12 in '12: London hopeful Abby Wambach

By Brandon Penny | Aug. 12, 2010, 2:12 p.m. (ET)

The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are now less than two years away. The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The 12th and final part of the series features U.S. soccer player Abby Wambach, a forward who scored the gold-medal winning goal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

Olympic gold medal.  Two FIFA Women’s World Cup bronze medals.  WUSA Founders Cup MVP.

Abby Wambach’s tough style and goal-scoring abilities earned her a spot on the women’s national team at 21.  She won gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, alongside several of her soccer idols.  Wambach was unstoppable on the field and is among the top-scoring players in history.  She was expected to help lead the team to gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but her teammates would have to do it without her after Wambach broke her leg in a collision with a Brazilian player in the final game before the start of the Beijing Games.  She has made a full recovery and is a wiser, more mature player as she eyes a second gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.


Down and Dirty with the Boys 

Mary Abigail ‘Abby’ Wambach grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where she started playing youth soccer when she was 4.  In the first soccer youth league she played in, Wambach scored an impressive 27 goals in just three games. 

Her mom decided she needed to be challenged and transferred her to a boys’ league.

“My mom was pretty imperative that I had good coaches and that I was challenged,” Wambach said.  “And back then, the girls youth programs just weren’t up to the standards.  Of course, boys are more physical and a lot of the better coaches were with the boys teams.”

Playing with the boys immensely improved Wambach’s skills.

“It definitely played a role in why I’m more physical than most female soccer players,” Wambach said.  “I like to get dirty. I like to get on the ground. I like to use my body to my full advantage.”

In 2001, when Wambach was 21, she was named to the U.S. Soccer women’s national team for the first time.

The following year, she was the second overall pick in the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) draft and played alongside Mia Hamm for the Washington Freedom.  Her knowledge of the sport increased thanks to Hamm, but even so, she wasn’t sure if she would achieve her dream of making the Olympic team.

“At that point, I didn’t know because I was so new and still learning so much,” Wambach said.  “When I made the jump to the professional level, I learned a lot.  I had a lot of potential and I started to reach my potential in my first couple years on the national team.”

By 2003, she was playing a much more regular role on the national team.  She played on the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup team and helped Team USA earn a bronze medal.


Olympic Success and Anguish

One year later, Wambach was named to the Olympic team that competed in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.  Wambach started all five matches that she played, scoring four goals and adding an assist.  In the gold-medal game, the United States defeated Brazil in extra time, 2-1, when Wambach scored the game-winning goal with a header.

“It was something that I’ll never forget,” Wambach said.  “I was able to play and win with some players that I knew were retiring shortly after the Olympics ended.  These women gave me the opportunity to play at the level I was playing at, and to be where I didn’t have to have another job.  They kind of paved the way for me as all great pioneering women do and I owe so much to them.”

“On a personal level it meant so much to come out on top,” Wambach added.  “The Olympics is the pinnacle for any athlete.  Even when you’re 5 years old, you’re watching the Olympics and getting so excited for the event that’s going on, so it was absolutely a dream come true.”

In the ensuing years, Wambach continued to be a force on the U.S. team, and helped her teammates to another bronze performance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2007.

“It gave us something to really work for in 2008, in terms of where we wanted to go,” Wambach said. 

Pia Sundhage, a soccer player from Sweden who coached teams in her own country as well as China, couldn’t help but notice Wambach’s presence on the team as a prominent goal-scorer.  But when Sundhage was named the U.S. women’s national team coach in November 2007, she got an up-close-and-personal look at how Wambach operated.

“She has a big personality,” Sunhage said.  “Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad.  I remember when I started the job, I wanted to interact with the players and she had opinions all the time.  Eventually, I said, ‘Abby, shut up!’ and the whole team just started to laugh.”

Sundhage said Wambach always has an opinion, and loves to share it, whether the team is at breakfast, dinner or just standing around on the field.

“She is a better listener today,” Sundhage said.  “She has such a big heart and she wants to carry the team and be the key player, and do whatever it takes.  But I think she wanted to do too much.  So the way I coached her is, ‘Look at your strengths and as a forward, stay central and try not to do too much.’  She’s so much more disciplined today and she plays her role.”

