ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach visited the University of Michigan on Saturday evening to discuss her new novel, “Forward.” The 36-year-old retired athlete from Rochester, New York spoke inside the Rackham Auditorium. Wambach is widely known as highest goal scorer–male or female–in the history of soccer.
She talked about various topics including her struggle with alcoholism, getting advice from Mia Hamm, the 2016 Rio Olympics and her iconic kiss with wife Sarah Huffman after winning the 2015 Women’s Cup.
“Abby towers above all of them,” said attendee Taly Cavazos from Jackson, Mich. “She’s very inspirational. Wherever she’s at, I would go and watch. I want to hear more about her personal life…How she got into soccer and what she’s going to do afterwards. She’s always been my idol and I’ve always wanted to meet her.”
The conversation was moderated by Doug Tribou, host of Morning Edition for Michigan Radio (91.7 FM), and former reporter and producer for NPR’s Only A Game.
Moderator Tribou: “Let’s start with your 184 goals…”
Abby: “There’s so much buildup to the actual goal itself. Something short circuits in my brain. I have a momentary blackout or amnesia. I always know it’s going to go in. Everything has to be perfect for your team to score. I just get really fired up.”
Wambach admitted that she occasionally has problems seeing. However, she has learned to manage and overcome those issues on the field.
“I’m nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in another,” the soccer player explained. “Learning the timing of my jump. Being able to control my body in the air. I played sports with my brothers. I think the nearsighted and farsighted thing helped. When I read, my brain is fighting each other. I struggled a lot in high school and college to read.”
Abby told the crowd that she wasn’t originally interested in playing soccer. That is, until she enrolled in college.
“When you’re growing and naturally gifted, there has to be that sense of ‘the grass is greener on the other side,'” Wambach said. “I knew that I need some sort of balance. I questioned if I liked to play soccer. I never chose it until I went to college. There was no social media. I didn’t have the ability to dream bigger. I was watching Michael Jordan play basketball. I wanted to experience life. I’m super stubborn. As I grew older, I grew more in love with the game.”
Later on, she discussed the elephant in the room–her struggle with alcoholism. It was a bombshell that was revealed in her new book, Forward.
“My marriage was failing, that was a huge stress,” Wambach admitted. “After the 2011 World Cup, I became more famous. It was hard for me to emotionally manage. I wasn’t able to sit with my own struggle. Keeping things a secret is the kiss of death. It reached a boiling point last April when I got a DUI. I was experiencing so much shame. Talk about it. Reach out. I’m going to make sure I don’t repeat that mistake. I had to wake up. What I did was complete an individual recovery program. Just tell somebody about it.”
The soccer star talked about challenges she faced at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“You try to do some things differently,” she explained. “In order to win the 2015 World Cup, I knew it would have to be done in a different way. I wasn’t going to be able to play 120 minutes. I wasn’t that happy about it. As a team player, I had to accept the role. You have to accept the fact that they’re the coach. At the end of the day, we won and that’s the most important thing
What about that iconic kiss with wife Sarah Huffman after winning the title?
“She [Sarah] didn’t think it was going to be on national television,” Wambach answered.
Abby also gave her opinion on the U.S. women’s soccer team losing the quaterfinal game at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I’m such a fan of our national team,” Wambach said. “Relax some times. I have so much love and respect for those women. The quarterfinal game is an extraordinary amount of stress. I remember feeling a little bit off that morning. Sweden had really good players. Gone are the days that the national team can snap their fingers and get in the finals. I believe they had good enough players. You can see they were stressing and lacked a little bit of leadership. I thought they had the talent on the team.”
The conversation wrapped up with a question about Abby’s future plans.
“I’m still figuring it out,” the soccer star answered. “I want to break the barrier of the separation of man and women. I want to be seen as equals. All of these labels just puts us in boxes. We are all the same. We just want to be loved. I played for 30 years so it was time for me to go. There’s memories that I’ll never forget. The locker room after those gold medals are wrapped around your neck. There’s just a massive amount of pride.”
Alexis Berry from Ann Arbor was one of about 750 people who attended the Abby Wambach discussion and signing on Saturday evening. She purchased a copy of Forward and got it autographed by the soccer star in person.
“It was really inspirational hearing about the person behind the player,” Berry said. “I play on an intramural team at Michigan State. I’ve been following Abby since she started playing on the national team.”
The discussion and signing was organized by Liberati Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. Special thanks to them for providing us with a media pass to cover this special event.
Look for Abby Wambach’s new novel “Forward” in stores nationwide. The 240-page hardcover memoir is published by Dey Street Books.