Last night, Abby Wambach played her final professional match. It was her 255th appearance with the U.S. women's national team, and she finished her career with 184 goals—the record in international play for both women and men. It was a stunning year for Wambach. Having won plenty of awards, including Olympic gold, at 35, she could finally call herself a World Cup champion.
“Obviously people will be like, ‘Wow this summer was amazing, Abby finally got her World Cup championship,’ but there are so many different factors that go into having won,” Wambach told Out earlier this fall before announcing her retirement. “One of the main ones is the idea of women empowerment, more importantly, people empowerment.”
The U.S. Women’s World Cup final this past July in Canada — which shattered viewing records for soccer in the U.S. — was a game changer for women’s sporting events for many reasons, including the fact that Wambach kissed her wife Sarah Huffman after the historic win. That public display of affection, so natural for straight players, is something of which Wambach is acutely aware.
“I feel so lucky because, when I was first on the team, there was really no ‘gay’ people on the team,” she said. “In fact, there was almost the opposite, these girls were like: ‘No, we’re straight,’ so they had long hair and ponytails. And now you see this eclectic group of people that come from all different places and are different colors and have different preferences. For me, that’s something I’m most proud of.”
Just as thrilling as lifting that trophy was the opportunity to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner during this year’s ESPY Awards. Asked by ESPN execs after a few others athletes declined the opportunity, Wambach says her response was an emphatic: “Hell, yes!”
“It was literally the only reason I was going to the ESPYs,” she explained. “I wanted to see her speak, and I felt I could be an advocate for someone who is maybe feeling a little alone with all these football and baseball players, all this machismo, in the room. I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender, but I know what it’s like to be a minority and to be alone. Caitlyn did something special, and I know it saved someone’s life — and I got to be a part of it.”
The landmark Supreme Court decision that granted marriage equality to same-sex couples was also felt in the locker room of the women's soccer team this summer as they prepared to play the Women's World Cup.
"I was in camp in Los Angeles I believe. It was just a surreal day," Wambach said. "It was really cool because a few of us texted back and forth. But our straight girls on the team, they were like, 'Duh. Yeah, this is stupid, I thought it was already legal?' I was like, "Yeah, it’s legal in a few states but not from the Supreme Court.' Obviously there are a lot of gay women on our team, but to get a bunch of straight women to get that comfortable, that felt significant. Our team is such a melting pot of so many people; you have to be accepting of many different religions, mindsets, political views, sexual orientations, ethnicities, whatever it is. That’s why I think our team is so likable. Winning is great, but I do think we do have a likable quality that people want to attach themselves to."
She also celebrated here two-year wedding anniversary to her wife in October. "We were waiting for all the rest of the United States was able to get 'actually married,' although we were already ‘married’ to ourselves," she explained. "We have a house and dogs and stuff. It was more a symbolic thing, but now I’m getting more time at home and can go down that path and get to enjoy all the millions of perks people who are married get to enjoy—the nice things, the bonuses, that come with legal marriage."
But it's the time she's going to get to spend with Huffman now that she's retired that she's looking forward to. "You know getting married two or three years before I’m going to retire was probably a mistake — because I hate being away," Wambach explained. "It really is hard. No matter what I do, I’m going to be traveling the rest of my life. I know I have a market and an ability to affect people and do speaking engagements and lead — whether it’s through soccer or not. I want to do something that’s different that completely blows my socks off. I don’t know what that’s going to be."
Although Wambach ultimately decided not to play in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics—telling reporters, “Now my 35-year-old, slow body can watch from the sidelines”—she will remain an advocate for equality in sports.
“I hope the women, the studs that come behind me, I hope they get better pay and their contracts are better and they get treated a little more like the men,” she said. “We’re the ones who have been winning time and time again, but the men are still pulling more money. For me, this has to change. That’s part of what I want to keep going as my legacy. We have to stop letting this happen.”