Four days before Christmas, Binghamton, New York is typically a cold and snowy place, and December 21, 2013 was no exception. But, inside the Greater Binghamton Sports Complex—“Home of the Largest Dome in the Country,” a sign outside proclaims—more than 250 young soccer players, mostly girls and young women, paid no attention to the chilly temps.
The young footballers who were nervously giggling, kicking soccer balls back and forth, and fixing the headbands they fashioned out of Pre-Wrap tape, were there for one reason: Any minute, their hero, Abby Wambach, would walk through the dome door and play soccer with them. Wambach and fellow U.S. Women’s National Team members Sarah Huffman (who is also married to Wambach) and Sydney Leroux were scheduled as the main attraction at the central New York soccer camp.
For my daughter, also named Abby, this weekend was both her Christmas present and a dream come true. Ever since the first time she saw Wambach head a soccer ball into the net, turn, and race back toward her teammates grinning with arms raised in jubilation, she was enthralled. The year before, the sole item on her Christmas list was a signed photo of Wambach. She proudly wore Wambach’s number 20 on her own jersey. And her story wasn’t unique—when the soccer stars walked through the door, every eye in the dome was fixed on the GOAT: greatest of all time.
The camp director separated the girls into small groups and ran drills and exercises throughout the day. Wambach, Huffman, and Leroux rotated from field to field, working with the girls and playing in short scrimmages. They took it very seriously and treated the campers as if they were true teammates. At one point, after Wambach headed my daughter’s corner kick, nearly scoring a goal, she turned to her, laughing, and said, “Ow! That hurt.” It’s a moment I don’t think my daughter will ever forget.
That night, the players and their parents crowded into a local hall to eat grilled chicken and green beans while listening to Wambach and Leroux speak and answer questions. Mid-way through the evening, one father stood up and took the microphone. He asked the stars what the girls should take away from their soccer experience, since making the U.S. Women’s National Team was a nearly impossible feat.
Even from our seat nearly two dozen people away, I could see Wambach bristle. She grasped the microphone and took a breath. While I’ll always regret not writing down her exact words, the key message was this: Never tell a young woman she can’t accomplish her dream. If that dream is making the National Team, go for it with everything you have in you. She turned to the audience and told them that she was certain, one day, she would meet some of them again after they’d played on the national team’s pitch.
The audience applauded wildly. Any parent knows that you can try to instill that kind of message in your child for a lifetime, but there’s something about hearing such inspirational words from a respected role model that make them stick. Any of these young women would have been happy just to hear Wambach speak in generalities about her career and her experiences. Instead, she focused on what the young women gathered needed to hear: How important it is to ignore the naysayers and strive for their goals, even if the odds are stacked against them.
Virtually everyone in the room that night knew the mixed messages that bombard young women about achievement, ranging from obstacles because companies “aren’t ready to hire women leaders” to a study that found men prefer women who aren’t smarter than they are. The world needs more of Wambach’s message. A message of equality and achievement that she continues even as she leaves the field.
Wednesday, in a dramatic tie-in with her last game before retirement, Gatorade released a video in which Wambach encouraged us to forget her, for the good of the game. In typical fashion, she eschewed her own hard-won glory and, instead, encouraged her fans to look forward to the next goal and the next achievement in an effort to move the game forward. She also deleted her Twitter and Instagram accounts.
For virtually anyone else, the move might seem contrived. But the irony is that Wambach has, through her own actions and authenticity, both made us believe in her sincerity and made the possibility of forgetting her impossible. She has left an indelible mark on a generation of young women, encouraging them to believe that their dreams are possible with dedication, hard work and sacrifice. Forgetting her would be a detriment to us all.
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