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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Soccer sensation Abby Wambach set for the 2014 season
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2014-04-18

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Abby Wambach has been out since she was 22, just not to the world.

Her soccer coaches and teammates knew. So too did her friends and family.

And over the past 12 years or so, Wambach has developed into one of the best soccer players in the world, hands down.

Her sexual orientation has had no impact on the field.

Wambach was a member of the University of Florida's first NCAA Division I women's soccer national championship team and a three-time All-American. She is a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and the 2012 World Player of the Year from FIFA, the international governing body for the sport. That's just the start of the amazing kicks from her career. Just consider:

—She is a six-time winner of the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year.

—She has been a regular on the U.S. Women's National Team since 2003.

—She stands as the highest all-time goal scorer for the national team and holds the world record for international goals ( 167 ) for both men and women soccer players.

—She won the 2011 ESPY Award for Best Play for an amazing goal against Brazil.

—She was the 2011Women's Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year and the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, the first individual soccer player ever—man or woman—to receive the award.

"It's always fun to turn a new chapter, create a new story. I think that's part of why I love doing what I do so much because every year you get to keep exploring yourself individually, but the team too. And every year, every team is different, be it because of personnel, personalities, talent, whatever," Wambach said in an exclusive interview. "I think the teams that have the most success are those that open to the options, the ideas of writing a new book. And if you can all get on the same page as quickly as possible, you'll find a lot of success that way."

Soccer is simply fun for this flashy forward who will celebrate her 34th birthday in June. Wambach, born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., has been playing soccer since she was 4.

"Obviously there's the grind of long seasons, [prolonged] fitness, all of the things that become habitual more than anything. But at the end of the day, I'm still a competitor. I compete doing the most random things, even off the soccer field," said Wambach, whose competitive nature drives her to be the best, always—even just playing card games.

"I like competing and I like putting myself in an environment where I have to push myself physically and mentally. If there is a chance that I can try to win at something, I'm going to make it into a game."

Wambach is now the star for the Western New York Flash of the National Women's Soccer League ( NWSL ), and the team plays its home games at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. This is her second season with the team, and Wambach will be in uniform when the Flash play against the Chicago Red Stars for Chicago's season-opener on Saturday, April 19, at Toyota Park in Bridgeview following the Chicago Fire game. The Red Stars are slated to kick off at 5:45 p.m.

The NWSL, she said, proved last season that it can be successful.

"I think there are some really, really good soccer players [in the NWSL]," she said. "Every game is close. Almost every game last season was a one-or two-goal game; that kind of shows the parity among the teams, which makes every single game important and every single game winnable and losable. That's kind of what you need to get fans to come and watch, getting them excited about the product on the field.

"You want to get better year after year; you want the stadiums to look prettier, to look nicer, to be newer; you want the product on the field to be better. Otherwise, what are we doing here? I think the reason why all of us sacrifice and participate in what we do is, so we can hopefully grow the game. If we continue to do what we've been doing over the past few years—at the National Team and in the professional level—then we will continue to grow the game, which we are doing now."

Wambach has had an amazing run on the international stage, with eye-popping, jaw-dropping goals around the world. She's shined in the Summer Olympics and sparked in the FIFA Women's World Cup—and multiple times for each memorable tournament.

"I feel lucky in that I can really focus my energy for a year or two, getting as fit and healthy as I can possibly be for those couple of years. I think I'm really good at knowing the times in which I can peak and I think that's something that definitely has extended my career," she said. "It's almost as if I've had multiple careers, based on who the coach is, who my teammates are, and where we're at as a National Team.

"My career has been steady, long, and hopefully it can keep going.

"I don't really get too wrapped up in the stuff that I've accomplished. I guess those are the moments for retirement [to reflect]. I'm confident, comfortable with the things that I've done. I don't look too much at who I am as a celebrity, or [winning the] World Player of the Year [honor]. All of that stuff is a by-product of working hard, committing yourself to playing the game, and hopefully growing and evolving the game. I definitely think that's how I look at myself. I also think staying modest and humble is super important because there are so many great futbol players in the world, and I've been lucky to play with a lot of them and been lucky to play against a lot of them. I try to keep the mindset that I'm not better than anybody. Even on the field, it doesn't make me a good person, if I'm a good soccer player—and that's very, very important for me to continually express and feel."

Wambach said her biggest on-field regret to date is never having won the World Cup. She also regrets never having had a normal 9-to-5 job … well, sort of.

"Not that I regret it because I love what I do. But, I think it would be real interesting to learn what it's like to have a job and … feel what normal people feel," she said. "It's hard to even say things that I regret because I don't really live like that; I live life to the fullest and have no regrets.

Her life—her personal life, that is—was shot into the public eye last October, when she revealed she had married fellow soccer player Sarah Huffman in Hawaii. The two had been teammates many times on the field, even last season with Western New York, yet Huffman now plays for the Portland Thorns FC.

Their wedding, Wambach said, "was really special with a lot of friends and family [attending]. We're still riding the high of year one of marriage."

Wambach said she has been approached by many LGBT community members, for any number of reasons, including requests that she be a further spokesperson for the LGBT community. But, Wambach added, "The reality for me is that I don't really try to make statements with things that I do with my life. Not because I don't believe in it, but, I play sports, and I think there definitely is an avenue and an environment where you can cross over and gain popularity and publicity because of your sport in political arenas, but, I never really was in the closet.

"After I turned 22, I was out with my teammates and everyone. It's interesting now because people were saying last year that Abby finally came out of the closet. But the reality for me was, I never felt like I was in [the closet]. I don't feel any different because everyone in my life knew."

Still, she added, "I appreciate if [my coming-out to the rest of the world] helps someone feel more comfortable in their world.

"I definitely think there will be people who are positively impacted by Jason Collins and Michael Sam coming out, especially men. But I also think, at some point, hopefully in the very near future, that we can stop talking about people's sexual [orientation], and start the conversation on the bullying and sports overall. First and foremost, I want to be known as a good person and a soccer player. All of that other stuff is irrelevant, based on what I do on the field. And I think most other athletes will agree."

Wambach's world has not changed, at all, since her wedding last October, she stressed, "except having more responsibility with the relationship."

"I don't see myself as a spokesperson for the gay community; I don't look at myself as that. I would see myself as the spokesperson for something different, but what, I don't really know right now," said Wambach, who has attended Pride Parades in the past.

When asked about the challenges male athletes seem to face more than women when coming-out, Wambach said it stems in the "machismo" of male athletes.

"Unfortunately, there's also a stereotype that, if you're gay, you're less manly. But that's just not the case," she said. "So, I think it's been harder for men, and probably will continue to be harder for a while longer. Hopefully the Jason Collins' and Michael Sam's of the world will keep coming out and opening the door, so someday there is no conversation around this subject—and I really believe that."


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