Hometown Hero: Abby Wambach
by Kristin Grant | published Feb. 5th, 2016
A solitary figure stands in an empty locker room, quietly packing away medals and trophies. Without turning to face the camera, she says two simple words in a confident, unemotional voice: "Forget me."
That solitary figure is none other than Abby Wambach — two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, FIFA Women's World Cup Champion and the lead international goal scorer in the world.
As she continues to wrap up all the mementos from her illustrious career, Wambach explains that only when she is finally forgotten, "is the day we will succeed" — for on that fateful day, women's soccer will have soared above and beyond any preconceived heights.
This scene is from a Gatorade commercial. Perhaps the script holds no truth and serves no purpose other than to sell a cloyingly sweet sports drink; nevertheless, Wambach and her teammates have undeniably helped pave the way for a new generation of great female soccer players to dazzle us. Her journey started right here in Rochester, only a handful of miles away from our campus, in the suburb of Pittsford.
The youngest of seven siblings, Wambach was full of energy from day one.
"When I first met Abby, I was in college and working for the Wambach Farms Market," said Wambach's future coach, Kathy Boughton. "She was three years old and an absolute terror!"
After graduation, Boughton became the basketball and soccer coach at Our Lady of Mercy High School, where, as it would happen, Wambach's older sisters were in attendance. That is when she first caught a glimpse of the player Abby would become.
"When she was five or six, Abby would come out during the halftimes of her sisters' games and just rain shot after shot after shot," said Boughton. "And I used to say to her mother, 'Too bad I won't be here when Abby goes through.'"
But what was supposed to be Boughton's temporary job after college turned into a successful 15-year career as the athletic director and coach at Mercy.
"I really didn't think I was going to stay that long," explained Boughton, "But lo and behold, thank God I did. It's very rare you get someone like her, and I am just so thankful that I got to be the one to coach her ... She was such a talented athlete. I'm telling you, she could have played Division I basketball as well. I remember telling a local reporter here, 'She will be an Olympian.'"
Wambach's high school career was not always success piled on success. By her senior year her team had battled its way to the New York State Soccer Championship, only to be defeated in a heartbreaking 4-3 loss against Massapequa High School.
As the star member of the team, Wambach was crushed by the devastating loss. But instead of letting regret consume her, she made the cognizant choice to turn it around.
"That day was a trigger that has helped Abby strive for other championships," remarked Boughton. "She always goes back to that, and how much it hurt her. She never wants to feel that way again. The one thing that helps her succeed is to think of that defeat."
Along with the necessary technical skills, "Abby also had confidence and was really resilient," said Head Coach Becky Burleigh of the Florida Gators. "She had great team skills, in her ability to lead ... Abby didn't have to become 'the one.' But she did anyway."
Indeed, doing the unexpected was one of the hallmarks of Wambach's college career. After being courted by soccer powerhouses such as University of North Carolina, University of Portland and University of Virginia, Wambach stunned everyone by choosing University of Florida.
"We were a very young program at the time, only three years into it. No one expected her to go here, so that is probably why she went," said Burleigh, laughing.
That was simply what Wambach did: rise to challenges others would shrink from. But after making the National Team in 2001, it seemed like those challenges threatened to overwhelm her.
"There were a lot of questions that she wasn't fit enough, not committed enough, to be part of the National Team," explained Burleigh.
Then, in a sickening twist of déjà vu in her senior year, the Florida Gators made it all the way to the Final Four only to lose to Santa Clara in overtime. Once again, it was Wambach's resilience that helped her overcome that defeat.
From that moment onward, "Abby knew what her path would be, and she was obviously fully committed at that point," said Burleigh.
Year after year, Wambach led The National Team to new heights — third place in the 2003 World Cup, a Gold Medal in 2004 Olympics, another third place finish in the 2007 World Cup, then second place in 2011, yet another Gold Medal in the 2012 Olympics and finally, at long last, first place at the 2015 World Cup. During that time, Wambach accumulated 159 international goals — the most ever scored, and in record time.
Now her remarkable career, filled with its fair share of dramatic highs and lows, has ended. Last month, Wambach announced her retirement from the world of soccer. For some of us, a National Team without Abby Wambach is almost inconceivable. After 14 years on the squad, we have grown accustomed to her phenomenal headers, clutch goals and constant guidance on the field.
But this is not the last we will see of Abby Wambach, assures Boughton.
"Her body told her it was time to retire, but now she is traveling across the country, meeting with CEOs and corporations, fighting for gender equality when it comes to pay. She's got a whole another life ahead of her," she said.
And for that, Abby, we have two words for you: thank you.