Abby Wambach released her memoir Forward today. It’s a fairly quick read, just a couple of hours, but in that couple of hours she manages to paint an intense picture of a high-performing athlete filled with such self-loathing that she swung from basking in praise for her athletic accomplishments to self-medicating with vodka and prescription pills to numb the doubts.
Wambach traces it all back to her roots, growing up desperate for attention from her parents while competing with a large family of siblings, and rebelling against her strict Catholic upbringing. From there she details her rise through soccer, how she needed the sport and hated it at the same time, her first fumbling attempts at dating women, partying heavily in college but performing well enough to get drafted in the Women’s United Soccer Association, and her career with the women’s national team.
Wambach reveals things she’s hinted at previously, like her struggles with fitness. In high school she got by on raw talent alone but in college, found herself falling behind. She still scored, still garnered accolades, but was called out in her junior year by then-U21 coach Jerry Smith, who called her “unfit” and a “defensive liability” who was only “good at attacking when you’re in a scoring position.” Wambach seemingly took these criticisms to heart, especially with a shot at the WNT youth teams on the line.
That becomes a pattern for Wambach: building herself up, doing well for a time, then mentally loosening up, thinking she can coast for a while. That mental permission allows her to sink back into bad habits like drinking and overeating, until she gets called out again, like when then-WNT coach April Heinrichs called her unfit, lazy, and uncompetitive as the team began preparing for the 2003 World Cup.
By Wambach’s account, her original vices were food, booze, and tobacco. Her drinking was already a problem by 2007, when she got into a bar fight in West Hollywood. A team trainer tried to gently address her concerns about Wambach’s attitude, but the drinking continued.
The drugs seem to have begun around then as well, with a series of injuries piling up and getting Wambach a prescription for Vicodin. To that she added Ambien and caffeine pills. The Ambien helped her numb her disappointment in herself, especially after that notorious 4-0 loss to Brazil in the World Cup.
From that point on the drugs become almost a constant partner for Wambach, who says that she continued taking them after 2007 “on the advice of my doctors.” As Wambach says, “...all of them now necessary for Intense Abby to perform as expected, by herself and the world.”
From then on Wambach interweaves her high highs, participating in the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics, with her low lows, partying and blacking out. The same team trainer, now no longer with the team but still friendly with Wambach, reached out to her to tell her she was drinking too much, but Wambach was not ready to hear it. Who could blame her; she was being fêted at the time as the face of American women’s soccer and she had status enough to accumulate enticing endorsements and all the accompanying money.
By 2015 Wambach was a shell of herself, accepting that her time as a soccer player was up, that her marriage was disintegrating from the cost of constantly being away from wife Sarah Huffman and her drinking and substance abuse. At this time her WNT roommate on the road was Sydney Leroux, who did her best to reach out to Wambach and provide emotional support, something she continued to do throughout her pregnancy. This leads to probably the darkest moment from the book, when upon receiving a text a few weeks after her baby shower that just said “OMG...Abby!” Leroux’s first thought was that Wambach had overdosed and died.
It all culminates in Wambach’s very publicized DUI in Portland, Oregon. Apparently it was the wakeup call she needed, and Wambach says she has been sober since then up to the writing of her memoir. It’s an optimistic note to end on, and hopefully one that continues for her. Recovery is hard, and recovery under intense public scrutiny can be even harder.
There are two things that jump out in terms of Wambach’s history for their lack of detail. The first is her time with magicJack, which was a swirling shitstorm of accusations that team owner Dan Borislow abused the non-national team players on his roster. Wambach indirectly quotes from articles that list some of these accusations, but never comments on them herself. Throughout she mentions that Borislow continued supporting her, for example by flying her family out to her farewell game and putting them up in accommodations. Perhaps Wambach didn’t feel right discussing Borislow’s sins considering he has since passed away. Perhaps she was more focused on delving into her own shortcomings, her own pain.
The other thing that jumps out is US Soccer’s involvement in Wambach’s drug and alcohol abuse. Not to say that they were necessarily complicit, but it does beg the question of how much they knew, and how much they should have known. Wambach’s drug use seems to have been all prescriptions, and all known to USSF, since they were part of keeping up her performance on the field “on the advice of [her] doctors.” Drug testing may not have necessarily been any kind of warning flag in that case as long as Wambach remained within the expected levels. And by Wambach’s own description, she was capable of veering very quickly from zonking out on vodka and pills to entering near-complete abstention during training and games. If the goals were still racking up, then perhaps there was no reason to question that anything was out of order. And addicts are often adept at hiding their vices from others, including their employers.
Still, it’s disheartening to think one of the greatest sources of stability for Wambach was also one of the main contributors to her anxiety and self-loathing. So much of her identity was tied up in her on-the-field performance that when that lacked, she seemed to have nothing else to convince herself she was worthy of love or attention.
None of this excuses her behaviors. Wambach seems aware of that in her book by just how open she is about the depth of her drug and alcohol abuse. She recounts without frills her partying, including a friend’s wedding when she was so intoxicated she fell down and broke her finger, but then got up and pulled the finger back into place and continued celebrating. It’s as though she wants to lay out all her sins to ensure that her shaming and accounting are complete as part of her recovery.
Make no mistake, this is not a feel-good memoir tallying Abby Wambach’s many victories. It is a very raw, introspective dissection of her personal failings, from her addictions to her failed marriage, contrasted to her successes on the field and how she latched onto that part of herself as a sort of panacea. It certainly adds depth to Wambach as a human being; in a dark sort of way it can be reassuring to know that someone who seemed so larger-than-life is actually quite fallible, and just as easily broken as the rest of us.