By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
The all-time goals leader in U.S. women’s soccer, Abby Wambach is renowned for scoring with her head. Since she retired in 2015, she’s been scoring some pretty big headers off the pitch as well.
In the pantheon of the world’s greatest-ever soccer players, Wambach’s standing is immutable — a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a World Cup champion and a six-time U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year. Her 184 goals are the second-most ever in international play — that’s for men as well as women. But when she stopped playing, all the accomplishments of her 15-year international career got turned on their head in one inspirational denouement — a Gatorade commercial with the message, “Forget Me.”
“Forget me,” she says in the voiceover. “Forget my name. Forget my number. Forget I ever existed … I want to leave a legacy where the ball keeps rolling forward.”
Wambach, whose appearance last month at the Broward College Speaker Series has been postponed to Sept. 8 because of the coronavirus lockdowns, admits to being initially surprised by her sponsor’s idea for the ad.
“They nailed it,” recalls Wambach in a celebrated 2018 Barnard College commencement address. “They knew I wanted my legacy to be ensuring the success of the sport I had dedicated my life to. If my name were forgotten, that would mean the women who came behind me were breaking records, winning championships and pushing the game to new heights.”
Despite the commercial, her legacy will of course be far more “forget me not” than “forget me.” And what Wambach may be remembered for is something equally as enduring as her championship years: her own personal Time’s Up movement.
Last year, Wambach’s outspoken support of her former teammates’ lawsuit over gender discrimination amplified the rallying cry for equal pay that has spearheaded the ex-soccer star’s second act as an activist for women’s empowerment, equality and inclusion. Backing up her words with action, she has co-founded WOLFPACK Endeavor, a corporate leadership-development training program for high-potential women.
At 39, Wambach now says she regrets not speaking out sooner “to make the lifestyle of all women around me better,” as she told CNN last year. “I learned that lesson the hard way. That’s why I’m dedicating the rest of my life to making sure that people don’t have the experience when they retire — the fear of, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’”
Also last year, Wambach published her second book, Wolfpack, which like the title of the training program flip-flops the Little Red Riding Hood metaphor in encouraging women to unleash their individual power and unite victoriously with the pack.
“If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be this: You were never Little Red Riding Hood, you were always The Wolf,” says Wambach in the Barnard commencement address on which the book is based.
Also in that speech, which has gone viral with 250,000 YouTube views, she revealed the epiphany that crystallized into her women’s crusade. It happened at the 2016 ESPYs, as she was being presented ESPN’s inaugural ICON Award with Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning.
“We all stood onstage together and watched the highlights of our careers with the cameras rolling and the fans cheering,” says Wambach. “And I looked around and I had a moment of extreme awe. I had a momentary feeling of having arrived — like we women had finally made it.”
Then, as the applause ended and they walked off the stage, it dawned on her.
“Each of us — Kobe, Peyton and I — we made the same sacrifices, we shed the same amount of blood, sweat and tears, we left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment. But our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have — enormous bank accounts. And because of that they had something else I didn’t have — freedom. Their hustling days were over, and mine were just beginning.”
Later that night she realized that this wasn’t just about her, and it wasn’t just about soccer. What it was about was the gender pay gap and its lifelong burden on the lives of women.
“Over time, the pay gap means that women are able to invest less and save less, so they have to work longer,” she says. “When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, let’s be clear, it costs us our very lives.” Wambach lives just across the Everglades in Naples as a self described “bonus mommy” with her wife, author and activist Glennon Doyle, and Doyle’s three children.
But her Sunshine State connection goes all the way back to 1988 at the University of Florida, where as a freshman she helped lead the Gators to their first NCAA women’s championship. On that national stage, it was there and then that the electrifying, heady future of Abby Wambach was first foreshadowed.
Tickets purchased for the previous dates will be honored for the new date, Sept. 8, organizers said. For new ticket purchases, visit www.browardcollegespeakerseries.com.