There are a lot of ways to describe Abby Wambach. US Women’s National Team captain. Leading international goal scorer. Dapper suit wearer. But when she announced her retirement yesterday, players, commentators and fans around the world could only described her with the L Word:
With 184 goals in 252 caps, two Olympic gold medals, and one world cup victory, this title is indisputable. As a long-time fan of Wambach and the USWNT, I personally went through the four stages of grief in the space of about 15 minutes after seeing the news.
- I didn’t want to believe it.
- I was angry that when I turned to my girlfriend for support, she had no idea who I was talking about. (Add that to the list of gay things we fight over.)
- I was depressed that I’d never see her play live.
- And I finally accepted that after giving so much to the sport, she should be allowed to move on with her life.
Beyond her unparalleled stats, Wambach’s leadership has been invaluable to the USWNT. Her poise, dedication, and determination meant that no match was over until the final whistle was blown.
My personal fan mantra has long been “We got this, we got Wambach.” When my French girlfriend texted me at work to gloat that les Bleues had scored 2 goals in the first 15 minutes of the 2012 Olympic opener, I remained confident.
Seventy-five minutes left, we got this.
When she didn’t text again before my shift ended a few hours later, I knew I was right. A few minutes after I got that text, Megan Rapino got a corner and Wambach headed it in to get the US back in the game. Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd added two more for a 3-2 win. I decided to take the high road and said nothing about the match when I got home. But a text from my girlfriend’s mom did the dirty work for me and she glared when she showed me the message:
Those Americains are just too good.
We can’t help it, I told her, we’ve got Wambach.
Of course, Abby Wambach never won a game alone and I’m not really worried about the future of the USWNT. We’ll face fierce opponents in Rio. But as we saw in the World Cup, there’s no shortage of younger talent on the field ready to take us forward. Wambach will be missed, though. So much has changed over the course of her 15-year career, it’s bittersweet to see the era come to an end.
This year 26.7 million viewers watched the World Cup final, a 41% increase from 1999, and the USWNT could be seen everywhere from talk shows to the (25) cover(s) of Sports Illustrated. The team is currently in the middle of a 10 match Victory Tour that has brought upwards of 20,000 fans to each game. Although the National Women’s Soccer League has traditionally struggled to capitalize on the popularity of the USWNT, the league recently announced a new expansion team, the Orlando Pride (who just signed Alex Morgan, but have sadly yet to announce rainbow-colored kits).
Over the years, when the spotlight was on the USWNT, right there, front and center, wearing the captain’s armband, was Abby Wambach. Combing back her short, bleached hair. Accepting awards dressed in suits. Kissing her wife. My 13-year-old self could never have imagined it.
When I watched the US win the Women’s World Cup Final in 1999, it was a revelation. I loved sports but only remember seeing women compete in Olympic gymnastics and ice-skating. I’d never seen women’s sports like this. A ninety-minute physical battle ending in a dramatic shoot out. I was convinced I’d just witnessed something extraordinary.
The next day I asked my guitar instructor if he enjoyed the match. In my mind, everyone had watched it. “I don’t like women’s soccer,” he replied, “it’s too slow.” I was furious at his judgment of a game he hadn’t even seen. But witnessing the game had empowered me to reject his quick dismissal as ignorance whereas I might have accepted it as fact just days before.
Yesterday, while the USWNT visited the White House, President Obama said, “Playing like a girl means you’re a badass.”
Abby Wambach is and always will be, a total badass. Thank you, Abby, for everything you’ve given to the game and your dedication to growing women’s sports. Thank you for being yourself and showing that you can be a queer woman and the best in the game. I sure wish my 13-year-old self could see it all. But even at nearly 30 and more than a little jaded, I am still inspired by you.
What’s your favorite Abby Wambach memory?