How personal turmoil helped Abby Wambach find her voice in retirement
NEW YORK – She still looks quintessentially like Abby Wambach, with the signature bleach-blonde mohawk and the tall, muscular frame. She still talks like Abby Wambach. That is to say, a lot and with great gusto and flair. She still is Abby Wambach, the world-record holder for international goals, male or female; the 2015 Women’s World Cup winner; the two-time Olympic gold medalist; the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year; the first-ballot Hall of Famer.
It’s just the setting that’s different.
Wambach stands before a crowd that’s come to watch her. But this isn’t a soccer stadium, where she would wear down opponents with her bruising physicality and hammered headers. Instead, she takes a seat in one of two comfy chairs – literally between two ferns – arranged to face an amphitheater on the ground floor of PayPal’s New York City headquarters.
More than a hundred employees sit on the long rows of benches. They munch on the bagels and lox and sip from the assorted coffees set out in the sleek lobby. There’s an actual gas pump in the next room, to reflect that you can pay with PayPal at the gas pump as part of their partnership agreements.
It’s Pride Month, and we’re less than five blocks from the Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay bar in Greenwich Village. So Wambach has been asked to come give a “Fireside Chat” with the company’s CEO, Dan Schulman, who is wearing jeans and cowboy boots, just in case it wasn’t abundantly clear that this is a tech company. Cameras are set up to beam the talk to offices in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil and elsewhere.
Wambach understands innately how to move through this corporate space. She’s been doing it a lot lately. She proclaims herself a “huge fan” of Schulman’s and seems sincere about it. She compliments PayPal several times on everything it’s been doing to achieve gender equality.
A few parents brought their kids. Some U.S. Women’s National Team jerseys dot the crowd. Wambach begins to talk.
It didn’t occur to Wambach that she would have to reinvent herself until she’d been anointed an icon. In 2016, eight months after she’d retired following the celebration tour on the back of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, ESPN gave her, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant its Icon Awards at the ESPYs. That’s when she realized that whereas Manning and Bryant only need worry about how to fill all that leisure time, she had to build a new career.
“At night, I was laying in bed and really trying to understand, ‘How could this happen? I just represented my country. I have a world record. I have gold medals. I’ve won a World Cup,’” Wambach recalled. “These guys, their hustling days just finished and mine are just beginning. Their biggest worry was where to invest their hundreds of millions of dollars – of which they earned every penny. And I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay my mortgage.
“I was really trying to figure out what the hell I was going to for the rest of my life,” Wambach continued. “As a soccer player, I reached the highest highs. How could I replicate that? Why would I even try? I was just really struggling and abusing alcohol.”
When soccer ended for her, after 256 national team appearances and an obscene 184 goals, Wambach fell into an abyss, just like a lot of other longtime athletes. She drank to excess and took prescription pills. She went through a divorce. She was arrested for DUI. “It was literally the worst thing that had ever happened to me, the most embarrassed I had ever been,” Wambach remembered. “It was all over ESPN.” She took pictures of how many days in a row her arrest was on the ticker, just to remind herself later.
Wambach called her mom from jail and promised to somehow turn it all into something positive. She’s been sober since that night. “I had to go through a lot of self-work to get to where I am now,” she told the rapt PayPal audience.
After her very public humiliation, Wambach stepped out of the public eye. She fell in love again and remarried, to author Glennon Doyle. She became a “bonus mom” to her three step-children and moved to Florida. She coached her 10-year-old stepdaughter’s soccer team. To the title game, of course. But late on in the season, it transpired that at least some of the girls had no idea who she was, or had been. When they found out, they asked if that meant she knew Alex Morgan.
The DUI was indeed a tipping point.
“Everything good in my life has happened because of that moment,” Wambach said. “Because of this really bad thing that happened, that forced me to make changes. The Barnard speech would never have happened.”
So about the Barnard speech, the genesis of all this.
A year ago, Wambach was asked to give the commencement speech at Barnard College, the elite women’s college at Columbia University.
“At 36 years old, I was able to sit down and really write down and figure out what I believed to be true about the world and what I wanted to do with it,” Wambach tells Yahoo Sports. “And I feel really grateful that the message is being received at some level.”
The speech, about how women are less Little Red Riding Hood than the Big Bad Wolf and how the female graduates should band together as a wolfpack, was not just well received. It went viral.
