When Abby Wambach posed for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, many questioned her motives.
The gritty, 32-year-old U.S. soccer star responded by speaking glowingly of her body. That’s because it was built to take punishment, and it’s done that. Beautifully.
“If you’re an athlete and you’ve worked your whole life on your body, your body becomes your machine,” Wambach, 32, said last Tuesday from New York City, where she was on a layover with the American squad headed to London. “It’s not about being a sex symbol. It’s about being proud of your body in whatever shape or form it is.”
And four years ago, it was in no condition to compete in the 2008 Olympics. Wambach broke her leg in the final match before the Games on July 16 after a collision with Brazilian defender Andréia Rosa, and she was forced to watch the U.S. capture its second straight gold without her.
As if that memory wasn’t painful enough, the one from last year’s World Cup final stung even more. Wambach — one of the most accomplished players in women’s soccer history — was six minutes away from adding the final major piece of hardware to her stunning collection. Instead, an inspired Japan side stunned the United States 3-1 in a penalty shootout after losing to the Americans in all of their first 25 meetings.
“With my history (after being injured before the 2008 Olympics), and with the recent World Cup coming so close, I think all of us are really motivated to win gold,” Wambach told FOX Soccer last week. “It gives me more motivation because I wasn’t part of the last Olympics, and let’s face it. You don’t know how many more chances like these you will have in your career.”
Japan came from behind twice in a game that was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. It was a gut-wrenching loss for a U.S. team that seemed destined for glory that tournament following Wambach’s heroics in the quarterfinals. The U.S. was down a player and down a goal in overtime to Brazil before Wambach’s infamous header in the 122nd minute of extra time. The latest goal ever scored in World Cup history (men’s or women’s) unexpectedly forced penalty kicks, where the U.S. secured a place in the final four and avoided its earliest exit from a major tournament.
However, the improbable victory only made it harder to stomach the eventual heartbreak in the final.
“This is obviously going to hurt for a while,” Wambach said after the loss.
There’s a good chance it still does, considering Wambach knows she’ll be 35 years old when the 2015 World Cup rolls around. And while the American attack revolves around her now, there’s no guarantee that it will three years from now as the U.S. program is teeming with young talent.
Wambach’s fellow forward Alex Morgan, 23, was the youngest player on the U.S roster in the World Cup last year. Yet, she scored a goal in the semifinals against France, then scored in the final against Japan while also finding Wambach’s head for an overtime goal. Now, Morgan is aiming to become the world’s player of the year in 2012.
But while Wambach’s age can’t compare to that of Morgan’s or others during this influx of young talent, nearly no player — especially the 5-foot-7 Morgan — can compare to her overpowering 5-foot-11 frame. Wambach has used it to compile 138 career national team goals, second only to Mia Hamm. She’s also second on the all-time scoring list in Women’s World Cup history with 13 goals.
Those accomplishments have come in large part because her body has been able to endure physical punishment. Now, it can help her overcome some recent pain that cut beneath the surface.
The U.S. plays its first game of the Olympics on July 25 against Group G opponent France in Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland.