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Michelle Akers' horse rescue faces flooding, financial ruin
Soccer legend Michelle Akers needs help to stave off financial ruin from flood damage in Georgia as she tries to save abused horses.
By Jayda Evans
Seattle Times staff reporter
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ERIK S. LESSER / AP
Michelle Akers kisses Stormy, at her farm in Powder Springs, Ga. Akers was set to sell soccer memorabilia to pay for repairs caused by flooding.
ERIK S. LESSER / AP
ERIK S. LESSER / AP
Michelle Akers, showing her Olympic gold, got aid from friends to help offset costs from flooding.
Northwest Horse Forum
Don't let the wreath welcoming visitors to her eight-acre farm fool you. Michelle Akers won't be consumed with traditional motherly worries this holiday season.
Instead of wrapping presents and looking out for Santa with 4-year-old son Cody, one of the greatest players in women's soccer history will be gathering horses and warily watching weather reports. Record September flooding in Georgia, where she now lives, killed five and forced the governor to declare a state of emergency in 17 counties.
More rain is expected this weekend, according to the national weather service. Flooding has caused more than $50,000 worth of damage to Akers' farm in Cobb County.
That's the scene of her newest passion: Horse Rescue and Outreach, Inc. Akers, 43, and her husband moved to the farm last fall and made it a home for their nonprofit venture rescuing horses.
Now she watches the rain and worries about her horses.
"Every time it rains, it's like 'Oh, boy!' and the farm floods," said Akers, who graduated from Shorecrest High School in Shoreline before leading the U.S. to the pivotal 1999 Women's World Cup title.
"My shovel has seen a lot of action these past months. It's craziness. They were in a drought for a few years before this, but I don't think we've had two weeks of dry weather here."
Akers began rescuing horses in 2008. Zoe, a 36-year-old black mare, was the first. The former owner tried to bury the emaciated mare alive in 100-degree heat when he couldn't get her to her feet.
Akers now has four rescues, enjoying rides on Stormy and Thunder and showing off Handsome, who was calmest during the first September flood. Water reached Akers' waist, but the aging horses followed her to safety at daybreak.
"It was really scary," said Akers, who watched the water rise overnight with a flashlight. "It's a lot to say of the trust the horses and I have — the relationship. They just did what I asked. Their stalls were filling up with water and they just looked at me like, 'We should be leaving.' "
Akers doesn't have flood insurance or extra cash to to rebuild.
The financial strain caused Akers to gather cherished memorabilia from her storied soccer career to sell. She was ready to offer an autographed ball from the '99 Women's World Cup, a signed jersey from Pelé and other items until former coaches and teammates stopped her.
"She wasn't sure which direction to go or who to ask. It's not her nature," said former national team coach Tony DiCicco. "She lost sight that she is a special person in many people's eyes, so when I heard she was struggling, I sent something out. There has been a tremendous response."
DiCicco coaches the Boston Breakers, the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) team that gave 100 percent of gross sales for 2010 season-ticket purchases between Dec. 10-18 to the Michelle Akers Horse Rescue and Outreach. That raised $3,100. DiCicco also reached out to former players, and among those responding were Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy.
Mike Lyons, an assistant coach from Sky Blue FC, plans to bring a crew to the farm this weekend to help install concrete flooring and strengthen a makeshift levy Akers built.
"It's incredibly humbling," Akers said. "I almost feel I don't want it because I feel there's so many other people that need help and other horse rescuers that need help. We're pretty beat up, but no one's dying, yet. And it has to be to that point before I ask for help."
Akers bought her first horse, Vinnie, the year of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. As a child, she was mesmerized by the movie "The Black Stallion" and never lost her love for horses as she grew up.
A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, she retired from soccer in 2000 second to Hamm as the national team's all-time leading goal scorer.
The WPS, in its second year, also renamed its MVP trophy after Akers this season, making Brazilian star Marta the first recipient. In January the league plans to hold an auction of its first-year memorabilia and all-star game to raise funds for Akers.
"Michelle Akers was the first and only soccer player I looked up to," said Olympic goalkeeper Hope Solo, who plays for the St. Louis Athletica. "She was very underrated and a Cinderella player for the team. Just an incredible person."
And a person who can't believe that others are willing to lend her a hand as she tries to save helpless animals.
"It's hard to take it without giving something. People are donating $5 or $25, they're hurting and I don't want to put my burden on others," Akers said. "At the same time, I'm so grateful that they're willing to help. I feel joy when I help people, and I guess it's my turn."