Wambach planned to use that big heart of hers and lead her team to more gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games…

…Until she broke her left leg in a collision with Brazil’s Andreia Rosa, just five days before she was supposed to leave for the Beijing Games.

“The first two seconds I was thinking, ‘Oh no, there’s no gold medal,’ ” Sundhage said.

“The initial turmoil that I went through was pretty tough on me, being so close to getting to the Olympics and then not being able to help my team even try to win a gold medal,” Wambach said.  “I had a lot of emotional struggles because of that.  It was really hard.  But I was more worried that I was gonna hurt my team’s chances of winning.”

Health risks prevented her from traveling to Beijing, but that didn’t stop her from supporting her teammates.  In Wambach’s absence, Team USA captured its third Olympic gold medal in four trips to the Games.

“I was very impressed with the way she treated that situation,” Sundhage said.  “She was thinking so much more about the team than herself.  She could have made a big scene about everything, but instead she was talking about the team and she supported the team, even though she was in the hospital.”


Recovering for London

Wambach was sidelined for six months, but Sundhage never doubted that the star forward would come back.

"I’ve seen players coming back from injury and struggle a lot,” Sundhage said.  “But she’s doing it very quickly and you could see that she has the right attitude to come back.”

In addition to rejoining her teammates, Wambach also had a personal goal to achieve. When she broke her leg, she had 99 career international goals. She wanted to reach the century mark.

She finally scored her 100th goal in a 1-0 win victory against Canada on July 19, 2009, in her hometown of Rochester, and became the ninth woman in world history to reach 100 career international goals.  Wambach also joins a list of five U.S. women to achieve that feat, including Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Tiffany Milbrett.

“I think being among such great women is an honor,” Wambach said.  “Michelle has always been one of my role models and idols because she’s physically similar in terms of my body makeup.  And now that it’s in my past, I’m able to just get on with my life and score goals and keep playing soccer and do what I do.”

Now she is looking ahead to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“Because we are part of a team we get the sense that the Olympics isn’t just about our sport or what we’re training for,” Wambach said.  “It’s bigger than us as a federation; it’s bigger than us as a country.  It’s a time where all of these countries can leave their strife and their struggles behind and just compete as a part of something so great and so magnificent that you can’t even verbalize after you’ve been a part of one.”

“To be a part of all the other athletes that I now know are still training for the next Olympics in England, it gives me a sense of what it really means to be an American.  Because some days I don’t want to go for a run, but I do know that I’m training for something that’s bigger than me and my team.  It’s about what we stand for as a country, and I want to represent exactly what that is properly.”

Sundhage has no doubt in her mind that Wambach will be representing her country less than two years from now in London if she continues to play the way she has been this season.  The U.S. team has won two games against No. 2-ranked Germany and two against No. 4-ranked Sweden

Team USA is currently ranked No. 1 on the FIFA Women’s World Ranking list.  And much of that success is thanks to Wambach, who has scored eight goals in international play this season.

Before she can concentrate on London, Wambach and her teammates are focusing on qualifying for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. Qualifying will begin in October.

“That’s where my focus is at this point,” Wambach said.  “So I have four different seasons ahead of me – the season before qualifying, the season before the World Cup, the season before Olympic qualifying, and the season before the Olympics.  I try to take it in stages because all of those things are things I want to be ready for.”

The FIFA Women’s World Cup will be of extreme importance for the team, which will have to improve upon its past two bronze-medal World Cup performances if it wants to show the world it’s headed for another gold medal in London.  And Wambach knows exactly what she wants from her performance in London.

“I want to get there, injury-free, and I want to make a difference,” Wambach said.  “I want to make a difference for my country and I want to make a difference for my team, so we can be a team that’s putting up another gold for Team USA.”

Whether or not Team USA takes home the gold in London, Wambach is just hoping that Americans will watch and support the women’s soccer team, a team with unwavering commitment and an unrivaled history of success at the Games.

“It’s something that we all take very seriously,” Wambach said.  “We have a lot to offer in terms of the entertainment value and the things that we can do on the soccer field, the inspiration that we can create, and just the work ethic that all of us have.  We’re literally willing to do anything to win a championship, and the Olympics is obviously at the top of that list. 

“Whatever it takes, we’re willing to do – blood, sweat, and tears.”

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