There was a lot of talk about Shannon MacMillan and miracles during the approach to the fourth Women's World Cup, the tone of which was almost always alike, something along these lines: How the devil did she do it?
The veteran forward, U.S. Soccer's Female Athlete of the Year in 2002, had no business being on the U.S. squad that's seeking to repeat as World Cup winner. When she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee back on May 18, simple math suggested it would take a miracle for her to suit up when the Americans opened defense of their 1999 title.
And yet there she was for the U.S. women's 3-1 triumph over Sweden in a Group A opener, garbed in that familiar No. 8 jersey - on the bench, true, but she was there, ready for action should the need have arisen.
The odds against it were massive, requiring an astonishing turn of events, an incredible recovery from the most debilitating of injuries, an amazing battle against time - Roget's got a couple dozen words for what it was, but the same one keeps popping up.
''I call her the 'miracle girl,''' said U.S. forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who has been MacMillan's teammate since they destroyed opposing defenses at the University of Portland a decade ago. ''It's unbelievable. If you look at the stats of when you tear an ACL, when you'd be back - when you'd actually be back 100 percent - it can take over a year. I'm just completely in awe of her body and what her body has given her and allowed her do within such a short time.
''It's a miracle. Unexplainable.''
Nobody, least of all MacMillan, was proposing that she was back 100 percent. That could take a year, but don't bet on it.
Within three months of hearing the tell-tale pop while collapsing to the turf in ''immense pain [like] I've never felt,'' MacMillan was back on the field with the best team in the land, maybe the world, not doing everything perhaps - no tackling, no contact - but doing a great deal more than most thought she'd be capable of. Within a week of that, there were no restrictions on contact. Within a week of that, she was getting game time, in front of a crowd, against another team.
''Shannon's recovery,'' U.S. coach April Heinrichs noted a few days before ''Mac'' ran onto the Home Depot Center grass for 20 minutes against Costa Rica, ''is the closest thing to a miracle that we see in the world of soccer.''
How the devil did she do it? Excruciatingly hard work. A tremendous team of doctors and trainers employing cutting-edge tactics. And the presence of an angel, or an angel to be, who today is no doubt shining down on her from the heavens.
FORTUITOUS. MacMillan, by all accounts, was playing the best soccer of her career before her injury, sustained while playing for the WUSA's San Diego Spirit. She quickly decided she would do whatever was needed to play in the World Cup, even if it took most athletes six months to return.
Fortuitous circumstances helped. The Spirit's surgeon, David Chao, is a pioneer in ACL reconstruction. He told her he could operate right away; most doctors prefer to wait a month for swelling to ease. Her Spirit trainer, Tony Ontiveros, is among the best in the business. And her proximity to the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista meant she could work with Zach Weatherford, a nationally revered strength and conditioning coach.
Chao fixed the ACL using a patella tendon graft, the strongest replacement possible but one that usually requires more time to heal. Ontiveros had her working with weights immediately, improving her upper-body strength, then had her knee at full extension within a week. Weatherford drove her through difficult sessions of indoor kayaking, boxing, and then running just six weeks after surgery.
''What I normally tell patients is that they can return [to action] in four to six months,'' said Chao, who estimates he's done ''something like a thousand'' ACL repairs. ''Is Shannon pushing the envelope? Yes. Was it a lock she'd be able to make it? No. She overcame some tough odds with hard work.''
Said Weatherford: ''I think what's the miracle is Shannon's work ethic and just her persistence. Her desire to make that team.''
Heinrichs watched MacMillan working with Weatherford the day before the World Cup draw in mid-July. That cemented the coach's decision to hold off naming her roster, which she'd planned to do at the start of August, a must if MacMillan was going to be on it.
''Hands down, [rehab] was the hardest thing I've ever done, because it was a complete gut and reality check,'' MacMillan said. ''I definitely set out saying [making the World Cup roster] was my goal, but the fact that it happened is probably the highlight for me and my career. I think I'll appreciate this that much more, especially on the heels of losing'' Clive Charles, her coach at the University of Portland, who died in late August after a three-year battle with prostate cancer.
''The day I found out I made the team, I called to let him know. It just doesn't get much better than that.''
SCARED. MacMillan has fought bigger, tougher battles, and they steeled her for this one.
She suffered through an abusive homelife growing up in Escondido, north of San Diego. Her father mistreated her, made her feel worthless, and she was a scared little girl, not yet 18, when she stepped onto the bus to head to the University of Portland. Her brother, Sean, took her to the depot. He told her not to look back.
''I wouldn't change anything about my life,'' she said. ''Where I am today, the person I am today - a lot of that is what I had to go through. And finding Clive, learning not to be a bitter, angry person.''
Charles turned her life around. He was ''the father I never had. ... He taught me about unconditional love.''
The coach, his body ravaged by cancer, prodded MacMillan through her recovery.
''When he found out I got hurt, he called me, and he said, 'You know what? Get back to work. You can do this.' And every time I'd check in with him, he'd be like, 'I'm holding on to see you play [in the semifinals] in Portland. You better be holding up your end of the deal.''
She did, but Charles couldn't deliver on his end. About a week and a half before his Aug. 26 death, MacMillan got a call from Clarena Charles, Clive's wife. The end was near, and MacMillan raced to Portland to say her goodbyes.
''For the rest of my life, I have a piece of him with me. I'm always thinking [in different situations], 'What would Clive do? What would Clive say?' He will always be with me in my heart and soul.''
It was Charles, or his spirit, who pushed MacMillan back onto the field. The first U.S. match after Heinrichs announced her roster, Sept. 1 against Costa Rica at the Home Depot Center, was preceded by a moment of silence for Charles. MacMillan hadn't known he'd be honored before the game, and she was sobbing through the silence on the sidelines. She wasn't certain she would play that night, but after that, she had no choice.
CONTRIBUTOR. She's won significant battles since, surviving crunching tackles in scrimmages against U.S. teammate Kate Sobrero, regaining her rocket shot, cutting and making runs like she had before she was injured. ''When we scrimmaged the [University of Virginia men in mid-September],'' Heinrichs said, ''I didn't think of Mac as an injured player out there.''
In August, Heinrichs suggested to MacMillan that she alter her goals, ''not to just be on the team, but to help us win.''
MacMillan is a dynamic flank player, sublime crosser and superb finisher, with 58 goals in 153 international matches. She figured she was good for 20, 30 minutes a game, maybe more, and that's what she tailored her fitness for. If the Americans find themselves in a tight game, or behind, as time is winding down, she's as good an attacking option as the U.S. team possesses.
''This will be a very emotional World Cup for me, whether or not I step on the field,'' MacMillan said. ''I know I battled back. I know Clive pushed me, believed in me, and I owe so much to him. It's going to be emotional, and I'm going to enjoy every day. I'm going to appreciate that I'm here. And if I'm not playing, I'm going to be the best cheerleader that I can be, just making sure I'm doing everything in my power to help this team win.''
by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French