What has one of history’s greatest soccer players done since retiring in December 2015? Overhauled her life.
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Abby Wambach’s old one wasn’t half bad: two Olympic gold medals, one long-awaited World Cup title, and 184 goals—the most scored by any player, male or female, in international competition. Not to mention a series of vocal efforts for gender and pay equality in her sport and beyond.
But shortly after hanging up her cleats, Wambach found herself in a dark place. She felt stuck in a corroding marriage. She was living “in terror and fear of shedding my identity as a soccer player.” She leaned on alcohol and prescription drugs, something she’d done in the past. “I didn’t know how to deal with life, so I checked out,” she says.
“If you would’ve told me a year ago that I’d be the happiest I’ve ever been now, I would have said, ‘This is a joke, right?’”
An arrest for drunk driving last April served as a catalyst for a new beginning. Wambach went to therapy to get clean, and it worked. “Some people aren’t lucky enough to be put in the spotlight on their worst day on earth,” she says. “It saved my life, because secrets are the kiss of death for anyone struggling with substance abuse.”
She adds: “If you would’ve told me a year ago that I’d be the happiest I’ve ever been now, I would have said, ‘This is a joke, right?’ ”
Wambach was one of the loudest voices on the women’s national team. (Her teammates once gave her a T-shirt that read: Help, I’m talking and I can’t shut up.) “It’s always impressed me when she’s said, ‘Look, I’m gay’ or ‘This is what I’m fighting for—this is what matters to me,’ ” Julie Foudy, one of her teammates, says. “Abby is driven to be more than just a soccer player.”
For Wambach, stepping away from competition has been about making changes. She got divorced. She wrote a memoir, Forward. On her book tour, she met bestselling author Glennon Doyle Melton, and now the two are engaged. Wambach recently moved cross-country, to Naples, Florida, to live with Melton and her three children. She plans to help coach Melton’s 11-year-old’s girls’ soccer team.
Dialing back the intensity of incessant training has been tough. “You have to reprogram your brain to do what’s normal and not try to suffer like you used to,” she says.
And Wambach will continue to push for equality in all areas, including working with UN Women to erase the pay gap. “Why can’t everyone just treat people fairly and equally and justly?” she asks. “That’s the mountain I’m willing to die on.”