Abby Wambach’s memoir, Forward, is a powerful and at times painful reminder that behind our favorite player–even the most famous players–there is a real human involved, one that is fully formed and fully flawed. While we may see the results on the field, the officially-sanctioned glimpses from media availability and team videos, there is an entire world we are not privy to. And Wambach’s personal turmoil, from addiction to the slow deterioration of her marriage with Sarah Huffman to the concerning duality of her life, gives full context to her career with U.S. Soccer.
Every chapter of her book, released Sept. 13, is titled with a label. Some are positive–”G.O.A.T.,” “Romantic,” “Champion”–many are more challenging. But the first and last chapters are most indicative of the journey Wambach goes on in her quest to dissect her own past in order to move forward. The first chapter, titled “Fraud,” centers around one of Wambach’s myriad events in which she speaks to school children.
The night before, she sleeps in a hotel, unsure of what city she’s even in, drinking heavily and relying on Ambien to sleep. The next day, as she aims for inspirational sayings like “You need to make a plan. You need to create your life,” Wambach describes a mocking internal monologue that replies, “You can’t even do that for yourself.”
By the final chapter, “Human,” Wambach relives her arrest for Driving Under the Influence, and all the fall-out. This time, when she honors her speaking engagements, she actually believes what she says:
“You should defy labels, I tell them, whether imposed by others or yourselves. You should become comfortable with conflict and disagreement. You should not be afraid to speak your mind. You’re going to be the catalyst for real change. The world is out there, waiting to hear your voices and mark your steps. It’s not your failures that define you, but how you react to them and use them to change. You should all ask yourselves three questions: Where do you want to go, how do you want to get there, and why?”
Wambach seems to have only learned this lesson in her mid-thirties, after reaching the heights of glory in the world of women’s soccer. In her mind, she can only move on after looking back.
Wambach tours through her history with the national team, from her first call-up to all the major tournaments. But team drama isn’t on the docket for her book; all the secrets she spills are personal. Despite reconciling with Hope Solo after the 2007 incident in which Solo was benched in favor of Briana Scurry and Solo’s subsequent comments to the media, Wambach glosses over the finer details of what actually happened. She describes instead how she considered the 4-0 loss to Brazil as her own personal failure: “Once again I’ve let everyone down, myself included, and I feel dressed head to toe in failure, wearing my shame like a second skin.”
As for Solo, the arrival of Pia Sundhage as head coach ensures things are eventually smoothed over, but Wambach makes a point of speaking the “unspoken code” of soccer:
“There’s an unspoken code in our sport, with a few key tenets: you don’t talk shit about your teammates, you don’t throw anyone under the bus, and you don’t publicly promote yourself at the expense of the team. The comment further derails a team that had veered off track, and when the tournament is finally over I make a promise to myself: if I’m ever forced to ride the bench, for any reason, I will not react in a manner I’ll later regret.”
Wambach dedicates chapters to breaking her leg before the 2008 Olympics, how in the immediate aftermath she calls Lauren Cheney (now Holiday) to inform her that she’s likely getting called up to replace her on the roster, even before she calls her own parents. Her recovery from the injury then gives her plenty of experience in guiding a new teammate in the WPS through an ACL tear. The teammate is Sarah Huffman.
While the headlines around Wambach’s memoir have all been about her problems with alcohol and prescription drugs, it’s her blossoming romance, marriage, and then sad but inevitable dissolution that is the most affecting part of Forward. By the time of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Huffman and Wambach are almost past the point of salvaging anything in the relationship, but they postpone the inevitable until after the tournament concludes.
“Despite all the attention, the viral video, the headlines declaring that we exemplify ‘what love looks like,’ the high from that kiss doesn’t last. The issues that plagued us before the World Cup only worsen after it’s over. My marriage becomes my new obsession, the sole receptacle of my focus, and it buckles under the weight of my neediness. Every word is misinterpreted, every glance tinged with anger or regret. I want what we once had. I chase it, I scour corners for it. It’s not anywhere, and I choose to get lost with it.”
While their marriage falls apart, Wambach tries to find solid ground in her professional career after soccer. There’s campaigning for Hillary Clinton; positive feedback for a tossed-off speech: “…I am provin myself in a venue that has nothing to do with soccer, that my value did not end when I stepped off the field. I can do this, I think. I am doing this.”
There’s one particular section that seems the most egregious, though Wambach dedicates only a few pages to what she calls the worst summer in her life. The end isn’t quite nigh for her marriage, but Huffman has refused to play another season for the Western New York Flash and stayed in Portland. In quick succession, Wambach rolls her Range Rover and escapes uninjured and three weeks later, Dan Borislow dies of a heart attack.
Again, Wambach glosses over the particulars of MagicJack, even her own promotion to player/coach. She does describe many nights of epic drinking with Borislow, owner of the failed WPS franchise. But despite plenty of differing viewpoints on Borislow’s legacy in regards to women’s soccer, the internal drama of the sport was never the focus. Instead, she calls him her friend.
But there is one story in this section, which gives the chapter its title (“Gambler”) and one that seems to give Wambach no pause at all. It takes place after Borislow’s funeral:
“In his honor I book a trip to Las Vegas, withdrawing fifteen thousand dollars of the money Sarah and I received for our wedding. I hit table after table, playing poker, blackjack, craps–intending to lose every cent. In fact, I want to lose it, and I bet as irresponsibly as I can, hitting on seventeen, placing sucker bets on big six and big eight, making comically bad bluffs. To my frustration, I keep winning, racking up chips hour after hour until I find myself winning thirty thousand dollars, double what I came with. … But beneath my dismay I feel a spark of hope: Maybe this is a sign. Maybe we are not yet too far gone. Maybe I am not yet too far gone.”
There is not a single part of this story that isn’t troubling: from her solo trip to Vegas with wedding money, to her intent to lose it, to trying to find greater meaning in her own destructive behavior.
There are plenty of lessons in this book–perhaps the biggest is that it’s okay to ask for help. If there’s one U.S. women’s national team player that truly comes into focus in this memoir, it’s Sydney Leroux, who is one of the few who seems to fully understand Wambach’s self-destructive path.
But beyond the big takeaways, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Abby Wambach’s story is her own relationship to soccer. It’s clear that she cares deeply about her team’s results, no matter which team she might be on. But from too early on, the sport is a vehicle for validation from others. It starts with her parents but it does not end there. “Winning will correct my faults and fill in my gaps,” Wambach writes. By the time the 2011 Women’s World Cup final loss rolls around, it’s a little less do-or-die, but she still internalizes the loss: “soccer still feeds me in a way nothing else does, and we are not yet finished with each other.”
“Soccer is no longer what I do, but it will always be a part of who I am, an indispensable thread of my past.”
For a player that left the game as one of the all time greats, those accomplishments are now put in proper context, against a backdrop that finally sheds some light on life off the field. It’s still not the total story–but now we know the moments that Wambach considers most important.