Boys aren’t going to let you win, no matter what. – Abby Wambach
Born the youngest of seven, Abby was bred to compete. In a household where protecting McDonald’s french fries from older brothers and working to earn every moment of familial attention were the norm, toughness and a fierce intensity, qualities that now set her apart from her peers on the pitch, were by all accounts expected. Taking a backseat or shying from a challenge in the Wambach family—a clan filled with athletes—was simply out of the question. As such, it came as no surprise to Abby, young though she may have been, when by the time her sixth birthday rolled around, her four older brothers felt she was more than ready to take on a role they all had presumably earned the right to pass down: goalie.
“They would put me in goal because I was the smallest and I would have pucks flying at me,” says Abby. “My mom would lock us out of the house. We couldn’t come in even if we needed to pee.”
As for how the youngest Wambach fared in such backyard athletic contests—childhood competitions that ranged from bruising pick-up basketball matchups to two-hand-touch-turned-tackle football games to what ultimately amounted to hockey target practice, six year-old Abby, saddled down by the weight of a brother’s oversized pads, doing her damnedest to contort her body as a means to halt the zooming missiles coming her way—it’s safe to say that lenience was not a concept with which she was familiar.
“My brothers and sisters always played with me on the same level and they never let me win until I was better than them and deserved it,” Abby recalls. “Being in such a big family makes you humble. You might have a certain skill or talent but there is always someone who is better at something than you.”
By the time Abby made her way to a soccer field, then, she was ready to shed the proverbial pads, eager to experience life outside the net. And boy did it show.
She scored 27 goals in her first three rec league matches, eventually prompting those in charge to move her to an all-boys league. The Abby Wambach standard of making goalies pay, though, had been set. Blame her brothers.
Abby went on to star at Rochester’s (NY) Our Lady of Mercy High School, eventually becoming the 1997 national prep soccer player of the year. As the #1 soccer recruit in the country, she accepted a scholarship from the University of Florida after a recruiting battle that saw the top collegiate soccer programs fight for her services. And like she had at each stop en route to Gainesville, Abby continued both her scoring and winning ways. She finished her four year career as a national champion (1998), a three-time All American, and Florida’s all-time leading goal scorer. She was selected second overall in the 2002 WUSA draft and one year later was named to the American roster for the 2003 World Cup. By all accounts, Abby was finally on the doorstep of stardom.
Yet if you ask her brother Matthew, he had come to the realization that Abby was destined for greatness some time earlier: ”One of the first experiences where I knew she’d be better than most was a game of catch football. I threw the ball to one of the neighbors and Abby tackled him. She got up and he was on the ground, groaning. She was 11 or 12. I don’t think he was ready to get blasted.”
I just know that if I put my courage and my head into any ball served in the box, I’m going to wreak havoc on any defense. – Abby Wambach
In 1999 Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and co. captured the minds of millions and catapulted women’s soccer to the forefront of the American sports consciousness with their thrilling World Cup final victory against China at the Rose Bowl.
Nonetheless, by 2011 the sport had come to be popular mainly in pockets, its mainstream relevance fading in and out with the cyclical nature of international tournaments like the Olympics and the World Cup. Even then, even on the back of triumphs on the global stage, American women’s soccer seemed unable to re-capture the magic of the ’99 team in the years hence—seemingly always falling short of holding the attention of a country in the way that special group had done some 12 years prior.
In that time period, as the 99ers slowly faded from the American soccer landscape, Abby rapidly rose up the ranks of US Soccer. She netted four goals for a 3rd place finishing US side at the 2003 World Cup, scored the game-winning goal in the gold medal match of the 2004 Olympics, and guided the national team to another 3rd place finish at the 2007 World Cup. In 2009 she scored her 100th international goal, becoming only the 5th American to ever reach the milestone while doing so in the fewest games ever.
Yet as the final seconds of extra time ticked away in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup, her American side down a man and a goal to fellow soccer giant Brazil, Abby’s status as a leader of a sport dealing with some health issues at home weighed little on her mind.
