A New Year’s Goodbye: An Idol Retires

by Hailey Reilly

On Dec. 16, soccer fans worldwide had to face the truth: Superstar Abby Wambach’s prolific soccer career at the national and international level was coming to an end. Last October, Wambach announced her plan to retire from the U.S. Women’s National Team in its final match on the Victory Tour following its World Cup victory this summer. At 35, Wambach finished a 15-year USWNT playing career with 184 goals in 252 national team appearances, a number far surpassing any other American female or male player.

In a Gatorade commercial released in time with her impending retirement, Wambach urged the next generation of soccer players to “make them forget [her].” She asks us to forget her records broken, her medals won and her name — a request that seems impossible given that she is the hero of almost every little girl who has picked up a soccer ball.

In a voiceover during the commercial Wambach said, “I want to leave a legacy where the ball keeps rolling forward, where the next generation accomplishes things so great that I am no longer remembered.” This selfless sentiment embodies the kind of person and player that Wambach was for her teammates, the soccer community and the people who look up to her.

Wambach’s jersey was the first soccer jersey I owned. Her name was the first one that I recognized when I attended my first USWNT game in middle school. Her winning goal in extra time against Brazil during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup marked the first time I ever screamed at the television for something other than American football (I had no idea then what I had been missing with “real” fútbol). I had front-row seats behind the net to watch her break the all-time goal scoring record in 2013 — I watched her make history.

Wambach was one of the first female athletes I looked up to because she challenged the norm for how a female athlete should look like and act. She was explosive. On the field she was a force to be reckoned with, and off the field she was a loud, unapologetic advocate for women’s equity in sports. She was a voice for female soccer players in the Women’s World Cup as they petitioned against FIFA for grass fields, and also serves as a role model for LGBTQ athletes as one of the first publicly “out” female soccer players.

During games she was unstoppable in the penalty area and tough as nails. I remember coming upon a video on YouTube of Wambach splitting her head open on the field in a head-to-head collision, and then barely wincing as her trainers stapled the wound shut — on the field! The kind of grit and determination it takes to continue playing even after taking a hit — one that needed staples, no less — is one that I always wanted to achieve when I was on the field playing soccer.

Wambach’s legacy is not one just in her records, but also in the impact she has left on her teammates. In any game coverage (coverage that has thankfully improved over the years as Wambach and the USWNT have shot into the spotlight following their World Cup and Olympic success), Wambach was in the middle of the team huddle bellowing and motivating her team to give everything they have. Wambach was often seen on the field giving her teammates a thumbs-up after a good cross or good pass, no matter the result of her subsequent header or shot.

On the day of her retirement, numerous athletes who played alongside her on the USWNT and the National Women’s Soccer League posted messages on social media, thanking Wambach for her guidance and leadership and sharing stories of how she has changed the game for them. She has changed the game for me, too — I’ve tried to emulate the way in which Wambach carries herself as a leader and a competitor, and it helped enormously in my growth as a varsity soccer captain.

I don’t know Wambach personally. I never played with her on the field. But as a young female soccer player, she has shown me the true value of leadership and strength and has inspired a nation to love the game with the same passion she has injected into every pass, every shot, every header and every pregame speech. Wambach leaves behind a legacy that will be hard to forget, and she has also left female soccer players with something much more than records to break. She started a revolution of strong female athletes and has laid the groundwork for even greater success in the women’s game to come.

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