Soccer legend Abby Wambach.
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Soccer legend Abby Wambach.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Brie Ripley

'Like a good Catholic girl, I didn’t want to upset anybody.' Abby Wambach finds her power

In July 2016, I found myself on stage standing next to Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning for the ESPY’s. We were all about to receive ESPN's iconic award, and it was amazing. I was like, 'Wow, we women have finally made it.'

Then I walked off the stage and had this sobering moment — almost like I got punched in the face — thinking about the differences in our retirements.

Kobe and Peyton have to figure out where they’re going to invest their hundreds of millions of dollars and I have to figure out what other job I can do to continue to pay my mortgage.

I think there's a big misconception between what people think female professional athletes make and reality. Did I make money while I played? Absolutely. But is it enough to last me for the rest of my life so I don’t have to work another job? No.

[This essay was adapted from Abby Wambach's conversation with Bill Radke on The Record about her new book Wolfpack: How To Come Together, Unleash Our Power, And Change The Game. Listen to the interview below.]

Abby Wambach in conversation with Bill Radke on The Record, April 15, 2019

Bill Radke and Abby Wambach at KUOW Public Radio on April 15, 2019.
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Bill Radke and Abby Wambach at KUOW Public Radio on April 15, 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Brie Ripley

As for finding another job to work, I became an author. That was not expected in my post-soccer career because I was not that great of a student. I mean, I played sports, so that’s what I did. Luckily though, I married an author who inspires me. But I don’t want athletes like Brianna Stewart or Alex Morgan or anyone who will eventually retire — because we all do — to have the same experience as me.

I had been offered seats at the table. I had been invited for so many cool opportunities, met famous people and politicians. But until that moment at the ESPY's, I didn’t realize that my story is every woman’s story.

Like a good Catholic-raised girl, I didn’t want to upset anybody. And I was told to be quiet in every freaking way. Women are told by culture to be subservient. So here I was, with this extraordinary athletic talent — and in some ways I was little bit afraid of it because I was so powerful — so sometimes I didn’t want to stick out or step into my power because I was afraid the other women around me would feel less-than. But that’s a cultural construct — an idea that’s placed in every woman’s head about what they can be.

Once you know the differences in culture for girls and boys, you can then begin to feel empathy. For example, little boys are told from every angle of their lives since they’re born that they are allowed to demand the ball while playing out on the soccer field. So it’s the job of the boys' coach to tell them to pass the ball because that’s the thing that’s missing in that situation. The opposite is true for girls. So for girls’ soccer, the job of the coach is to tell them to demand the ball.

And you know those fairy tales we read as little kids? Many of those stories told girls that they need to stay quiet, to stay small, to stay on the well-traveled path, to follow the rules. If they don't, all hell will break loose. This book is my attempt to flip those fairy tales and get us to think about the world differently.

Generally, a wolf goes after what they need. A wolf stays in their pack. A wolf is out in their world, maintaining structures in their ecosystems there. Back in 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park by scientists because rivers were eroding. The wolves hunted deer so vegetation would come back, and the riverbanks would grow and strengthen.

The way that I see wolves in the world, and the way that I see women in the world are same-same.

I was blessed to play on the women’s national soccer team for so many years, and one of the reasons why it was such a blessing for me was because I was able to be around other bad ass women who felt they could do anything.

They railed against stereotypes and rules in which women are made to follow for this world to run. We didn’t accept the status quo. We fought for what we deserved. We worked hard. We won championships.

Because I had this mentality in me, lived and breathed it for so many years, I know it’s possible. So this book is an invitation from me for women everywhere to step into this power because it’s there — it’s inside of you. You just have to chip away at it.

There are so many different types of power. Strength is huge, I know this because I was a presence on the field for my teams. But what I’m talking about is actually something different. It’s the power of how we feel about ourselves. It’s self-esteem.

My internal power, the needle that measured how much impact I had on the world, grew as I got older. The more life experience I gained, the more self-esteem and confidence I got about the direction I was headed in. And I have always felt this desire to make everybody’s life better in some way. As my skill developed and experienced on the national team developed, I thought that it was converging as a perfect storm as a way to have a positive impact on the world.

Stepping into that and owning it is so much harder as women.

My wife says this a lot: "What’s a perfect way for people who are in power to stay in power? It’s to keep those who they are in power over down, separated, and afraid of each other."

That's because there are more people who are not in power than those who are in power. So when we figure out how to bridge-build marginalized groups, when we can start uniting those groups, then power will shift and worlds will crumble.

But I think right now, the things we see all around this world and in this country especially, worlds do need to crumble. I think we need to re-build a truer and newer version of what we can imagine.

This is my small attempt to try and build a bridge for women and men to work together. The only way we can start that process is through education.

The thing I want to get in the minds of people who read this book is that everything you read in your life might not actually be true. As adults, you have to go back down the path of your life, figure out what you believe in and why you believe it and decide whether it’s actually serving you.

Stepping away from soccer made it harder to understand what my purpose in life is. It took my wife telling me: "Look, Abby. Soccer didn’t make you special. You made soccer special." And that night at the ESPY’s was so important to me, too. It helped me triangulate the way that I want to help change the lives of women forever.

I don’t think I was put on Earth to play soccer at a higher level. I think I was put here for what I get to do after that. When I leave this Earth, I want it to be better. I want women’s experiences and their place in the world to be more solid — grounded in truth and equality.

Produced for the web by Brie Ripley.