Indeed, her immediate thoughts were probably something more along the lines of how do I get my head on the ball.
It was something she had done countless times over the course of her career, a skill she had honed for years dating back to her youth soccer days when she would beg coaches to stay after practice to work on aerial, diving headers. Indeed, to that point in time, the clock now turning to the 122nd minute of the match, 47 of her 119 career international goals had been scored with her head, among them the extra time winner in the 2004 Gold Medal Match.
The header had, in essence, become part of Abby’s being; the process, second nature: use her 5’11” frame to body her defender for position, locate the searching cross sent in from outside the box, adjust to the trajectory of the ball, leap into the air, and snap her head at the peak of her jump to send the ball past a helpless goalie.
The sequence that unfolded in the 122nd minute of extra time, the Americans 90 seconds from elimination, was, then, in a sense quite routine: Abby finding a floating back-post cross from teammate Megan Rapinoe and knocking it into the back of the net with her head to tie the score.
More than that, though, the last gasp goal was one of those rare moments in sport that transcend the routine vacuum of a game. With ESPN earning record ratings for the 2011 Women’s World Cup, it was a moment that took a nation’s collective breath away, one that—much like Chastain’s penalty kick winner in the 1999 Final—created a palpable buzz and excitement around a sport that had regularly struggled for attention. With one whip of her head, Abby ushered in a new generation of women’s soccer. In an instant, she cemented her place in American sporting lore.
Two years later, in June 2013, the torch passing was officially completed, one face of the game giving way to the other. In a US friendly against Korea, Abby scored her 159th and 160th career international goals, passing Mia Hamm’s mark of 158 for the most all time.
The record breaker, you ask?
“Legacies are fun and cool to talk about, but twenty years from now, hopefully fans will be talking about stars of the current team and the names they’re making for themselves.” – Abby Wambach
On the back of her success at the 2011 World Cup—one that ultimately saw the Americans lose a heartbreaker to Japan in the final—Abby’s popularity and recognition soared.
The goal against Brazil won the 2011 ESPY for “Best Play” and in 2013 was voted as the best moment in US Soccer History. She was later named the 2011 AP Female Athlete of the Year, becoming the first individual soccer player to ever win the award. In 2012, after guiding the US Women to another Gold Medal, Abby was named the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year.
Yet even now, as she stands at the mountaintop of her sport, Abby sees nowhere to go but up. She understands not merely her role in soccer’s history but, more importantly, in its future. Like the soccer greats before her, she sees plenty of room for the sport’s growth, serving as an outspoken advocate for the expansion of female sporting opportunities, while also serving as an ambassador for Right to Play and USAID.
This is not to say, however, that her work on the field is done.
She has found her way back to New York as a member of the NWSL’s Western New York Flash, and has her eyes set on the one thing that has eluded her, the one omission from a resume already envied by all—the 2015 World Cup.
Says Abby, “I’m confident in my body and my ability to be able to perform when my time is called. I’ve done it long enough.”
Who would dare bet against her?
- 2013 Breaks Mia Hamm’s all-time International goal scoring record
- 2012 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year (Ballon d’Or)
- 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, Team Co-Captain and leading scorer
- 2011 World Cup Silver Medalist, Silver Ball & Bronze Boot Winner
- 2011 ESPY – Best Play
- 2011 AP Female Athlete of the Year
- 2011 Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year
- 2009 Scores 100th goal in her 129th career match
- 2007 FIFA World Cup Bronze Medalist ∙ Silver Boot Winner
- 2004 Olympic gold medalist, scored 14 goals in 16 games
- 2003 US Soccer Female Athlete of the Year (Also ’04, ’07, ’10, ’11, ‘13)
- 2003 FIFA World Cup Bronze Medalist 1998 –’01 University of Florida: 3-time All American, 4-time All-SEC, 2-time SEC Player of the Year 1998 NCAA Champion
- 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion
- 2016 Forward: A Memoir released (New York Times Best Seller)
- 2016 ESPYS Icon Award
- 2018 Named to the Oath Board of Advisors