Sandy • Abby Wambach acknowledged she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about it, if the memory hadn’t crossed her mind.
Four years ago, in the exact same situation she faces now — the last game on home soil for the U.S. women’s national soccer team, before leaving for the Olympics — the star forward shockingly broke her leg.
Just like that, in a violent collision with Brazilian defender Andreia Rosa, the dream of one of the greatest soccer players in American history was shattered.
And while her teammates went on to win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games without her, Wambach was left only with a painful memory that has been hard for her to ignore during the build-up to the Americans’ latest “send-off” game against Canada at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, their last at home before the London Olympics.
“It’s definitely mentally taxing and emotionally taxing, knowing what happened four years ago,” she said. “But I’m totally confident in the training that our strength and conditioning coach has put us through these last 10 months. I know that my body is going to be fine. It was a freak accident, so those do tend to happen. However, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t thinking about it. I’d be lying if I told you it hadn’t crossed my mind once.”
Given her history, the 32-year-old Wambach is determined to win another gold medal.
The five-time national soccer player of the year, Wambach also is the second-leading scorer in women’s soccer history, with 138 goals. That’s within striking distance of the legendary Mia Hamm, who scored 158 before retiring after the 2004 Athens Olympics — where Wambach scored the extra-time header in the final (against Brazil, incidentally) that delivered a gold medal.
“She’s been able to score, relentlessly, her whole career,” teammate Megan Rapinoe said. “She’s getting a little bit older now, but she’s still able to do it — especially in the very biggest of games. I think that’s where she plays the best.”
This year, the physical Wambach has formed a lethal partnership with fellow forward Alex Morgan, the newest national team star.
The Americans have gone 13-1-1 so far this year, with Wambach and Morgan combining to score 30 of their 66 goals.
“Abby is such a great leader for this team, on and off the field,” Morgan said. “She has such a huge presence on the field. She attracts defenders, she takes those hard hits. Opens up space for me, and I think we play so well together because we complement each other — her being so good in the air, being able to hold off players and me being able to run off of her. I just think it’s hard for defenders to track both of us at the same time.”
And yet …
Wambach has not hoisted a major international trophy in eight years, since taking home gold from Athens.
Not only did she miss the Beijing Olympics, but the Americans have fallen short in each of the last three Women’s World Cups since 1999 — including last summer, when they lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the final, despite Wambach’s contributions.
She scored a go-ahead header in the 104th minute in extra time, only to watch the Japanese equalize in the 117th minute to force penalties. Wambach was the only one of four American shooters to score, before Japan clinched the victory.
“I’ll never forget last summer,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said ruefully.
Indeed, many of the players have echoed Solo, saying that the loss to Japan has provided motivation for the Olympics. “It’s in our heads, all the time,” defender Christie Rampone said. Each of the previous two times that the Americans fell short in the Women’s World Cup, they won Olympic gold the following year.
Another encore would be a delightful reward for Wambach, especially after what happened four years ago.
“This is what we live for,” she said. “The times that we spend sweating — blood, sweat and tears — on the field, that’s what it’s for. We’re not just out here kicking the ball around just to have a good time. We want to go play at the highest level, in front of the biggest crowds, under the lights. When the lights turn on, something happens. Something happens inside me, something happens inside this team. … It’s our platform, our spotlight. A time that we get to show the rest of the world what we’ve been doing for four years.
“We believe that we’re one of the best teams in the world,” she added. “We feel like we were heartbroken after the World Cup loss last summer, and our fans deserve something really cool to cheer about. And bringing home a gold medal is probably the best gift we can give back to our fans.”
The Wambach file
No. 20 | Forward
• Second-leading scorer in women’s soccer history.
• Five-time U.S. Soccer athlete of the year.
• Three-time Women’s World Cup medalist.
• Gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics.