Rackham Auditorium was filled with #20 jerseys on Saturday night as Literati Bookstore warmly welcomed USA retired soccer player, Olympic gold medalist and FIFA World Cup Champion Abby Wambach.
While fans are used to watching Wambach on the field, she now tours as the author of her new memoir. “Forward” follows her life as she grows from an athletic, yet overlooked child of seven to becoming one of the most successful soccer players the world has ever seen. With on and off the field memories, defeats and triumphs, she tells her story with honesty and élan.
The interview with Wambach began with her explaining that she has never actually watched the ball hit the net.
“It’s a momentary blackout,” she told the interviewer, and in the first chapter of her book, she wrote: “Although my eyes were open and aimed in the right direction, as soon as leather met rope the picture went black…”
She explained the adrenaline rushes, the pressures of being a team leader and the lack of choice she had in playing the game of soccer.
“I was so good at what I did, I never felt like I had a choice,” she said. However, she “never wanted to be known as just a soccer player.”
Among many other achievements, Wambach has made a powerful name for herself as an advocate for equal rights. As the leading scorer (with 184 career goals) of any male or female player, Wambach set high standards for all soccer players and athletes. She noted Saturday that even though the U.S. women’s soccer team has more of a fan following then the men’s team does, most female players still don’t make as much money as male players do –– which is something she hopes to change for all occupations, not just in athletics.
“I’m in my prime for this,” she told the audience. Her career, she said, was in the perfect time period of “women who didn’t have Title IX rights and young girls who don’t even know about it … I am bridging that gap.” This line drew huge applause from the crowd (Title IX eliminated sex discrimination in American educational institutions in 1972).
Wambach also acknowledged another part of her story — her shortcomings and her mistakes.
She openly spoke to the audience about her mental health issues and alcohol abuse. “After the 2011 World Cup, I became more famous,” she said. But with that pressure, Wambach stumbled into a severe depression and intense substance abuse that she had kept a secret. As the emotions poured out, Wambach expressed her deep guilt about a DUI that she received this past April. She had begun writing “Forward” before the incident, but “the book took on a life of its own and I had to tell my story.”
With little girls sitting front and center, looking at Wambach as the perfect role model, she earnestly shared: “(The DUI) was the best thing that ever happened to me, but I’m not going to make the same mistake two times.” Her vulnerability and courageous persona was also portrayed in certain chapters of her memoir like “Depressive,” “Addict” and “Failure,” which she said are names that have been given to her through the years. She claimed that writing this book, detailing both the ups and the downs, was “cathartic and healing.”
Within her memoir, Wambach described in supreme detail moments on the field, including specific players that she faced, what goals she scored during which games and of course, her most impactful memories. Some of these memories were not even during the games, but more importantly the moments where she “created relationships” and “the post-game locker room after winning those medals.” Recollections like these supported Wambach’s motto that there is more to life than soccer.
“All the labels that we give ourselves don’t matter,” she said. “The only label I really care about is ‘Human’,” which is the title of the final chapter in “Forward.”
Wambach concluded that her next big goal is to break barriers of segregation and discrimination, especially in women’s and LGBTQ rights, as well as enjoy her retirement as the non-soccer playing Abby.
The night ended with a Q&A from the audience and a book signing.
“What is your advice to the next generation of soccer players?” a young boy asked.
“One, (the competition) is going to get harder, so watch the game. It will only make you better. Two, never let someone tell you you’re not good enough … It’s not about the end result, it’s about the process. Stay in the moment; enjoy it,” Wambach answered.
And although Wambach’s memoir explained her progressive and audacious success moving forward in her career, she understands what it means to live for the now, play the game for the sake of the game and to never let labels define her.