Abby Wambach was one of the veterans of the U.S. national women's soccer team that won the 2015 World Cup. Her long list of athletic honors includes a pair of Olympic gold medals, the FIFA World Player of the Year award, and a career goal tally of 183, making her the top-scoring female ever to play association football at the elite level. "Wambach is unlike any other striker in American women's soccer history," asserted New York Times writer Jorge Arangure Jr. "Her skill and size have turned her into an unstoppable force. Always a looming presence in the penalty area, Wambach is a threat to score at any moment."
Wambach was born in 1980 in Rochester, New York, and credits a rambunctious household for instilling in her a fearless competitive streak. The last of seven children in an exhaustingly sporty family, the future professional athlete grew up playing touch football, roller hockey, and lacrosse against her brothers, who first brought her on board as a pint-sized hockey goaltender when she was still too little to scrimmage with them. The Wambachs lived on a street-sport friendly cul-de-sac in suburban Pittsford, not far from Wambach Farms, the garden center business owned by parents Judy and Peter.
Ranked Top High School Player
As a youngster Wambach played youth-league soccer, but her advancing height as a teenager made her a hoops prodigy, too, at Rochester's Our Lady of Mercy High School. Named to Parade Magazine's All American High School soccer team in 1998, Wambach captained a local club team, the Rochester Spirit, and turned up on several other rankings of future college-athletics standouts as her graduation date neared. She chose the University of Florida at Gainesville and brought with her the signature header move--bouncing the ball off one's head instead of using a foot--that she had spent her high-school years perfecting; her impressive height of five feet, eleven inches gave her a formidable advantage over an opposing team's defensive line.
Wambach arrived in Gainesville just after its women's soccer team had won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I championship. She racked up a stunning 96 goals in four seasons as a Florida Gator, setting a new school record, and was one of the top draft picks expected to enliven games of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) league. Signed by the Washington Freedom in February of 2002, she went on to win the WUSA Rookie of the Year award.
In 2003 Wambach collected the WUSA's Goal of the Year honor for one of her crowd-thrilling vertical leaps. "Wambach's thundering header goal has become one of the sporting world's signature moves," asserted Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl in a 2015 cover story. "With an eye for ball trajectory that she honed as a rebounder in basketball, Wambach added the timing, the strength, and the vicious snap before impact that have scared defenders the world over." Wambach herself explained the talent in straightforward terms: "It's just a mathematical equation," she told Wahl. "I'm taller. I can jump. And when you're shooting with your head, it's impossible for goalkeepers to know where the ball is going."
Wambach's career in professional soccer has been a challenging one. In September of 2003 the WUSA league folded suddenly after financial reversals. The team was finally resurrected as part a new Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league in 2009, then changed its name and moved to Boca Raton, Florida, as the WPS magicJack, named for the telephone device invented by the team's owner. In those interim years Wambach focused on the U.S. national team, which she joined in 2001. One of her teammates was women's soccer legend Mia Hamm, arguably the first female celebrity in U.S. soccer. Back in 1991 Hamm had played in the first-ever women's soccer World Cup under the auspices of FIFA, or Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Hamm and Wambach were also Washington Freedom teammates and played together on the national team for three seasons.
Dazzled at 2004 Olympics
In August of 2004 Wambach made her Olympic debut at the Summer Games in Athens, Greece. In a thrilling final on August 26 the U.S. team faced off against an excellent lineup presented by Brazil to determine the gold-medal winner. Tied at 1-1, the match went into overtime play until Wambach scored a header goal from ten yards in, which gave the U.S. women's team its second Olympic victory.
Wambach was already well known to fans of women's soccer, but that widely replayed, medal-winning overtime moment in Athens brought her international attention. Already signed to an endorsement deal with athletic-gear maker Nike, she added a contract with sports-drink brand Gatorade in 2004 and was one of the few female players in the United States able to support herself in the sport. When Mia Hamm retired after the 2004 Olympics, Wambach adjusted to a new role as one of the outstanding players expected to lead the team.
In July of 2008 Wambach was playing in an exhibition match against Brazil and, at a brisk pace, crashed into an opposing player. She hit the pitch hard and broke both the tibia and fibula in her left leg. The injury happened just three weeks before the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and made headlines around the globe; sportswriters predicted that the U.S. team would suffer dramatically without Wambach's talents and would likely be eliminated early. "Obviously, it's devastating, but above everything else, I'm only one player, and you can never win a championship with just one player," Wambach said in response, according to the New York Times. "I have the utmost confidence in this team bringing home the gold."
Passed 100-Goal Milestone
As Wambach recuperated with the new titanium rod inserted in her leg, her teammates indeed picked up a third Olympic gold medal. Eleven months after having broken her leg Wambach was back at full speed, racking up impressive goal-per-game tallies. In July of 2009 she became a member of soccer's elite Century Club, the FIFA term for international players who have scored at least 100 goals in their career; in a game when some of the best teams win world championships by as few as three well-aimed kicks into the net, Wambach's accomplishment after less than a decade of professional play was an impressive feat.
