Level Playing Field

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Abby Wambach began playing soccer at the age of five in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and went on to become one of the greatest soccer players of all time. A two-time Olympic gold medalist and a FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, Wambach has scored more goals in international competition than any other player in the history of the sport, male or female.

Along with winning, Wambach gained a reputation for her toughness and leadership — after her forehead was split open during a qualifying match in the World Cup in 2010, Wambach had the wound stapled on the field rather than stop playing. And after breaking a leg during a game two years earlier, Wambach called a player from the ambulance to tell her to begin getting ready immediately to take her place.

But soon after she announced her retirement from soccer in 2015, the realization that she would have to figure out how to make a living post-retirement, unlike elite professional male athletes of her stature with much bigger salaries, “hit me like a ton of bricks,” Wambach wrote in her 2016 memoir Forward. It dawned on her during an awards ceremony for retiring athletes that included former professional basketball player Kobe Bryant and football player Peyton Manning, that, unlike herself, they were leaving the sport with sizable fortunes. She was realizing after the fact, Wambach told the audience at the 2018 Barnard College Commencement in New York City in May, that she’d spent most of her career just feeling grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. “I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us,” she said. But “change is here,” Wambach told the graduating seniors. “Women have learned that we can be grateful for what we have while also demanding what we deserve.”

Since her retirement, Wambach has turned her focus and influence to advocate for causes including pay equity and inclusion across industries — she was a keynote speaker at the Destinations International Annual Convention in July in Anaheim, where she was sponsored by Convene and the PCMA Ascent initiative.

“So many of us,” Wambach said at the conference, “are working toward something that might not even be in existence yet.” Her own life serves as an example of that. When Wambach was asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told her parents that she wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist. But there was a problem with that goal, she said — women’s soccer was not part of Olympic competition.

At Barnard, Wambach addressed gender-pay inequity head on. “We talk a lot about the pay gap,” Wambach said at the commencement. “We talk about how we U.S. women overall still earn only 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, and black women make only 63 cents, while Latinas make 54 cents. What we need to talk about more is the aggregate and compounding effects of the pay gap on women’s lives. Over time, the pay gap means women are able to invest less and save less so they have to work longer. When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, let’s be clear: It costs us our very lives.”

Wambach also speaks to audiences about the transformative power of failure. Failure is “not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by,” she said at Barnard. “Women, listen to me. We must embrace failure as our fuel instead of accepting it as our destruction.”

In Forward, Wambach is candid about the challenges that she faced off the field, including her mother’s initial difficulty in accepting her sexual orientation — Wambach is gay — and her own struggles with alcohol and opioid abuse. In May 2016, she was arrested and charged with driving under the influence in Portland, Oregon. After her arrest, Wambach offered to cancel her upcoming scheduled speaking engagements, but no one took her up on it, she wrote in Forward. After hearing her speak about the experience at a conference at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton business professor and author Adam Grant suggested she come back and teach a management course on authenticity and the power in confronting your past, Wambach wrote. “I tell him I’d be thrilled; by then, I might be an expert myself.”

Your memoir Forward was about much more than your achievements as an athlete. What ideas did you most want to have stick with your readers?
I wanted the world to know that I wasn’t just a soccer player. That I have many sides to me and that I, along with every person, suffer. I wanted to humanize myself in a way that might be hard for people to understand. To break the “hero” stereotype I successfully carried throughout my career.

If you were to add another chapter to your memoir now, what would the title be?
Family. I was able to get really honest and sober after finishing this book. Sometimes writing down what is really happening in our lives helps us facilitate healing and growth. I was on a journey to write Forward, and it was also challenging. Because once I put all of it out there, then I was able to stop limiting my abilities based on maybe the secret life I felt I was living in my private life. It allowed space for true deep love. Which led me to my family and a new, gorgeous, never-ending chapter of family.

Could you talk a little bit about how you see yourself as an activist and what’s most important to you in that role?
I think that activists get a bad rap because some see activists as people who just like to stir the pot. Maybe some do, but what I’ve seen is that activists are people who are recognizing things in life that they want to change. They then put that anger and passion into action — which makes people activists. My wife [author and activist Glennon Doyle] says it best: “Philanthropy is pulling people out of the river that are drowning. When you look upstream and go about trying to find out who is pushing them in, and then go into action to stop them — that is activism.”

You’re the all-time scoring leader in international soccer competitions, yet much of your focus has to do with building relationships and supporting other people’s growth. Can you talk about what you’ve learned about individual performance and working with others?
I believe our own individual performance, when done with excellence top of mind, will positively impact the group. Ultimately, we are all in this life together, and making sure we have bigger purpose. More meaning will allow us to internalize our individual efforts to create more collective success. That is leadership.

Are success and failure harder to recognize or to measure off the soccer field, where a literal score is being kept? How do you measure success today?
Great question. Goals and assists are easy measurements as an athlete, for sure, but what about defenders and goalkeepers? They have their own metric for success — and so must people who are not in sports. Everything, especially now, can be measured. You might need [to be creative], but it’s possible. I would always start with internal measurements first, and then external, i.e., how does your job make you feel? What do you value and do those values match how much time you spend on them?

Has the message that you bring to audiences changed in the years since leaving professional sports, and if so, how?
Yes. At first I would tell stories of my career. And now I try to turn the stories of my career into what it means from a bigger-picture perspective so it can be universal. Essentially, when I played and shortly after, it was just my story, and I’ve evolved in trying to make people understand that my story is their story. Characters and events might be different, but it’s the same.

What have you learned in your speaking career about connecting with audiences?
That in order to really reach people, I need to make my life and the complexity of the world seem more simple. I believe joy is attainable and so is greatness, but hard work and honesty are the key ingredients to a beautiful life. We are all in this life together and we are more alike than we are different.

Ascent is supported by Visit Seattle and the PCMA Education Foundation.