When new players came onto the U.S. women's national team after the 1999 World Cup, there was a reserved, shy tendency to their interactions. It was not one that lacked substance; it was simply a hesitation to raise their hands or speak unless spoken to. And then in strode Abby Wambach.
Hesitation and Abby were like strangers from different galaxies. Without pause, she came smiling and chatting into our lives. And thank goodness for that day, because Abby brought charisma, passion and this wonderfully refreshing, young innocence to our team. Add in her physical prowess and mental fortitude and, well, you get it. Once Abby understood the training required to compete at the highest level, not surprisingly, there was no stopping her.
No stopping her as she scored the winning goal in the 2004 Olympic final against Brazil in overtime. With her head, of course. (Bless you, Abigail.)
No stopping her after she broke her leg in their 2008 Olympic send-off game, then came back a year later to score her 100th goal. No stopping her as she netted one of the greatest goals in the history of the women's game -- the game-tying goal vs. Brazil in a 2011 World Cup quarterfinal. In the 122nd minute. With her head, of course.
No stopping her as she scored the tying goal against Japan in the 2011 World Cup final in the 104th minute or as she scored in every single game at the 2012 Olympics, except the final (when they didn't need her to score), helping lead her team to an Olympic gold medal.
No stopping her as she was honored as the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year -- an award that Brazilian Marta had a stranglehold on for five years prior -- and no stopping her in June 2013 when she scored her 159th goal to become the all-time leading scorer in the history of the game. With her head. Of course.
This year, which she announced Tuesday will be the last in her unforgettable career, there was no stopping Abby Wambach as she scored the crucial (and only) goal against Nigeria in the Group of Death at the World Cup, and there was no stopping her as she led her team with grace, even from the bench, to become world champions.
I've been proud of a lot of Abby's moments, but I will tell you I have never been more proud than when I watched her lead her team this summer. As she's the best goal scorer in the world, it is understandable she would want to be in the game, fighting on the field, putting her team on her back as she has done so often in her career. But she found herself on the bench most of the time, with the younger players favored. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, as we have watched athletes do for too many lifetimes, Abby led.
She led with positivity. She led by celebrating others. She led unselfishly. She led by example. It was clear: Abby wanted a World Cup title and nothing was getting in her way. Minutes didn't matter. Winning did. I often argue that if Abby had responded differently to her new role, the U.S. would not have won this World Cup.
And so once again, after that world championship, I found myself doing something similar to what I had done 11 years before as her teammate. I said thank you. Thank you for constantly giving to the game. Thank you for carrying this sport when this team feverishly fought to escape the shadow of the 1999 champions. Thank you for caring more than most thought possible, as an advocate off the field and as a warrior in the arena.
Whether fighting through black eyes, stapled gashes or world injustice, Abby was going to get it done, so either get onboard or get the hell out of the way.
Thank you, Abby, for teaching kids the promise of believing in something greater than yourself while also honoring individuality. Thank you for being refreshingly you, with a grin large enough to match your big-kid mentality.
I cannot wait to see what this next adventure of "retirement" brings. Whatever it is, it will be bold and better. So consider yourself warned, world. Now is when the fun begins.