Abby Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA World Cup Champion, and six-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, gave the Commencement Address at LMU’s 110th Commencement Exercises on May 7, 2022. A leading spokesperson for women’s equal rights, she also is the author of “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game.” We spoke to her about Title IX and women in sports and society. Wambach was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
In your book “Wolfpack,” you write, “What you do will never define you for long. Who you are always will.” How did you learn that lesson?
That is a lesson I learned by fire. When I retired, I had to strip away the identity that I had for my whole life: “Who was I without soccer?” I identified only around what I did for work. When somebody takes that away, you are lost. We put so much priority and emphasis on what we do for work, that we forget about developing the human inside. We have to become people first.
As a high school soccer star, you chose to attend the University of Florida, which had a new program, instead of North Carolina, a perennial champion. You seem like you had a chip on your shoulder. Is a chip on the shoulder sometimes useful?
Yes, it comes in handy. As a kid, I needed that chip on my shoulder. There’s a part of me that knows that having a chip on your shoulder is just a cover-up for insecurity, and I also know that sometimes I’ve had to “fake it until I’ve made it” in life. It worked out because we ended up beating North Carolina in the national championship game in my freshman year. But I also think that some of the biggest failures of my life have happened because of that very chip on my shoulder.
As captain of the U.S. National Women’s Team, you led by telling your teammates that achieving their goals would be harder than ever and would require more from them. What’s the hard, truthful message that young people need to hear when setting out on their lives?
All people will be faced with challenges. All people will be faced with circumstances that are very difficult. I believe that if it’s the right kind of hard — going after dreams, things that you want to achieve in life — your capacity as a person is limitless. I’ve proven that through playing sport. I didn’t love the fitness component of being an athlete. In fact, that was the least favorite part of my job. But I was able, through will power and practice and true desire for what I wanted to achieve, to do really difficult things. If you want to have a good life, you have to make difficult decisions and do hard things.
Title IX has dramatically increased athletic opportunities for girls and women. What is your take on availability of and access to competition, resources and opportunities for girls’ soccer?
Title IX has done an enormous amount of good for women in the United States and around the world. But there’s still so much more work to be done. Talking specifically about girls’ sports, I think about athletic gear: You have two types of cleats for girls and 10 for boys. What messages are we sending children? I grew up having to wear men’s clothes, men’s cleats, men’s sporting equipment. Even now, there is so less gear offered to girls and women. To me, it’s a huge void. But you’re actually devaluing 51% of the population.
Your book “Forward” struck me as a story about someone with a high degree of talent and self-confidence on one hand and a very high degree of self-doubt on the other. Is that a combination that a lot of talented young girls who play soccer from the ages of 10-17 are dealing with?
I think so. I think what really rings true about what you said is the idea of being really talented at something inherently makes you lonely, because you’re alone on the top of that podium, that pillar, that mountain. I really struggled with that loneliness. I really struggled with being so good at something that I knew it would take me places, but I had to choose: I was either going to be lonely and really good at soccer or I was going to not be good at soccer and I was going to choose a different life. I now know, sadly in my retirement, that those were not the only options. I truly believe now, as a former athlete, that that was preparation for my next phase. It wasn’t just about the soccer. What I did then was incredible, I’m proud of it. But actually what I was doing that for was to prepare for my next adventure, and I’m doing that now.
It was heartbreaking to read in “Forward” what it meant to you to have to leave the national team, because being part of a team meant so much to you. Who is your team now?
My wife and our children, and our children’s father. We’re a pretty tight unit. The women who work for us, keeping our lives managed, creating a podcast, helping us with books, planning speaking engagements for me. What I understand more deeply now is that it wasn’t soccer that made me special, it’s me and what I bring to the table everywhere I go. People ask me all the time, “Do you miss playing soccer?” The answer is hell, no, I do not miss playing soccer. But I miss the people. I hope that people can find a way to create the team around them that makes them feel good and solid and true but that also challenges them. I’m around many people who are smarter than me. I probably have a great energy and emotional intelligence, but we all have shared strengths and also different strengths. So, the only way that I plan to keep getting better as a human is to intentionally put people around me who are better in some ways that I want to get better at. Representation really does matter. Having diversity on boards and in people our life gives you different ideas, even if it’s somebody who just represents a smarter person or your future smarter self. I’m lucky to have been able to rebuild a team since my playing days.
How does the expansion of the National Women’s Soccer League into Los Angeles — the Angel City Football Club — fit into the picture of elevating women’s sports?
What I hope will continue to be different about Angel City is that it’s owned and operated, majority-wise, by women. This is not a philanthropic adventure for us as women. This is us saying, “We want to be a part of this conversation. We think that we might actually have a solution to some of the huge systemic issues happening inside women’s sports, women’s spaces, women’s teams. We think that if we had more women leading, some of these problems might be far less aggressive and violent.” Also, this is a business, and we want to win. We want to show that women’s leadership isn’t just possible, it’s possible and successful.
Do you think unequal treatment of women in society is mostly due to ignorant prejudice or because lots of men benefit from it? Or is it the result of outright misogyny?
Outright misogyny all the way through. I do believe there are some really great men in the world, and women, who do their best to try to unlearn the messages of misogyny. By the way, myself included: I am not insulated from misogyny. It lives inside of me. In my heart I don’t believe that human beings are born to be misogynistic. In my heart, I believe we are taught this. We can unlearn some of these belief systems.
This interview is a longer version of a conversation that was published in the fall 2022 edition of LMU Magazine. (Vol. 11, No. 1).