Abby Wambach: A national star and a Gators legend

This story originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Gator Country Magazine. VIP subscribers to receive the magazine in the mail every month, and copies are available throughout Gainesville.

On July 10, 1999, 19-year-old Florida soccer star Abby Wambach sat in Gainesville, eyes glued to the TV, heart pounding.

The United States were deadlocked in a shootout after a 0-0 match and two overtimes against China, and Wambach’s heart nearly stopped as Brandi Chastain stepped to the line to take the last penalty kick with a chance to win the World Cup.

Chastain fired her shot into the right corner of the net past the goalkeeper and 90,185 fans in the Rose Bowl erupted. Chastain sank to her knees, fists clenched in triumph as her teammates swarmed her, tears of joy running down their faces. The U.S. were world champions and the women’s national team had instantly become national heroes.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have a moment similar to that,” Wambach said.

Twelve years later, it would be Wambach swarmed by teammates wearing the red, white and blue, screaming in utter jubilation after one of the most incredible moments in American sports history.

The U.S. had earned the right to play Brazil in the World Cup semifinals, and after getting out to an early 1-0 lead, the U.S. fell behind 2-1 in overtime.

As the seconds ticked down, the U.S. was down to its last gasp. The clock read 121:14, already well into added time in the second overtime period, with elimination a near certainty for the Americans.

Megan Rapinoe took the ball up the left sideline uncontested and streaked forward as Wambach flew in toward the back post. For a moment, fans across the U.S. held their breath in anticipation as Rapinoe swung in a cross toward Wambach.

The seconds turned into hours for Wambach as she waited on the ball, slowly slicing through the air toward her and curling in past the keeper. Four words raced through her mind, over and over again.

“Put ball in net.”

As the Brazilian keeper lunged out to try to punch it away, Wambach lined up her shot. The ball cleared the keeper and the last defender, and time stopped.

“Truthfully, I just kept thinking if it goes over her hands and it goes over her head, meaning keeper, defender, it’s going in,” Wambach said. “Those moments come rare.”

And then it happened in a flash. Wambach’s head guided the ball just inside the right post, like a heat-seeking missile destroying its target, the latest goal scored in women’s World Cup history.

Wambach sprinted to the corner flag and slid down, grinning ear to ear as her teammates raced over to congratulate her and fans roared approval at the miracle goal that rescued the U.S. from the brink of elimination, a strike seared into the souls of the women playing for their country.

“I kept saying the whole game it just took one chance,” Wambach said. “One chance is what it took.”

While the U.S. ultimately fell to Japan in the World Cup final in a shootout, Wambach and the rest of the women’s World Cup team, which also included former Florida national champion Heather Mitts, arrived home as heroes.

“Quite honestly, maybe the most proud feeling I’ve ever felt about being an American without having won anything,” Wambach said. “It was almost as if we did win. We won over the hearts of millions of Americans.”

For Wambach, the miraculous goal she scored against Brazil and another late goal against Japan to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead in overtime changed her life.

Now, everywhere the former Florida soccer star goes, people recognize her. She gets stopped for autographs and pictures almost every time she goes out in public. It’s been an adjustment for the former three-time All-American at Florida.

“This whole thing has just been wild. It’s been a transition, to be quite honest,” she said. “It is true, the more famous you are, it does become more of a, not a hindrance, but it becomes a part of your life. You get interrupted and you have to be patient with parents who don’t know how to work cell phone cameras. It’s been awesome. I’m not going to complain. You want success, but then you don’t want what comes with it. That’s not who I am, so I accept everything that’s happened with open arms and hopefully it can continue and we can keep the momentum going.”

Wambach even had one 15-year-old boy come up to her after she got back to the U.S. and tell her he wanted to be a women’s professional soccer player.

Suddenly, thanks to Wambach and other recognizable U.S. soccer stars like Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, women’s soccer is gaining popularity once again.

Fans have flocked to Women’s Professional Soccer matches, where stars like Wambach and Mitts ply their trade in the years between each World Cup and the Olympics.

Wambach considers herself extremely lucky to have had the type of impact on the sport she had this summer with her dramatic goals and breathtaking finishes.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” she said. “Of course, it’s humbling, it’s great that people are rallying around the sport. I’m proud to not only hail from Gainesville and be a Gator, but also be able to continue to make the Gator Nation proud through the ventures that I continue to do.”

After winning a national championship at Florida in 1998 in the soccer program’s fourth year of existence, Wambach went on to have a terrific career with the Gators. She is still the career leader for Florida in goals, assists, points, hat tricks and game-winning goals.

The U.S. superstar loved every minute of her career at Florida and attributes much of her professional success to the development she underwent while playing for the Gators.

“I’ve told people this throughout my entire career: Coming to school here literally was preparing me to become a professional athlete,” Wambach said. “Obviously the academics are great, and we all know how storied history the sports are here, but people don’t understand that what this sport and what this school did for me was that it literally prepared me to become a professional athlete. The best stadiums, the best coaches, the best travel. It was, by far, probably one of the biggest, most impactful things about me having success down in my professional life.”

