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December 16, 2015

She was everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be.

Loud. Aggressive. Outspoken. Physical. Unapologetic. Demanding. Powerful. Leader.

She played the game in the air. She yelled for the full 90 – and then some. Busted leg. Stapled head. Black eyes. The best.

In summer 2012 I had just graduated college. Without a plan or partner, I booked two one-way tickets: Detroit to London, Paris to Detroit. With almost three months to fill, I touched down at Heathrow and took the Tube into London in the midst of the 2012 Summer Olympics. I had previously looked online to see if I could buy tickets to an event or two but most were either sold out or far too expensive for my just-graduated-and-ain’t-got-no-real-job budget.

But for whatever reason, I felt compelled to go check if there were tickets remaining for the Gold Medal match in women’s soccer between the United States and Japan. I have to at least try, I thought. I went up to Wembley and, sure enough, bought myself a ticket that was beyond my means – but I know I will regret it forever if I don’t go to this game.

That warm summer evening, walking into that stadium, that stage, that match felt less like something I designed and more like a moment I had been pulled into – as if I had no other choice but to be there. Watching the match unfold (surrounded by very polite Japanese fans), the goals, the celebrations, the final whistle, the gold medals. While, for the athletes on the field, it was a moment of actualization and celebration, it was a profound moment for me in a decidedly different capacity.

To see someone be awarded an Olympic gold medal – literally be there as it was placed around their neck – was on my bucket list ever since I had a bucket list. I longed to see firsthand the reaction of someone crowned the best in the world; but more than that, I wanted to know their story. That has always been what pulls me in.

I had known of Abby Wambach prior to the 2011 World Cup, surely. I had seen her play on TV in the big tournaments and knew of her heartbreaking story leading into the 2008 Olympics. But the stories shared leading up to and during the 2011 WWC captured me – and this nation – in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced in a team besides my own. And Abby was at the forefront.

What drew me in about the Abby Wambach persona (I say this because I don’t know her on a personal level) was not her goals, clutch moments, performances, records or awards. It was the way her teammates talked about her. And if you watch any of the tribute videos floating around today, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The 99ers were incredible, no doubt – groundbreaking. But the Abby Wambach era in U.S. Soccer resonated with me on a different level. Through the advent of social media, we have had access to the characters in this narrative in unprecedented ways. Certainly individual players and U.S. Soccer have done a fantastic job of getting their stories out into the world and to fans, but that would mean little if the stories weren’t fantastic in themselves.

And this is where I am drawn into the persona: though each player on the Senior Team roster over the years has a super interesting story in their own right, they all seem to be in some way orbiting around Abby Wambach. When her teammates, some of the best players in the world, talk about their careers, Abby somehow always comes up. Something she said. Something she didn’t say. Something she showed them about the game. Something she showed them about themselves.

So it is understandable that as soon as the United States got their draw for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, I was already online and buying tickets to their group stage games in Winnipeg. Beyond the opportunity to see the highest caliber of soccer in the world, I felt compelled to go witness what Abby’s team was going to do – how would they respond to the pressure, much of which they put on themselves?

Again, it was the narrative that drew me in. There was only one way the 2015 World Cup was going to be seen as successful. In the lead-up and during the tournament, Abby was honest and unmerciful in holding herself and her teammates accountable to that vision. She spoke of the courage and vulnerability it takes to live and play with that sort of purpose in the now-infamous interview before the final match: “You have to risk everything. You have to risk being completely devastated if you don’t achieve it.”

How often in sports do you see athletes put that sort of pressure on themselves – and then follow through? It took a remarkable team and organization. But it took players who were willing to risk everything, players inspired by someone who had worked and willed her way through fears, doubts and failures.

Though championed for her grit and tenacity, there’s a vulnerability and accessibility to Abby Wambach that, when paired with her commitment to being unapologetic about who she is and what she stands for, makes her one of my favorite leaders of all time. I think this is perhaps best demonstrated through how she has approached being a public figure who happens to be gay.

I listened to Abby’s interview with Bill Simmons today and their exchange on this topic was telling. Simmons says, “You’re the first athlete I can think of where nobody even mentions [that you’re gay]…it’s like nobody cares.” Abby responds, “I think because I don’t care!” and then goes on to say,

It’s so important that, for me, I just live my life…I’m not the person that’s screaming on the rooftops about myself…For me, I kind of thought it was more powerful just to be myself…I am completely comfortable with myself. I went through it in high school. I kind of went through it in college…I’m kind of one of those people you either like me or you hate me and I don’t give a shit either way. I’m going to be me.

And that’s the core of it. That statement.

I am going to be me. 

In the face of fears, doubts, failures, society telling you to be something different than who you are. That statement. I am going to be me. That’s the core of what made Abby Wambach excel throughout her career and, in looking back, what makes her the GOAT. That’s the core of what she has brought to this team and the core of how she has inspired.

Unapologetic, uncensored, honest. She was everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be. And she turned out to be exactly what so many needed. Admittedly, I’m not one to give in to idolatry but, as always, something pulled me in on this one. Thank you, Abby.

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