By Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – Abby Wambach knew very early in her career that she wanted to blaze her own trail. The former Florida and current U.S. national team standout has been living her dreams ever since, as perhaps the most accomplished soccer athlete to ever come through the Southeastern Conference.
When Wambach joined the Florida soccer team in advance of the 1998 season, the Gator program was in its infancy, in just its fourth year in a Southeastern Conference that began sponsoring soccer in 1993.
That scenario provided the perfect environment for Wambach.
“When I first decided to go to the University of Florida, I realized on recruiting trips that I didn’t want to be a part of something like UNC because they had already won,” Wambach said by phone Thursday. “I wanted to be part of something new, something fresh and a team that beat a dynasty like UNC. I thought my best chance of doing that was at the University of Florida.”
When the Pittsford, N.Y., native arrived in Gainesville for her freshman year, she was a newcomer to a cast of talented players that included senior Danielle Fotopoulos, who would go on to become the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader, senior co-captain Erin Baxter and senior goalkeeper Meredith Flaherty, who had transferred from Clemson.
Wambach may not have been the most visible player on her 1998 freshman team, but she was welcomed as a member of the family by the squad’s veteran standouts.
“There were so many seniors on that team that had a personal hand in creating and developing the program themselves,” Wambach said. “Not only did people’s talent prove to be special, but it was also what they invested in the program; it was totally their own. For me, the family environment and the mentality of playing for your teammates fit in with my personal values. It wasn’t like the seniors were too good for the freshmen. They really accepted us and knew that they needed us to win a championship.”
Fotopoulos, who had transferred to Florida in 1996 following two seasons at SMU, would go down in the record books as the greatest collegiate player in the history of the game, finishing her career as the all-time goals (118) and points (284) leader. She also served as a mentor for Wambach, who would go on to revolutionize the game as an international competitor.
“Danielle Fotopoulos was somebody that I looked up to going into college,” Wambach said. “We still have a fantastic relationship to this day. She accepted me with open arms and brought me into the Gator family, and that’s something that I will never forget. If you don’t have leaders that accept younger players for who they are and allow them to make an impact, then you’re really going to struggle.”
Though she may have been flying under the radar, in her freshman season, Wambach started each of her team’s 26 matches and was second on the team in goals scored (19), assists (12) and points (50). She earned All-SEC First-Team honors and was named an honorable mention All-America selection.
That season, the Gators completed a magical run to the 1998 NCAA Championship, a first for both the program and for the SEC.
“Winning the 1998 National Championship, up to that point, was one of the best things to ever happen to me,” Wambach said. “It was not only exciting and exhilarating, but it was also really satisfying and it really fulfilled so many different things for me. Seeing our seniors complete a dream of theirs and helping them to succeed and fulfill that dream was one of the most special things to happen in my career.”
She finished her Florida career ranking as the school’s all-time leader in goals scored (66) and game winning goals (18). To this day, she still holds both of those records.
It was a relationship with Florida head coach Becky Burleigh, the only coach in the history of the program, that helped mold Wambach into the player and person she is today.
“Becky and I had an interesting relationship during the time I spent there,” Wambach said. “I am the youngest of seven kids and, during my college years, I was going through a very big adjustment to life. From Becky’s perspective, I may have been a handful, but whenever it came down to what was best for the team, I made that choice. I think the things that I learned most about myself in college were a direct correlation with how Becky treated us as athletes. She gave us responsibility and, if we didn’t follow through, there were consequences. I appreciate the things that Becky brought to my life and, to be honest, they were a good segue to my pro career.”
Not only did Wambach’s playing experience prepare her for her professional career, so too did her overall experience as a student-athlete at the University of Florida.
“We all know the statistics; very few Division I athletes go on to play in the pros but, in my opinion, the University of Florida really prepared me to be a professional athlete,” Wambach said. “It’s not only the facilities and coaching staff and support that they give you as a student-athlete, but they also really give you every opportunity to succeed on every level. I do feel like the University of Florida trained me in every possible way to play sports as a career.”
It wasn’t just the influence of her university, but also the SEC that helped drive Wambach’s own extremely high standard of excellence.
“Thinking back to the time when I was deciding where I wanted to go to school, I didn’t realize how important the conference would become to me,” Wambach said. “But when I got to the University of Florida, I realized the SEC was such a foundation of who we were. The SEC title was the thing that we wanted. In some ways, the SEC is its own kind of team. It was the family that we were a part of.”
That the sponsorship of soccer as the SEC’s 19th sport in 1993 came just a few short years before Wambach’s collegiate career. And when the programs of the SEC decided to sponsor soccer, they did it right.
“I think about Title IX and I think that it had a huge impact not only on my specific career, but on many SEC female athletes,” Wambach said. “I’ve been a creation of that. The SEC cares about its programs in their entirety. You look at the results of all the SEC schools, the athletic directors are putting in the money, time and support and are getting good coaches. We are seeing the results.”
Following the end of Wambach’s collegiate career in 2001, she was the second overall pick in the 2002 WUSA draft and excelled in a handful of women’s professional soccer leagues.
At the same time, she was training with the U.S. National Team, on which she has participated in the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2012. Though the Olympics are always a aspiration for Wambach, they aren’t an end goal for her.
“You go out as a professional athlete and there are certain things on the calendar that are bigger moments and you fade in and out of your fitness goals to achieve those,” Wambach said. “But the truth is, every single day you go out there as a pro athlete, you’ve got to get yourself better. There really isn’t an end game. Those athletes who become career lifelong athletes, they don’t know how good they can be because they are continually getting better. Some people say they train for four years, I’ve been training for the Olympics for the last 32 years of my life.”
In the two Olympic Games in which Wambach has competed, the United States has claimed gold, including this past summer in London. Wambach has become a bit of an international sensation, and with good reason.
“The cool thing about the Olympics that is different than the World Cup is that you are among all your fellow Gator teammates, whatever sports and events that they are in,” Wambach said. “I appreciate the fact that they’re at our games cheering us on. It’s an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself. That’s kind of the value that I’ve adhered to in my life. As the youngest of seven kids, I like to be a part of something. In the Olympics, everybody is putting their differences aside and competing to see who is the strongest.”
Wambach led the U.S. to a semifinal win against France in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, a game that propelled her status into an elite group of women’s soccer players that includes the great Mia Hamm. Wambach currently has 148 goals in 193 career international matches, which places her second all-time in U.S. history behind only Hamm’s 158.
Though Wambach may have taken the path less travelled, it is because of her that countless numbers of women’s soccer players have increased opportunities in their chosen sport. She knows that in order to advance the game to the next level, it is going to take viable professional opportunities within the United States.
“I think that we need to get a stable and solid pro league in the United States,” Wambach said. “It’s what gave me that next level. The gap is so large that a pro league would be a great bridge to get collegiate players to play at a higher level. We need a place for players to play and evolve into the kind of player that I know I’ve become. We have to do it right and make sure the level is high enough for players who are still developing after college, and make it worth their time so they have an opportunity to make it to the national team.”