How Abby Wambach shaped a generation of female athletes.

How Abby Wambach Shaped a Generation of Female Athletes

How Abby Wambach Shaped a Generation of Female Athletes

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The stadium scene.
Dec. 16 2015 12:23 PM

The Wambach Legacy

How the greatest soccer scorer of all time shaped a generation of female athletes.

Abby Wambach
Abby Wambach holds the World Cup trophy aloft during a reception at New York City Hall for the U.S. women’s soccer team following a ticker tape parade to celebrate the team’s World Cup win on July 10, 2015.

Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

On the Home Depot practice field in Carson, California, a couple of months ahead of the 2015 World Cup, Abby Wambach walked out in neon Wayfarer glasses, singing “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics: Sweet dreams are made of this, Who am I to disagree, I travel the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something.

Wambach, the most prolific scorer in international soccer, winner of two gold medals, and 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year, had indeed traveled the world and the seven seas, in pursuit of the one dream that had eluded her: a World Cup title.

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On July 5, 2015, 12 years after playing in her first World Cup, the United States beat Japan 5–2 in the World Cup final in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Wambach had the ending she was looking for. She held the trophy high over her head, kissed her wife, and told reporters after the game, “I don’t even think this is real life.”

On Wednesday, having won everything there is to win and scored more international goals—184—than any player in the world, male or female, Wambach retires from the game.

Fourteen years earlier, she arrived on the scene as a 5-foot-11 21-year-old rookie playing alongside her hero, Mia Hamm. Wambach, an aerial wonder and a brute force of nature, would absorb as much as she could from Hamm, the lithe, ponytailed star who captured the attention of a nation at the 1999 World Cup.

In the 2004 Olympics—Hamm, Joy Fawcett, and Julie Foudy’s final tournament before retirement—Wambach helped the greats of that cup end their career with gold, scoring a header in the 22nd minute of extra time in the title match. “It is so fitting that it’s Abby Wambach that scores that winning goal—she’s the player that’s going to take the torch and carry the United States into the next era,” declared the announcer.

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By the end of her career, Wambach had carried that torch in a totally original and groundbreaking way, becoming the ultimate example of substance over style in a sport where glamour sometimes seemed like a necessary ingredient for public attention.

But before she could achieve that success, there was struggle. Taking over wasn’t easy.

The wildfire attention of 1999 proved hard to sustain. There were the professional league nightmares: While Hamm and Foudy’s generation had dreamed of leaving the game with a secure women’s professional league, their WUSA league folded in 2003, three years after it started. The U.S.’s second attempt at a women’s pro league in 2009, Women’s Professional Soccer, did not fare better: It too folded three years after its inception.

At the 2007 World Cup—in the midst of a 16-year cup title drought—the national team hit its nadir: In the semifinals against Brazil, the U.S. not only lost, the team was routed: Brazil 4–USA 0. After the game, Brazil, sharing the same hotel as the U.S. team, celebrated the victory by sambaing through the hotel lobby, beating drums, and literally dancing around the dejected U.S. team. “They were gloating in front of us,” Wambach told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, noting that she would always remember it.

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That 2007 disaster was representative of an across-the-board identity crisis for a team—and player—that couldn’t help but face comparison to the prior generation. Wambach was not oblivious of the difference between herself and her predecessors; in a 2015 profile, she told ESPN:

I was worried that I was the anti-them: short hair, lesbian, freely speaking my mind. I knew that I couldn’t fit their mold, but at the same time I didn’t want to reinforce the cliché that exists in women’s sports, that it’s a lesbian world, because that’s just not how it is.

Wambach wanted her career to drive home a point: All that mattered was that you got it done on the field. But on the World Cup stage, which felt like the only stage, the team wasn’t getting it done.

On Nov. 5, 2010, in the semifinals of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. was minutes away from losing to Mexico for the first time in history.

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In the 91st minute, Wambach went up to head the ball, instead headed a Mexican player, and split her head open—blood gushing everywhere. Wambach went to the sideline and told the trainers to staple her up and get her back out there. “They’re just like—goosh, goosh—shooting staples into her forehead. And then she just runs out there and keeps heading the ball as though nothing has happened,” says U.S. teammate Becky Sauerbrunn. “And I was just like, Oh, so that’s what it’s like to be on this team.”

Of course, in recent years, the permanent damage caused by concussions has been a major concern. But the game against Mexico was not televised and was not cataloged in the crisis. Of the 307 who commented on the available YouTube footage of the collision, only one mentions the word “concussion.” The others stick to a central theme: “This is why she is my favorite player ever”; “She’s getting fucking staples in her head and hardly flinching!”; “Holy fucking shit, she’s a tough motherfucker.” “I love how she just wipes the blood on the ground like she does it everyday. Oh fuck there’s some blood, better wipe it off of the huge gash in my forehead”; “She is one bad ass chick.”

To Abby Wambach, it didn’t matter how much blood seeped out of the giant gash in her forehead; what mattered was that the U.S. was losing and that a World Cup berth was at a stake. (The team lost but qualified in a playoff).