Wambach won the 2011 World Cup Bronze Boot award for her four goals and one assist in Germany. Her game-tying goal against Brazil in the final seconds won this year’s ESPY for Best Play. She made numerous appearances on ESPN and national TV talk shows after the terrific run the U.S. made in the World Cup.

But the one thing that stands out more than any of the accolades she received after the World Cup wasn’t a goal or an award.

“The best part about my experiences last summer was every single stadium we played in, there was a Gator flag waving,” Wambach said. “I don’t know if it was the same person every time, either way, it was something that made me really feel proud of the time that I spent [in Gainesville].”

Needless to say, when Wambach had a break in her schedule to return to Gainesville, she jumped all over the opportunity.

She and Mitts were honored at halftime of the Florida soccer team’s 3-0 win over Texas Tech on Sept. 2 and again the next day at Florida’s football game against UAB, where the crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium rang out in a chorus of “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!.”

Both Wambach and Mitts hope their World Cup success can help the Florida soccer program down the road. Both have exceedingly fond memories of the Gators and always speak glowingly as they recall their days in Gainesville.

“We, as a national team, hope that it transcends all the way down the ladder,” Wambach said. “We want people talking about women’s soccer, because truthfully it’s not nearly as popular in this country as we think it could be. We did something special in Germany that got people talking about it, that got people excited about it. Obviously winning in the dramatic fashion [against] Brazil changed the lives of many of the players on our team, and hopefully inspired some of these kids even on this field [in Gainesville] to maybe foresee themselves doing that in the future.”

While Wambach is happy to be a national icon, she doesn’t want people to try to be like her. In fact, she offers some advice to the hundreds of thousands of girls and young women aspiring to be like her.

“So often I hear people say I want to be like you and I want to be able to be as good of a soccer player as you are. The thing that I always tell them is don’t be like me,” Wambach said. “Try to be better than me. Truthfully, that’s how I created the player and the person that I am. I never wanted to be like Mia Hamm, I wanted to be better than her. I wanted to be different. You’ve got to find your own way. Don’t try to emulate everything that I did, try to find your own way and do it in your own way.”

Still, aspiring to be like Wambach can only be a positive thing for young athletes. Her success both on and off the field speaks for itself. What she was able to accomplish at Florida helped set the bar for future generations of Gators.

Florida has finished first in the SEC eight times since Wambach and Mitts helped guide Florida to a national championship in 1998. The program has established itself as one of the elite in the country thanks, in large part, to the hard work the pair put in and the national recognition they helped the program earn.

Knowing that they were a part of building the Florida program from the ground up means a lot to both, especially Mitts, who was a freshman in the program’s second year of existence.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s kind of weird to think that I’ve been out of college as long as I have,” Mitts said. “To be able to come back here and to say that we are Florida Gators and we were here from the very beginning and to kind of [help] keep it going. Keep the momentum going, keep the history going and be proud of the fact that you’re a Gator.”

What Mitts and Wambach did at Florida will be tough to duplicate. Florida has had some quality teams under head coach Becky Burleigh, but what the Gators did in 1998 was remarkable. The team went 26-1 that year with its lone loss coming to North Carolina in overtime.

Later that year, Florida would top North Carolina 1-0 for its first and only soccer national championship in school history. It’s one of Mitts, fondest memories, though she has several.

“Being that I came in here when it had first started and to be able to win a national championship in a short time,” Mitts said of her best Florida memory. “My second memory is just that we were such a tight-knit group. Obviously we had great coaching. Just all the things that come along with this University, you’re going to get results. It was a lot of fun, and obviously we both are excited to be back. Memories that will last a lifetime.”

Wambach echoed Mitts’ sentiments about the relationships she had with her teammates at Florida.

“I really had so much fun,” Wambach said. “The girls made the experience what it was for me: the team, the camaraderie, the teammanship.”

Make no mistake about it, the memories that will last a lifetime aren’t just for Wambach and Mitts to enjoy. While neither will ever forget Wambach’s game-tying goal against Brazil, the thousands of Florida fans and Americans around the country who cheered her on will always carry that proud memory with them.

That goal and Wambach’s accomplishments are forever sealed into the lore of Florida soccer. It’s something head coach Becky Burleigh treasures and uses on the recruiting trail often when she meets prospects.

Wambach and Mitts are just glad to be a part of it all. The pair have just one piece of advice they give to the current Florida soccer players.

“I think Abby and I both kind of just said savor the moment,” Mitts said. “When you’re in college, you just look forward to finally being done and being out there in the real world. I think for us, it’s like, this is such a rare opportunity to not only play college sports, but to be a Gator and to put on this jersey, just all the memories that we both have. Just cherish the moment, more than anything.”