Never meet your heroes, they say. Heroes are for idolizing, for embodying all the best ideals, for breathing the rarefied air atop pedestals.
But when you meet someone, they become a human being, and human beings are messy. They're good and bad, with strengths and weaknesses that don't make it so easy to say they're just one thing to all people.
Abby Wambach is beloved by many, vilified by some, and, for sure, few of them really know her as a person. That is reserved for her friends and family, while fans are left to piece together an image from her on-the-field performance and her off-the-field persona.
On the field, her stats are the kind of thing they'll have to take a couple of minutes to read out at her Hall of Fame induction. A World Cup, two Olympic gold medals, a WUSA championship, an NCAA championship, a FIFA Ballon d'Or, lots and lots of player of the year awards, free Chipotle for life - and the small matter of being the leading goalscorer in international soccer, man or woman. Wambach has 184 goals in 252 caps and there's no reason to think she won't nab one or two more during the national team's World Cup Victory Tour, which has four games left to go.
Off the field, the last four years have seen Wambach's media presence explode. She did the usual circuit of talk shows after the 2011 World Cup and she was charming, self-effacing and ready with soundbites. Wambach has always been good on camera, willing to play the ham as part of her outsized personality.
But there's other stories about Wambach that aren't as flattering, chief among them the reports that at first trickled, then torrented out of Women's Professional Soccer club magicJack.
Original head coach Mike Lyons was fired after publicly arguing with Wambach at a game and team owner Dan Borislow appointed Wambach player-coach for the rest of the season. Borislow refused to provide athletic trainers for his team, leaving the athletes to request things like getting taped up from their opponents' trainers. Then, one day after WPS announced it would suspend its 2012 season (a foreshadowing of its eventual shuttering), Ella Masar published a damning tell-all about her time as a forward for magicJack on PitchsideReport.com.
The details were unflattering, to say the least. Borislow was painted as a bully who sexually harassed his players and encouraged a divide between national teamers and league players.
I mention these things not to rehash Borislow's misdeeds, but to point out that it was no secret he was, at the very least, an abrasive personality who had created divisions within the league and among players. Yet Wambach stood behind him as late as June of 2013 when she broke the goalscoring record during a friendly against Korea Republic at Red Bull Arena and told the crowd there that Borislow had flown in her family. Surely she had witnessed what had happened to her teammates at magicJack, or was at least aware of it. To still be publicly and positively associated with someone who was accused of such odious deeds was puzzling, galling, perhaps even tarnishing.
Then there were the widely circulated rumors that Wambach also had something to do with the ouster of former USWNT head coach Tom Sermanni. They were unsubstantiated, but so prevalent that Wambach had to answer questions from the press about it, ultimately denying that the players were behind it and instead framing it as a difference in philosophy. The persistence and power of the speculation (to this day it remains a dark joke among some women's soccer fans) speaks to Wambach's power, perceived or real, within U.S. Soccer. They had used her image, ridden it to pop culture and social media success, and now they were beholden to their superstar.
Part of that construction of Wambach-as-symbol involved a flurry of international friendlies after the 2012 Olympics in a transparent attempt get Wambach over the hump. And she delivered, scoring against Costa Rica, Australia, Germany, China PR, Scotland, and Korea Republic until she was at goal 159. Not counting the 2013 Algarve Cup, USSF scheduled 16 friendlies between the end of the 2012 Olympics and June 20, 2013, when Wambach broke the record.
In the years that followed, Wambach's numbers dipped. She was still dangerous, yes. In the right place, at the right time, she could still pound shots into the net. But she had lost a step as a natural consequence of aging. Equalizer Soccer showed that her scoring against top nations was dropping steadily. Once again, it seemed natural - Wambach turned 32 in 2012 and was still chugging along past what many would consider the peak years for a striker. Of course her game would change. It just didn't seem like anything else around her was adapting to that change.
It all came to a head in 2015, when Wambach elected not to participate in the National Women's Soccer League in order to prepare herself for the World Cup. "At this stage of my career, I know what I need to prepare mentally and physically for this summer," she said. "My sole focus is to help bring a World Cup back to the U.S."
On its surface, there may be nothing wrong with admitting you are no longer at your physical peak and can't withstand the rigors of a full club season and participate in the World Cup. But the context of the situation was that American players had been advised they would do better to return to NWSL in order to be evaluated by USSF coaching staff for the World Cup roster. To see one player make a statement that they were not playing in the league - and the attached assumption that they were automatically in contention for the WC roster - felt maddeningly uneven.
Wambach may have meant that the club season would impact her chances at making the roster, but again that begged the question of fitness. If her body couldn't handle regular 90-minute games, would it withstand the compressed schedule and travel demands of the biggest international tournament in women's soccer? Was she taking a roster spot that could have gone to someone younger, fitter, more in place to affect the future of the USWNT?
The zany quotes in the press weren't helping. From a poor choice of words in characterizing teammates as "scared," to referring to herself as "one of the most decorated goal scorers in the world," to calling herself "a seer," Wambach seemed to either be having a really good time with the press or just unaware of how it all sounded.
Fears about fitness continued during the World Cup as Wambach ran herself down in the hot summer sun. She was used heavily during the World Cup group stage, but sparingly in knockout. She hasn't played a full 90 since the round of 16 against Colombia and isn't seeing much time in the Victory Tour, sitting for the last three games and subbing or being subbed for the three before those. It's as though the World Cup was her last big physical push and she had to save every single scrap of energy to power her way through it. Once again, not unexpected for someone in their mid-30s who has had hard miles piled up on her body over the past 15 years.
Wambach didn't play for a club after the end of the World Cup, although the Seattle Reign held her rights. She retreated into a long vacation, and while NWSL teams engaged in a cutthroat battle for playoff spots, speculation whirled around her plans. She had the game's most coveted prize at last. What else could she desire in a career as gilded as hers? She said outright that she wanted to test herself against the Olympics one last time, body permitting. But other players like Lauren Holiday were retiring, sticking around only long enough to see out the end of the NWSL season and thank fans on the Victory Tour. Perhaps it was time to let go, to make room for all the young talent climbing the ranks. The Olympics would be a smaller 18-player roster, making every spot that much more precious and subject to scrutiny.
And then, following the USWNT's triumphant visit to the White House where they were congratulated by President Barack Obama for winning the World Cup, finally the announcement. At the age of 35, she will finally rest. It's time.
What will be Wambach's legacy? Though the last four years have been marred by curious decisions and worries about longevity, in the end no one may remember any of it. Wambach will undoubtedly continue to be an ambassador for the sport and may even become part of its administration, whether on the federation, confederation, or FIFA level. It would be understandable if her overall gains for the sport by being the easily-recognized face of it outweigh any of her individual shortcomings.
But her career should bear close scrutiny, if only to point out the benefits and the pitfalls of being made a symbol. A symbol isn't entirely human; a symbol is whatever her followers and creators need her to be. You can fill a symbol with your own meaning, use it to inspire, to quiet dissent, to challenge, to lead. When you're a symbol, everything you do comes under a microscope whether fair or not.
Abby Wambach is a symbol now. It doesn't leave much room for her to just be a person. But perhaps that's the burden she willingly shoulders at the same time as it is the shield behind which she can shelter. Only Abby knows for sure.