To understand the world’s greatest athletes is to comprehend their psyche.
It is defining, yet intangible; subjective, yet undeniable.
Physical attributes and skills are only part of sport – a small part, some might argue. “Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical,” the great Yogi Berra once said.
Anyone can appreciate or at least understand what meets the eye. Usain Bolt is ridiculously fast. Michael Phelps, in his prime, appeared to have gills and a fin. And Michael Jordan could jump through the roof and shoot the ball like no other.
But somewhere between having talent and perfecting a craft comes the mental fortitude to make the figurative jump. It’s what separates the great players from the good ones. It is converting abstract potential into tangible results. Although the approaches may vary (just compare Jordan to his also very successful teammate Dennis Rodman), no athlete finds greatness without the right mentality. The mind must support the body.
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Physically, Abby Wambach is one of a kind. That much is obvious every time she steps onto the soccer field. Listed at 5-foot-11, the world’s all-time leading international goal scorer – for men or women – has scored almost half of her to-date 182 goals for U.S. Soccer with her head. She towers over most opposing defenders, especially when playing second-tier teams and inferior regional foes, when Wambach looks like an NBA center being guarded by a high school point guard.
Wambach’s mentality, however, is what brings her to this point; a key part of the U.S. women’s national team despite turning 35 just a few days ahead of her fourth World Cup. (The 2015 Women’s World Cup opens play on June 6, and the U.S. first takes the field in group play on June 8 against Australia.)
Wambach has won in just about every way imaginable. She is a two-time Olympic champion and the face of a generation of the most popular women’s sports team on the planet. But she has never won a World Cup, having fallen painstakingly short four years ago in a penalty-kick shootout against Japan in the final, a match the U.S. twice led.
That trophy which is so ironically slight in stature – all 3 lbs. and 18 inches of silver, gold plate and marble base – is Wambach’s kryptonite.
Everybody wants to win; it’s just that some people are all right with losing. Consider it on a smaller scale: There are those who will allow themselves to quit on the treadmill because they just can’t keep going at that speed, and there are those who will labor through it, never allowing failure into their minds. The art of actually needing to win to feel complete, normal and whole in life — the feeling that winning is the only thing that defines you — is the level at which the greatest athletes reach mentally.
Merely wanting is for losers. Abby Wambach needs to win this World Cup.
“You’re damn right I need [to win it],” Wambach said moments after acknowledging that her agent wouldn’t like the answer she was about to share with a room full of press at an upscale hotel in midtown Manhattan. Wambach was asked if she needed that elusive World Cup to feel complete and to validate her career.
Of course she does. The journey is all-consuming.
“It’s all that I’m thinking about, all that’s on my mind. It’s the thing that I haven’t been able to be a part of, I haven’t won yet. It’s something that I know that all of us have to be willing to be forever disappointed in not winning. Because that’s what it takes. You have to completely give in to it. You have to really allow yourself to be crushed by something. It’s like love. And if we give into it, if all of us give into it, then I think we could have a chance at this.”
Love is truly an understatement in this relationship. Wambach’s thirst for a World Cup title is an obsession, and it always has been.
It was during 2011 World Cup qualifying, when Wambach’s head ripped open after colliding with a Mexico opponent. Blood streamed out of the wound like a soda fountain; her head was stapled on the field.
It was at the 2012 Olympics, when Wambach was sucker-punched by a Colombian player while running off the ball. The United States’ third straight gold medal that (Wambach missed 2008 with a broken leg) was revenge for losing the 2011 World Cup final.
It was in early May, when Wambach’s face met the forearm of an Irish goalkeeper in a friendly match. Asked postgame if her nose was broken after blood poured out in the minutes that followed, Wambach was dismissive. “It doesn’t matter if it’s broken or not,” she said. “I’m pushing forward.”
Forward is the only way she knows.
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Talking about retirement is never easy. Wambach talks about it and thinks about it every single day, answering questions about her legacy, her role and what the World Cup would mean to her. She never shies away from the subject, however repetitive it is.
Teammates are constantly asked – even while sitting next to Wambach – to assess the striker’s legacy. Think about a co-worker assessing your performance to a stranger, all while standing next to you. These things don’t happen in everyday life, but they do in the spotlight of a run-up to a World Cup.
Sitting in chairs next to Wambach on that same stage in New York City, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Hope Solo are asked to describe Wambach’s legacy.
“It feels like Abby is gone already,” Solo quips, drawing a roaring laugh from the crowd.
“It seems like they’ve already pushed Abby out the door,” Rapinoe jokes.
Ice-breakers aside, the questions come with the territory.
“I don’t even know where to start with Abby, to be honest,” said Solo. “In my last interview, they asked me to use one word to describe Abby, and I think Christen Press said ‘fierce.’ That’s a great word to describe Abby, but for me it’s just winner. She’s a plain winner. And when you say she’s a winner, that encompasses everything — her drive, her leadership, her intensity. But for me, she’s the best teammate because she knows how to win and she’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
The always articulate Rapinoe, speaking more seriously now, has a simple way of describing Wambach: “Just a legend.”
Wambach is a legend, but she is realistic about where she stands in the grand scheme of the United States national team. She is not a full-time starter, though she will likely start some matches at the World Cup.
“As a competitor, I want to play every minute of every game, but as a realist also knowing that I’m going to be 35 when the World Cup kicks off,” Wambach said. U.S. coach Jill Ellis had the conversations with Wambach early in the buildup to the World Cup that the striker would play a more limited role than she has in the past. Alex Morgan — whose health is now a question mark — is the new face of the team. Christen Press has emerged as a versatile goal-scorer and Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez continue to push for minutes.
Wambach’s minutes have ebbed and flowed over the past two years. She’s a step slower and the timing of her trademark headers might be just slightly off at times.
Her moments of greatness are countless: The header heard ’round the world in 2011 against Brazil, the 2004 gold-medal winning goal (also against Brazil), breaking Mia Hamm’s world goal-scoring record.
Without a World Cup title, though, there is a thought that Wambach and her generation of teammates could live in the shadow of the 1999 team, the last U.S. squad to win the World Cup. It’s an unfair comparison, given their three Olympic gold medals and a drastically evolved women’s soccer landscape.
So Wambach seeks to erase any doubts with a fairytale ending, as she calls it. Morgan describes Wambach, in a word, as “selfless.” Wambach has reiterated that she will do whatever it takes – even if that means riding the bench – to win this World Cup, her last.
“I think that this team’s legacy is whatever we want it to be,” she said.
If will is all it takes, Wambach & Co. stand a fighting chance in Canada.