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Abby Wambach on Winning, Her Wife, and the Elusive World Cup

Abby Wambach on Winning, Her Wife, and the Elusive World Cup

Abby Wambach on Winning, Her Wife, and the Elusive World Cup

Headed into the 2015 World Cup, soccer legend Abby Wambach has her eye on the prize.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off next summer, which is a reminder that two-time Olympic Gold medalist Abby Wambach certainly does not need. The 34-year-old veteran on the pitch has been eyeing that tournament since suffering an upset loss to Japan in penalty kicks iduring the 2011 final. Despite the inevitability of retirement — a fact that even a machine like Wambach must face — Abby is committed to bringing home her first World Cup championship and the United States’ first since Brandi Chastain’s shirt-whipping penalty kick goal in 1999.

"In order for me to feel whole about the complexities of the life I live," Wambach tells ESPN’s Kate Fagan in an ESPN W feature story, "whether it be the fitness, the pressure, the nutrition, the daily sacrifice, all of that, it will be a lot easier for me to understand if I go off into retirement with a World Cup title."

A World Cup championship would be a defining pre-retirement moment for Wambach, who — as all women’s soccer fans remember — led the United States to victory in the 2011 semifinals against Brazil after executing that fantastic header off a perfect cross from midfielder Megan Rapinoe to take the game into penalty kicks. Despite her gold medals and her unequivocal status as one of the best in the game, the World Cup title is her Everest.

Wambach, who married fellow National Women's Soccer League player Sarah Huffman last October, has carried that intensity since the beginning of her career. Her college coach, from the University of Florida, recounts Wambach’s impromptu pep talk during the NCAA title game her freshman year. A woman of many words, Wambach jumped into the middle of the huddle during the final TV time-out, saying, "We are not f---ing losing to these bitches!" And her team didn’t.

Wambach’s intensity is reflected in her training style, which revs up exponentially as she approaches a major tournament. According to Fagan’s piece, Wambach spent the year leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics undergoing round-the-clock training, a super-strict diet, and complete abstinence from alcohol, television, and other guilty pleasures. "Extreme" is a word many have used to describe her. Her wife says Abby is the kind of athlete (and woman) who doesn’t live in the middle. "She's all or nothing," Huffman says. "She's either going to wake up every morning for a year and work out and run, or she's going to relax, sit on the couch and not move."

Huffman and Wambach married in Hawaii and have worked tirelessly on their new home and life together. The two have even kept a blog covering the progress of their home undergoing renovations. Wambach says that after retirement, she wants to become a stay-at-home mom, while her "sugar mama" hopes to work at Nike after the NWSL season.

Still, retirement is far from Wambach’s mind going into 2015. "I know that I was put on this planet to be an athlete," she says. "But what else is there? What is my point in life? This might sound masochistic or narcissistic, I don't know, but when I'm not playing the game, the validations I feel about life are always through the hardships. I relate more to sadness, in a lot of ways, when I'm not playing. You can imagine how many people tell me how great I am every day. So for me, it's a balancing act, trying to be and feel like a normal human being. I have to, not exactly dim my light, but alter my expectations, so I can start to be happy in ways that are sustainable for the rest of my life."

Reflecting, she adds, "I've never actually said that out loud."

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Annie Hollenbeck