HARTFORD, CONN. – Eight or so years ago, a 24-year-old Abby Wambach told her idol and mentor Mia Hamm how much she envied her confidence, soccer savvy and experience. And how, most of all, she envied the world-record 158 international goals she had accumulated over her 17-year United States national team career. Nobody would ever catch her, sighed Wambach, who was at 30 goals or thereabouts herself.
"[Mia] looked me straight in the eye," recalls Wambach, "and said,'Abby, you're going to break my scoring record one day.'"
Wambach is 32 now, as old as Hamm was at the time of their talk, and no longer insecure. The experience and confidence came with time, like Hamm had predicted. Wambach is 10 goals shy of Hamm's record. She transcends her sport both figuratively and literally. She's America's biggest star (for strictly playing reasons, anyway); and at 5-foot-11 she easily rises above the fray to hammer signature headers past helpless goalkeepers.
Sitting across from me in a coffee shop, she speaks with conviction, sometimes leaning forward in her seat and shuttering her frightfully blue eyes to better deliver her point. Her arms gesticulate out of the rolled up sleeves of a plaid shirt. A backwards hat covers her hair.
We speak of her legacy, which Wambach worries about a great deal these days. "I come from a very mindful family where it's not just about me," she says. She grew up in Rochester, New York as the youngest of seven children born just 11 years apart, who cut her no slack. At age 4, Wambach scored 27 times in her first three soccer games and was summarily moved over to the boys' team. Money was tight. Her father worked seven days a week to keep them all fed. They were a family conscious of what you handed down to the next in line.
"I want to leave this game better than I found it," says Wambach. So she's become its face, doing commercials she finds tedious, and living a life in the public eye she'd rather keep to herself. "If you want to grow the game in the way that I want to grow the game, you have to make those choices."
It's her turn to carry the torch and fan its flames. "I think that's the only way that women's sports can keep evolving," Wambach says. "You have to bring [teammates] along and you want to kind of set them up to take over and follow in your footsteps, the way I was set up."
From the early '90s dawn of the women's team's international dominance, there has been a linear and unambiguous succession in the role of its superstar striker. Michelle Akers was a role model for Mia Hamm. Hamm mentored Wambach. And Wambach now nurtures Alex Morgan.
The relationships have been not only cyclical but symbiotic too. The old great relies on the young prodigy to stay competitive. The prodigy absorbs, usurps and becomes a great in her own right and eventually leans on the next in coming.
"When Mia was getting a little bit older, she let me do most of the grunt work," says Wambach. "I was the one making more runs but she also broke down teams cerebrally. And for me, I didn't know why she was so good at the time. She was so good because she used my talents as her strengths. I think Alex and I are doing the same thing.
"Over the years, I've realized how to deal with age," says Wambach. "When you get older, it's harder to make your brain do what you want it to with your body. It's just a matter of outsmarting your body. You have to learn to play the game in a different way. You have to know your weaknesses and try to overshadow those with the strengths you now possess. Because I've been playing it for so long, I'm a little more refined and see and understand the game better than a younger player.
"I think that's the beauty of what we've got going here," Wambach adds. "Alex has enough speed for both of us. And hopefully I have enough smarts to get her in good positions to score goals in ways that I can't."
But while she enjoys the present, the end is in sight. "The travel is getting taxing; being away from my friends and family is hard," Wambach says. "But the sacrifices are still outweighed by the benefits in my opinion. And I've always said, 'Once that turns, I'll retire.'"
There's a Women's World Cup in Canada on the horizon in 2015. It's the one thing she's never won. That and the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, for which she is shortlisted once again.
"I think about the World Cup a lot," she says. "Honestly, I couldn't live with myself if I retired without trying to add a World Cup. It's not that it consumes me but it's a motivating factor when I think about the hard moments of what I do for a living.
"It would be a perfect ending, wouldn't it? But then it would be hard to retire just a year from another Olympic Games ."
At this past summer's Olympics, Wambach and Morgan teamed up to score eight of their combined 47 goals this year on the road to a third straight gold medal. During the tournament, Wambach had a conversation with Morgan.
"She said, 'I wish I could have scored as much and have all the experience you have,'" recalls Wambach. "I just looked at her and I said, 'well, Alex, you're going to. You're going to score a lot more goals than I am. You're going to have a much more successful career than I've had. And that's the whole point of this. That's why I'm doing what I do.'
"'And hopefully,'" Wambach told Morgan. "'When the next kid comes around and you're 32, you will tell her the exact same thing.'"