Wambach Withdrawal

Sarena Malsin, Sports Editor

International soccer star Abby Wambach recently announced her retirement following the U.S. Women’s National Team’s visit with President Obama at the White House in celebration of its World Cup victory this summer. Wambach, 35, fin­ishes her national career of 15 years with 252 interna­tional appearances, the all-time fifth-highest number of caps in U.S. history. She had 184 international goals, two Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2012 and, her most re­cent accolade, a 2015 World Cup championship.

Wambach’s status as the top scorer in international soccer, male or female, en­sures that her presence on the field will surely be missed. But her powerful legacy of setting an exam­ple for personal standards, leadership, selflessness and self-confidence, in addition to her being an extremely influential female athlete, will leave the most lasting impression.

Records can, and most likely will, be broken, but Wambach’s presence ex­tends far beyond that. It is hard to ignore someone with the most international goals under her belt — with 67 of those scored with her head. As ESPN Senior Researcher Paul Carr determined, Abby Wambach’s head alone ranks fifth in scoring in the National Women’s Soccer League. Although her role on the national team has changed in recent years, she has become a symbol much bigger than the number 20 on her jersey. She is a power­ful female athlete contribut­ing to the growth in legiti­macy that women’s soccer deserves, but she’s also sig­nificant as a role model for how athletes should carry themselves in the interna­tional spotlight. Anyone who needs convincing of Wambach’s influence need look no further than the turnout for her last international game against the China PR women’s soccer team on Dec. 16, which sold 20,000 tickets alone. Com­pare that to the 31,000 tickets sold for the three other women’s national teams’ games in December combined.

Few described Wambach’s influence as a person better than U.S. Coach Jill El­lis. “Abby is a player who has transcended our sport, and her legacy as one of the world’s greatest players is set forever,” El­lis said. “What she has done for women’s soccer and women’s sports overall with her amazing talents on the field and her personality off it has been inspiring to watch.”

Wambach quite literally took an off-field position for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, during which she served as the “oc­casional super sub” after starting in every World Cup game since 2003. Wambach understood that her career as a soccer superstar was waning given her age and numerous injuries, and put the team’s success ahead of her pride and personal minute count. But Wambach wasn’t only accepting of her decreased on-field role; she took control of the situation and gave everything she could to her team from the sidelines.

ESPN analyst and former women’s national team star Julie Foudy described Wambach’s role as essential. “She led with positivity. She led by celebrating others. She led unselfishly. She led by example. … I often argue that if Abby had responded differently to her new role, the U.S. would not have won the World Cup,” Foudy said. Wambach’s selflessness and positivity in spite of losing time in the limelight is a far cry from the behavior of most other professional athletes, especially in men’s leagues, who play far past their physi­cal prime to ride off of the glory of their early careers and ultimately hinder their teams’ success. There are more than a few international male soccer athletes you could pick out on any given pitch who have been on their last legs so long, it’s shocking they can still stand up to make cocky waves to all their fans.

Wambach spearheaded the move to file a discrimination lawsuit against FIFA regarding the 2015 World Cup, arguing that it should be played on grass fields like all men’s World Cup games, not arti­ficial turf. Though the charges were even­tually dropped after little progress was made, Wambach’s assertions brought gender inequality in sports back to the forefront of people’s minds and sparked discussion about these issues on an in­ternational scale. The national team’s success in its tournament, especially in comparison to the men’s disappointing performance in theirs, led Wambach to speak about the pay gap between the women’s World Cup monetary winnings and those of the men’s, which were $2 million and $8 million, respectively.

Wambach has also served as an in­spiration for LGBTQ athletes. Though she didn’t make a concentrated effort to politicize her career and fame based on her sexual orientation, she made no ef­fort to hide it and allowed the world to see the relationship with her wife Sarah Huffman, also a professional soccer player, as an important aspect of her life. Her openness made just as much of an impact and sent an incredibly positive message worldwide. An example of this is when she ran to kiss Huffman after the team’s World Cup victory, leading to a picture that circulated as a symbol for LGBTQ pride.

“She’s been able to give hope and pride to young LGBT people in athlet­ics,” said Sports Project Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights Helen Carrol.

Abby Wambach is leaving behind a legacy, but it’s composed of much more than her athletic prowess. She is leaving behind a legacy of what it truly means to be a good athlete and a good person — a legacy as an athlete who took all the valuable lessons she’s learned through years of hard work on a sports team and put them into action in her life, her per­sonal relationships and her convictions.