The speech begat Wambach’s motivational book, Wolfpack: How to come together, unleash our power, and change the game. And the book begat a business.
That’s how Wambach finally discovered her second calling. As a motivational speaker, women’s rights activist and gender equality consultant, all rolled into one. She regularly gives corporate talks like this one, telling stories about her career and life and encouraging women to ask for things: a raise, more responsibility, more seats at the table, more of whatever.
Wambach sometimes took speaking engagements during her playing career, but now she’s turned it into a business.
“Corporate America and corporate cultures are interested in knowing what I know about leadership because of my time on the national team,” she says. “And because of that, I was able to go around doing enough of these speeches that not only was I able to work on my public speaking, but I also learned that there was a void in all of these companies that I was talking to.”
Some weeks, she now does multiple events, her message resonating in the time of #MeToo and the ongoing fight for gender equality and equal pay. She commands about $50,000 per appearance, according to her agent.
She goes on extended book tours. And her company, Wolfpack Endeavor, creates programs to help mentor women and change the culture of companies. One such program at Verizon Media – full disclosure: Yahoo Sports is owned by Verizon Media – went through multi-day modules on “communication,” “self-reflection” and “emotional intelligence” and just graduated its first class. The idea is to send waves of women up the corporate ladder to begin to alter the fabric of companies from the inside. “It’s about getting more women at seats at tables where decisions are made,” Wambach explains.
“It’s not a job per se,” Wambach says about the new career she’s crafted. “Finding a purpose feels a lot like this is what I’ve been meaning to do this whole time. I never sat down and figured this stuff out. Now I feel like I’m finding my lane and the thing I was put on this planet to do. It doesn’t make you worry about what the outcome is. Because when you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing all that other stuff is bonus and byproduct.”
If you’d spent any time at all around Wambach during her playing career, none of this will have come as a surprise to you. She always was a gifted talker. As a reporter covering the women’s national team, all you really had to do was ask her a broad question and turn on your recorder. Job done.
U.S. head coach Jill Ellis remembers a game against France at the 2012 Olympics, when the Americans had gone down 2-0 early on. At halftime, the coaches could hear Wambach from outside the locker room, stirring her teammates with a rousing speech. So they waited until she was finished before going in. The U.S. won 4-2.
“Having heard Abby many times in the locker room when I was the assistant and as the head coach, I knew she had that in her – her ability to command a locker room and inspire people, and not just by her actions, but also by her words,” Ellis says. “I think Abby was born to do this. She’s very good off the cuff, finding the right words and framing things in the right way that can connect to people. I saw it in the locker room. It didn’t matter if it was a brand new player or it was a seasoned veteran. She could adapt and reach everybody.”
USA midfielder Morgan Brian only overlapped with Wambach for a few years, but she was there for that period around her final World Cup when the towering striker was on the team as much for her impact as a supersub as to inspire.
“That was a large role for her, to be a motivational presence,” Brian says. “She has always been able to speak in front of people and to relay messages and what she wants to get across and articulates her words very well.”
Alex Morgan, Wambach’s longtime strike partner, chuckles when asked about the latter’s capacity to persuade.
“Abby could convince anybody on anything, whatever it is,” she says. “Whether she’s selling a product or a motivational speech, you buy into what Abby is saying. She has so much passion in what she says and says it with such grace. She really encouraged us and motivated us with those speeches. So I just see how that transitioned so fluidly.”
Now Wambach is telling the PayPal crowd, still paying close attention some 45 minutes into the event, about the way all those years in a locker room informs her current work.
“Growing up in that environment taught me about different personalities, rubbing against each other. How to communicate,” she says. “How to get the best out of a group of folks. For whatever reason, I think it’s allowed me to sociologically become obsessed with how people connect and communicate and interact.”
And then she reveals something interesting and fundamental about herself. How, as the youngest of seven children, all of them good athletes, she’s been fighting for attention all her life, whether it be with her goals or her words. “I’m a performer,” she says. “If anybody is watching me do anything, I’m like, ‘Yes, this is amazing.’ So now I do this. And this is basically me saying, ‘Mom! Watch!’ I just have made a complete career of doing that and I think that that has a lot to do with wanting to get attention from my parents.”
What a very Abby Wambach thing to say. Funny. Introspective. Honest. Insightful. It’s what’s made her such a compelling speaker all her life. It’s what has given her life purpose again.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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