At that cup, the team survived the group stage in spite of a loss to Sweden, arriving in the quarterfinals, once again matched up against Brazil. This was Wambach’s and the USA’s chance for redemption—and it was going horribly wrong: Marta had scored in extra time, and the U.S. was seconds away from being once again embarrassed by Brazil. Commentator Ian Darke had just announced, “It will go down as the U.S.A.’s worst performance ever in the Women’s World Cup.” The U.S. was playing with 10, and the referee could blow his whistle at pretty much any second. But then came the Hail Mary: Supersub Megan Rapinoe crushed a left-footed cross to the far post and in Rapinoe’s words, “That beast in the air just got a hold of it.” Wambach’s header was the latest goal scored in any World Cup, coming in the 122nd minute. It tied the game and saved the U.S. from its earliest exit ever, and from the anonymity that had spread around the team over the course of the previous decade. In the penalty shootout, no U.S. player missed; Hope Solo made a save; and this time it was Brazil’s turn to be crushed.

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Suddenly, with one goal—the U.S. was back in the limelight, trending on Twitter and all over Facebook, splashed across media ads, featured on SportsCenter. The whole country once again seemed ready to devour this new team. They loved the recent arrivals—like Alex Morgan and Rapinoe—but the team’s talisman Wambach earned the bulk of the buzz: That header, that force, was what everybody was talking about on the sidelines, in living rooms, in bars around the country. David Letterman—who’d last paid attention to women’s soccer in ’99, when he’d called the team “Babe City”—now had Wambach, as well as Solo, on the show. Americans love winners.

With her last-second goal, the message Wambach had been fumbling for since the beginning got through: What you achieve on the field is more important than who you are off of it. That moment would go on to shape the legacy of this generation of USWNT players: Style, accouterment, lifestyle—it doesn’t matter. Don pastel pre-wrap and a sweeping ponytail, or don’t. Wear fake eyelashes and eyeliner while you play, or don’t. Pose nude, don’t pose nude. Kiss your husband, kiss your wife. Wear a tuxedo to the ESPYs, wear a backless dress. Every personality could now be embraced by the public so long as they knew how to compete—and win.

In the final against Japan, Wambach again scored in extra time (yes, of course, with her head). And people back home were watching. The game set a new record for tweets per second. But the Americans lost. Tied 2­–2 at the end of extra time, this shootout did not go the team’s way. And the World Cup drought continued.

The U.S. side avenged its 2011 loss to Japan at the 2012 Olympics. Wambach’s five tournament goals carried the U.S. to the gold. Team USA’s women’s gold medal match was NBC Sports Network’s most watched event in history with 4.35 million viewers. Online, the game generated nearly 1.5 million live streams on NBCOlympics.com, more than any previous Olympic event. After years of not paying attention to the sport, once again, people cared.

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In 2013, one more U.S. women’s professional league was launched—this time christened the National Women’s Soccer League. Wambach had helped get a woman’s pro league back on its feet. But in a controversial move, she elected not to play in the third season of the NWSL in order to concentrate on World Cup preparations. Though her personal results on the field were mixed, Wambach ended up being one of the biggest leaders off of it during this year’s title run, which included a final that garnered the highest Nielsen TV ratings in U.S. soccer history. Ultimately she could ask for no better end.

Secure in her legacy as a force on the field, she has now become a force off of it: Once a chatter-prone rookie whose incessant talking prompted Julie Foudy to give her a T-shirt that said “Help I’m Talking and I Can’t Shut Up,” she’s attempted to harness her voice for greater impact, fighting for gender equality—taking on Sepp Blatter, turf disparity, and the pay gap. Wambach was named one of Time’s most influential people this year with Mia Hamm herself penning the tribute: “[Wambach] recently led the charge to get FIFA to use grass for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, as it does for men. Though she lost the battle, the fight sent a powerful message about equality in sports. Whether inspiring her team on the field or taking on important issues off it, Abby uses her passion and fearlessness to lead by example.”

On Wednesday, after a quiet friendly in New Orleans, Wambach is retiring—she’ll pass the torch to her teammates, a new era of stars.

As the youngest of seven kids, Wambach was shaped by her upbringing: “You fight for talk time, you fight for attention,” Wambach told me this summer. “Being good at a sport was an avenue for me to be seen, to be heard. It’s like a 5-year-old kid, saying, ‘Watch me, watch me.Now an icon, she fully intends on using her reputation to make waves—to, among other things, convince the business sector that getting behind women’s sports is a smart move. The NWSL is entering its fourth season, the only U.S. women’s soccer league to make it past a third. Wambach’s decision to sit out her final season did not cause the league irreversible damage; and even after retirement, she will continue to fight for it: “I want to do whatever I can to help grow the league.”

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., in October, Wambach declared, as ambitious as ever, “I want to change the world.” She already has and you’d be foolish to bet against her continuing to do so.