Wambach was also buoyed by a new professional opportunity when the new league Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) began its first season in early 2009. Wambach joined her former team, the Washington Freedom, and wore the No. 20 jersey as a forward. The WPS held out through the post-recession years, perennially beset by lagging revenues for another two seasons before it folded in early 2012. Later that year Wambach scored a remarkable five goals in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and her efforts brought the U.S. team another gold medal. FIFA honored her by naming her women's player of the year, and she traveled to FIFA headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland, to share the stage with international star Lionel Messi.
Wambach had moved with her WPS team to its new hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, but eventually put down roots in Portland, Oregon, around the time of her marriage to Sarah Huffman, her Freedom/magicJack teammate. The couple wed in October of 2013 but refrained from publicizing their nuptials. "I never felt like I had to have this huge party for myself about my sexuality," Wambach told New York Times sportswriter Jeré Longman. "To make a party for something that I think of as normal, for me, that just didn't seem authentic. I wanted it to be as normal as possible."
Heralded as All-Time Great
The year marked another milestone for Wambach: On June 20, 2013, in a game against South Korea, Wambach broke Mia Hamm's all-time career goal tally of 158, becoming the new record holder in women's soccer. One of Wambach's goals, furthermore, ranks in polls as one of the most thrilling moments in the history of the FIFA World Cup. It occurred in a World Cup quarterfinal on July 10, 2011, when Wambach and her teammates faced yet another solid challenge from a young and energetic Brazilian national women's team in a game that went into overtime. Placing herself near the Brazilian goalkeeper, Wambach waited for the ball after teammate Megan Rapinoe kicked it from some distance downfield at the 122nd minute. Rapinoe's kick toward the Brazil net was enough of a threat to prompt both the Brazilian goalkeeper and a Brazilian defender to move in toward Wambach, but the ball soared too high for them to intercept. Wambach, however, was already airborne and headed the ball into the net for a game-winning goal.
That World Cup appearance was Wambach's third, but the U.S. women had not reached the winner's podium since 1999, when Wambach was still a college player ineligible for FIFA games. The next quadrennial FIFA event, in 2015, would likely be Wambach's final World Cup appearance as a player. Canada was to be the host city, and Wambach led a legal challenge to force the six host venues to install grass, not artificial turf, for the event. The artificial turf was a veritable game-changer, forcing players to play more cautiously to prevent potentially ruinous injuries. "You can sit here and give me all the reasons in the world," Wambach fumed in the Sports Illustrated interview with Wahl, recounting her entreaties to FIFA officials. "But you can't tell me the World Cup is going to be better because of it. There isn't one player in the world that would prefer playing on an artificial surface."
Celebrated 2015 World Cup Win
Wambach celebrated her thirty-fifth birthday a few days before the opening game of World Cup on June 6, 2015. The U.S. team beat Australia two days later in Winnipeg and shut out Sweden 0-0 on June 12. On June 16 Wambach and her teammates lost to Nigeria. They beat Colombia, China, and Germany as the 2015 World Cup entered its final rounds and faced off against Japan for a thrilling title bout in Vancouver on July 5, 2015. Wambach had not played as many minutes as she would have preferred but gamely sat out intense rounds as younger players dominated the scoring and defense. When U.S. coach Jill Ellis put her in the game at the second half, team captain Carli Lloyd insisted that Wambach wear Lloyd's captain's armband as a mark of respect. Wambach did not produce one of her signature headers, but the U.S. beat Japan 5-2 in a game watched by an estimated 26 million viewers in the United States alone.
Wambach and her teammates were feted in a classic New York City ticker tape parade on July 10, the first ever to take place in Manhattan for female athletes fresh off a championship title. "All of this for us started when we were little and we had a dream," Wambach told a jubilant crowd at City Hall Plaza, according to the New York Times. "All the women up on this stage believed in that dream, kept believing in that dream."
Born Mary Abigail Wambach, June 2, 1980, in Rochester, NY; daughter of Peter (a garden center store owner) and Judy (a garden center store owner) Wambach; married Sarah Huffman (a professional soccer player), October 5, 2013. Education: Earned degree from the University of Florida--Gainesville, c. 2001. Addresses: Agent--Dan Levy, Wasserman Media Group, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 2200, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Home--Portland, OR.
Forward, U.S. women's national soccer team, 2001-15; forward, Washington Freedom, Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), 2002-03; forward, Washington Freedom, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), 2009-10; forward, magicJack, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), 2011; forward, Western New York Flash, National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), 2013-14; forward, Seattle Reign, National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), 2015--. Signed endorsement deals with Nike, 2002, and Gatorade, 2004.
Rookie of the Year award, Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), 2002; Goal of the Year, Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), 2003; U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, U.S. Soccer Federation, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013; World Player of the Year, Fédération Internationale de Football Association, 2012.
- New York Times, July 17, 2008; June 21, 2013, p. B14; May 24, 2015, p. 1; July 10, 2015.
- Sports Illustrated, June 8, 2015.
- USA Today, September 18, 2003.
- Washington Post, August 22, 2007.
- "Women's World Cup: Wambach takes last shot at title," Goal, http://www.goal.com/en-us/news/66/united-states/2015/05/29/12192272/womens-world-cup-wambach-takes-last-shot-at-title (August 22, 2015).