Former great devoted to abused horses

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POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. --- Michelle Akers tilts her head to one side and urges the old horse to show off her new trick. The one she learned after being snatched away from a life of abuse and neglect.

"Come on, Zoe," the former soccer standout says. "Be cute."

On cue, the black mare jerks her head to the left, mimicking her owner, then gobbles up a handful of peppermint treats as her reward.

"There's something divine about them," Akers said, breaking into a contented smile. "Horses choose you. You have to earn it. You have to prove it to them every day. You have to get them to say, 'You're cool. I like you. I want to be with you.' When it happens, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, this is awesome.' "

It's a thrill one of the greatest stars in U.S. soccer history has been seeking since she retired from competition, turning her competitive passion to rescuing abused horses.

"I beef 'em up, love on 'em, then adopt them out," she explains.

Now her dream is in danger of being washed away.

Record flooding in Georgia has left her with some $50,000 in damages to her eight-acre farm, forcing Akers to auction off some of the memorabilia from her storied international career to pay for the repairs.

"This stuff just becomes unimportant when compared to my horses and the ones who are suffering," Avers told The Associated Press. "I'm like, 'Oh my God, I've got to do something. I can't just sit here and say I don't have any money when I have something I can do to help."

Akers scored 105 goals in 153 games for the U.S. national team. She was a pivotal member of a groundbreaking group that captured two World Cup titles and the first women's soccer gold medal in Olympic history at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

When Akers retired nine years ago, she began rescuing horses with the same determination she had put into one of her shots. One horse saved. Then another. And another. Soon, Akers realized that she needed more room than her central Florida home, leading her to buy an eight-acre spread in the sprawling suburbs northwest of Atlanta, where rolling pastures mix with cul-de-sacs.

Less than two months after Akers and her horses moved in, the floodwaters did, too. When the waters receded, Akers was stunned by the damage. The pristine pastures were a muddy mess. Eighty bales of hay she had stored in the barn were ruined. And every time the storms returned, as they have so often over the past three months, her land quickly filled again.

"I wanted to throw up," she said. "I'm still finding stuff in trees and the woods."

Akers' old friends and teammates, including Brandi Chastain, aren't surprised that she's willing to sell off the remnants of a career well played to help her horses.

"She was an incredibly passionate soccer player, someone who had more determination and drive and encouragement than most people you come across," Chastain said. "I understand why she'd be willing to use those momentoes as a way to help her horses survive and thrive. I'm very proud of her for making that decision."


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