Abby Wambach remembers how she felt after winning an ESPY Icon Award in 2016 along with fellow sports stars Kobe Bryant, who passed this week in a helicopter accident, and Peyton Manning: pissed.
She was grateful — We women we finally made it! she thought — but then she realized that the three of them were walking into very different retirements, she told conference attendees at Inman Connect New York Thursday in a session called “Unleashing Your Power to Change the Game.”
“Their biggest concern was where they were going to spend their hundreds of millions of dollars that they earned,” Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA World Cup champion and New York Times bestselling author, said.
“My concern was how I was going to pay my mortgage that next month. This is a true story. And this is true for every female athlete.”
“Maybe not Serena,” she added. The crowd laughed.
It was then Wambach promised herself that up-and-coming soccer stars such as Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn would not have the same experience when they chose to retire. She also decided to do everything she could to level the playing field for women overall.
“Because if this is happening to me … this is happening to women everywhere,” she said.
In 1996, when Wambach was 16, she went to her first youth national training camp for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Chula Vista, California, where she and the other girls were invited to tour the senior women’s team’s locker room.
“Now I know that might feel weird, but it was like the best day of my life,” Wambach said.
“I was that weird child that went straight to Mia Hamm’s locker, got her cleats and started rubbing them all over my legs to try to get any kind of goodness from them.”
What she noticed was that the team had taped a picture right next to the door to the training pitch. It was a photo of the Norwegian women’s national team celebrating after beating the U.S. team at the 1995 World Cup.
“Why would they do that?” she wondered. She eventually realized what she said all athletes know: Failure is just opportunity.
“Why are we so afraid of this concept and idea of failure? What we need to do is make failure something positive. And that’s a mindset,” Wambach said.
“It’s something that you can do. OK, so this didn’t work, why did it not work? What can I do to fix it? And how can I approach it differently?”
Two years later, Wambach remembers playing a game with Michelle Akers, whom she deeply admired. The coach said there were five minutes left in the game, and Akers went from motivating and pulling in other players to a different personality altogether.
“Michelle ran straight back to the goalkeeper, got one inch from her face, and said, ‘Give. Me. The. Effing. Ball!’ The goalkeeper was terrified,” Wambach said.
At that point, Akers scored goal after goal after goal, and her team won.
“I had never seen a person, let alone a woman, stepped into her power like that,” Wambach said.
“I didn’t even know you could do things like that. I didn’t know that when the going got rough or your team needed a couple goals, that you were allowed, because you were the one, because you knew what you could offer, that you were allowed to say, ‘Give me the ball.'”
But she knew that when she did that, she had to deliver for her team.
“I never scored a single goal in my career without the help of a teammate,” Wambach said. Even penalty kicks were backed up by hours with her team’s goalkeeper taking penalty kick after penalty kick.
“Playing on the women’s national team, one of the things that differentiates us from the rest of the world is the idea of competition,” Wambach said.
“What makes us so successful is we were never competing against each other, we were competing with, and that is a massive, massive difference. We were genuinely excited for each other because when Alex Morgan scored goals, that was my opportunity to turn up my volume.
“I think a lot of jealousy or inability to celebrate other people’s wins is just personal insecurity.”
She recalled her last World Cup game in 2015 when, as she put it, she “got [her] ass benched.” She had the choice to either be a good teammate or a bad teammate at that point.
“In hindsight, the way that I responded to that benching is something that I’m really proud of, more than any other big goal that I’ve ever scored,” Wambach said.
“And that’s possible, that’s accessible to everyone in this room. It’s OK to be disappointed, but it’s not OK to miss your opportunity to lead from the bench.”
After she retired, she took an 18-month break. Working out again was hard without a team. So she’s training for the 2020 New York City Marathon with a couple of former teammates.
“Do you proactively go out and try to find your people, the people to do life with, the people that hold you accountable? The people that know you, the people that know where you want to go in your life?” Wambach said.
“You’ve gotta find your people.”
She wrote a book called Wolfpack last year because she was “obsessed with flipping the fairy tales, the bullshit fairy tales that little girls are told about what it means to be a little girl,” she said.
Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods and if she goes off the path, a Big Bad Wolf will eat her, according to Wambach.
“If I could go back, I would tell myself ‘Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood. You were always the wolf,'” she said, leaving the stage to audience cheers and applause.