and play for no pay in front of considerably smaller crowds.

Instead of cruising around in the new General Motors car she could have had as a World Cup bonus, Fair was back in class at the University of North Carolina, eagerly preparing to write her first English paper of the semester.

And she couldn't be happier.

"This [North Carolina] team is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me," Fair said after surviving nearly two hours of fitness drills in 90-degree heat with the No. 2-ranked Tar Heels this week. "This is where my heart is. These players are like my family."

The 5-foot-3, 21-year-old native of Los Altos, Calif., chose that family over fame and fortune. In a decision that Fair said stunned and disappointed many of her friends and relatives, the all-American defender put her national team career on hold to return to school for her final season, turning down a six-figure payout and that new car to retain her athletic scholarship.

For Fair, a seldom-used reserve on the U.S. team, there was some unfinished business to take care of at North Carolina -- winning the national championship that eluded the Tar Heels last season -- and the feeling that her best opportunity to develop as a player was on the field here and not on the bench with the national team.

"It's very, very tough to break into the national team's starting lineup, and Lorrie is not content simply being a reserve," said North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance, the former coach of the national team who coached eight of the current national team players here. "She really felt like we would provide all the challenges and support she needed."

Nevertheless, it took about two months -- and a meeting with Dorrance -- for her to reach a decision.

"All of us have decisions to make, and some are not easy," Dorrance said. "This was not an easy one. When Lorrie came to my office to talk it over, I told her it was her decision, and I would support any decision she made. I think that meant a lot to her."

So, while her U.S. teammates are on their victory tour that begins next month, Fair will be trying to lead the Tar Heels to their third national championship in four years and 16th since 1981. She said she reported to practice in the best shape of her life.

After the blur that was her summer, it's a wonder Fair isn't physically and mentally worn out. After the United States' dramatic shootout victory over China in front of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl -- the largest crowd ever to attend a women's sporting event -- came a trip to Disneyland, a photo shoot for People magazine, an appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and interviews on "Good Morning America" and "Today."

"Nobody knew how big the World Cup was going to be," Fair said. "It was unbelievable."

But, in perhaps a more telling example of Fair's character, she passed up a visit to the White House to honor a commitment to coach at a summer camp in California.

"When she has a commitment, even the president isn't going to pull her away," said May Fair, Lorrie's mother. "I'm very proud of her."

Commitment is what Fair said she gave to the Tar Heels four years ago, when she was recruited out of Los Altos along with her twin sister, Ronnie, now a senior at Stanford. And she wants to make North Carolina proud once more of the commitment it gave to her.

"I want these freshmen and sophomores to know what it's like to win a national championship," said Fair. "This is kind of a quest for me."

Her quest will begin at a different position. Dorrance announced this week that Fair will play attacking center midfielder this year after senior all-American Laurie Schwoy decided to redshirt because of a hamstring injury.

At the new position, Fair is likely to improve on her 1998 numbers, when she started all 26 games and finished as the Tar Heels' fifth-leading scorer with five goals and 16 assists -- the second-highest total on the team. She was 10th in balloting for the Missouri Athletic Club Sports Foundation 1998 player of the year.

On the national team this summer, Fair played in four of six games for a total of 69 minutes. She replaced Mia Hamm for the final two minutes of a 3-0 win over Denmark.

Dorrance said it is just a matter of time before Fair breaks into the national team's starting lineup.

"She has all the tools to start at that level," he said. "From the standpoint of determination, I don't think there's anything she can't accomplish."

For her part, Fair said she has tremendous motivation to succeed, this fall and beyond.

"I don't know if there are words to describe my motivation," she said. "Some people asked me if it was going to be a downer to come back and play on a college team after playing on a world championship team, and I don't think they understand what it is like to play here. This season is going to be my most special and most cherished. All my focus is on getting that championship back here."

"But also," she added, "and don't tell my English professor this, I am excited about writing my first paper. Toward the end of summer, I didn't really use my brain too much."