Abby Wambach strode into the lobby of the team hotel with bright eyes, big smile, firm handshake and a newspaper crossword puzzle tucked in her hand, exuding the kind of confidence one would expect from an athlete about to achieve a rare milestone.
She was back in the nation's capital, preparing for Saturday's exhibition game against Canada at RFK Stadium, part of the U.S. women's soccer team's pre-Olympic tour. She talked about a career that has made her the most prolific offensive threat in the world &
scoring goals at a rate far greater than her friend and retired California neighbor Mia Hamm &
before heading out to practice, where the 5-foot-11 forward towered over her teammates and was easily the most watchable player.
"I feel like a little kid still. I get to play a game for a job," Wambach said. "You get to a certain level that things feel easier than they ever have. It almost feels like you're in the back yard and you're drawing up Xs and Os in the sand with your teammates, trying to conjure up some crazy play."
It's a feeling to savor, especially when Wambach recalls her early days with the national team. She arrived at one of her first camps in 2002 with a relationship-induced buzz-cut &
"I was heartbroken, and I felt like it was the only thing I could control at the time," she said &
and felt intimidated trying to share a practice field with legends such as Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain.
"I was nervous as heck," Wambach said. "And I wasn't playing well. I wasn't confident."
If the United States is to win the gold this summer in Beijing &
and make amends for last year's World Cup disappointment &
Wambach will almost surely lead the way. She has 95 goals in international play, 70 more than anyone else who will make the U.S. Olympic roster (Lindsay Tarpley has 25).
Wambach is five goals shy of becoming the ninth player in the world to score 100. The U.S. team's record when she scores is an eye-popping 62-1-2.
"Really?" she said. "I'd like to know that one game."
It was a 3-1 loss to Denmark in Philadelphia in 2004, part of an exhibition tour that celebrated the gold medal at the Athens Olympics.
"Got it," she said. "I hit the post twice in that game, too."
The 95 goals have come in just 118 games, an astounding rate for any level of quality soccer. Hamm needed 275 games to get her world-record 158 goals, but Wambach in many ways is a Mia With Size: a low-post presence who can dribble. Teams try to double-team her and keep her away from the net, but she's big and strong enough to hold her ground.
"She's certainly come a long way," said Jim Gabarra, who coached Wambach with the Washington Freedom for two seasons in the now-defunct WUSA. "She always had the size and strength. What people underestimate is her technical ability."
And now she is a locker-room leader, a veteran on the team at age 28. During the interview in the hotel lobby, she seemed to channel Hamm, Foudy and the other demanding, now-retired legends as she repeated the phrase they so often used: "Play for each other."
"I don't care if you're 35 or you're 19," Wambach said, "you're still expected to perform at your very, very best."
Becoming a leader is easier said than done, as Wambach learned the hard way last year when the team went through perhaps the most contentious episode in its history. Goalkeeper Hope Solo, upset that she was unexpectedly benched for the World Cup semifinal loss to Brazil, went public and criticized coach Greg Ryan.
The team had never experienced anything like it &
weren't they all one big happy family? &
and overreacted by dismissing Solo on the spot. They excluded her from the medal ceremony and made her fly home from China on her own.
"A learning experience for everyone involved. Was it a difficult time because it's never really quite happened before for this team? For sure!" said Wambach, punching the two words and nodding emphatically. "Did we make all the right choices? Maybe not. Did Hope? Maybe not. There is no right or wrong when it comes to what happened."
Wambach faults herself for not showing proper leadership. As a veteran, she said it was her role "to create an environment where that doesn't happen."
"I think on our team we were doing this," said Wambach, pointing her index fingers randomly in the air. "Like, 'What did you do?' 'How could she do that?' And really what we needed to be doing was 'What did I do wrong?' so that collectively we can correct the problem. ... It was a really interesting time and one that I never want to go through again, but I had an equal part in the problem in not being that leader that Julie was for a lot of us. We had to alter the way that we lead and the way that we interact with each other."
That's not to say Wambach has become all business, all the time. After all, this is a player who once put coffee grounds on the ceiling fan in a Freedom teammate's room, then turned the fan on. She doesn't play as many practical jokes these days because the U.S. team spends so much time in hotels &
"Sometimes you'll move furniture in front of someone's door," she said &
but she retains the same upbeat, adventurous spirit.
"I'm still goofy. I like to have a good time, or else I wouldn't be sitting here," Wambach said. "I feel like if that ever goes away, I'll probably retire."
Wambach closing in on 100 career goals