Why Abby Wambach Doesn't Want To Be Known 'Just As A Soccer Player' | KUOW News and Information

Why Abby Wambach Doesn't Want To Be Known 'Just As A Soccer Player'

Sep 14, 2016
Originally published on September 15, 2016 4:56 am

Over the course of her career, soccer star Abby Wambach scored 184 goals — more than any other man or woman in the history of international soccer. She won two Olympic gold medals and was named the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year before retiring from the sport in 2015. And yet, she says she never wanted to be known "just as a soccer player."

"I knew at some point that that identity would come to an end, and if I stripped that identity away, what then? Who am I then?" Wambach tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That's what [these] last few months have really been about for me, is emerging into the person who I really am."

Though Wambach acknowledges that her "soccer player" identity will always be part of her life, her new memoir, Forward, paints a broader portrait. In it, she writes about growing up as the youngest of seven children, her romantic relationships and her struggles with alcohol and prescription drugs.

Looking ahead, Wambach says that women today have an obligation to set a good example for the generations to come. "We need to have women in more powerful positions that are making decisions, so when that 10-year-old girl is looking up and wondering, What can I do and what do I want to be when I get older? She has the opportunity to do and be whatever she wants," she says. "And then, more importantly, ... I want that 10-year-old boy that she goes to school with to be able to look at her and to be able to say, 'She can do whatever she wants.' "


Interview Highlights

On her motivations for playing soccer as a kid

When I was younger, the validation definitely was what drove me into the sport, and as I grew older, to be able to play professionally and to have the lifestyle that I had for so long, I was able to fall in love with parts of the game.

When you're younger and traveling and visiting new countries and cities, that stuff is exciting, it's flashy, it's shiny, but I always had this separation between who I was as a person and who I was as a player. I always wanted to be more validated as a human being, as a person, than I was as a player. I think that was a really hard balance for me. ...

I don't know if I found soccer or if soccer found me. Especially because when I was younger, I was doing it in a lot of ways because I wanted the attention of my mom and dad. Being the youngest of seven, it's hard when you're young and you really just want that love and affection from your parents, and they did the best that they could.

On closing her eyes after shooting on net

I never saw any goal hit the back of the net. There's something that happened to me — I don't know what it is, I don't know if it's an actual physiological thing or just a psychological thing — but anytime I struck a ball with my foot or my head that went in the goal, I actually never saw the ball hit the back of the net. ... My screen went black, either [I was] too elated or I was too excited about scoring that I lost my screen for a ... brief second.

On why coming out is "so 2010"

I'm not the person that's gonna stand on top of a mountain and be like, "I'm gay, hear me roar!" Because I actually don't believe that my sexuality matters to myself, it doesn't change my life in any way, if that makes sense. I think that nowadays coming out and being like, "Oh yeah I'm coming out of this closet," I think that's so 2010. I think it actually speaks more volumes for people to just be who they are rather than having to explain who they are.

On the famous photo of her kissing Sarah Huffman after the 2015 World Cup win

I ran to the stands and I wanted to go over and see my family and Sarah was there, my wife at the time [they have announced they are getting divorced] and I look up to her and we hug and she kind of pulls her head away and she goes, "Kiss me!" And I was like, "Oh? We're doing that here? Now? Got it." So it was really sweet.

The funnier part of that story that I don't write about in my book is one of our friends actually took a picture of it in the stands, like "Oh my God, what a moment, I can't wait, I'm so happy I got this moment captured on my phone!" and they sent it to Sarah and she was like, "Oh my God, I'm so glad that you caught this!"

Little did we know that it would go viral and be kind of this epic — this kiss that goes down in the history — so I'm really actually proud of it. I'm proud of her for forcing me into it.

On whether her mother, a devout Catholic, has accepted her

God bless her soul, literally, she's a wonderful woman, and brought me so much joy and so much love throughout my life, but this was a hard thing for her to understand, because of her faith, and I get it.

I want so much for her to accept me. I pleaded in so many different ways with her, but because of her faith it has taken her a long time to understand this whole process, this whole idea — that "this is not a choice, this is who I am" conversation. I think over the years she understands it more, but over the years I've also accepted her and her faith more.

On her trouble with alcohol, which led to a DUI arrest in April

I was never drinking while I was playing. I was never drinking while I was training or practicing. I would drink during the season, just not during a game; I would drink after a game. With the national team I would prepare for three weeks and so I would never have a drop, and then during my one week off during the month I would have some drinks or whatever. ...

I wasn't boozing every single night; that wasn't my thing. I was more or less self-medicating and I think there's a theory of the adrenaline high that playing and being on the biggest stage and whatnot — but I also had some demons inside me. I had some really hard things I was dealing with, whether it be my relationship with my mom or this deep desire to be seen and not feel like I was ever really truly seen by anybody. ...

I've struggled for the last bunch of years with my career, the pending retirement, so there was a lot of things going on for me at one time that kind of bubbled over and exploded kind of all at the same time, which led me to kind of spin out of control after my retirement, and it's kind of how I found myself in jail April 2nd. ... I got arrested, got a DUI, which at this point now, in hindsight was the best thing that could've ever happened to me. Getting so publicly shamed and humiliated was maybe the only thing that would've woken me up.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, soccer star Abby Wambach, scored 184 goals, more than any other man or woman in the history of international soccer. She's a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year. One of her famous moments on the field was last year after her team won the World Cup and she ran to the stands and kissed her wife. The video went viral. At the end of last year, Wambach retired from soccer after having been a regular on the U.S. women's national soccer team since 2003.

She has a new memoir called "Forward." It's only partly about soccer. She writes about her upbringing, how she realized she was a lesbian, her relationships, her insecurities, her injuries and her problems with eating too much, drinking too much and eventually becoming addicted to prescription drugs. She says she got sober after getting arrested last spring for driving under the influence.

Abby Wambach, welcome to FRESH AIR. I expected your book to be about how much you love soccer. And you write that you were incapable of falling in love with the game itself, but you were only capable of falling in love with the validation that comes from mastering the game. Did you only feel that way when you were young, or did that feeling stay with you throughout your illustrious soccer career?

ABBY WAMBACH: You know, I think when I was younger, the validation definitely was what drove me into this sport. And as I grew older, to be able to play professionally and to have the lifestyle that I had for so long, I was able to fall in love with parts of the game. You know, when you're younger and traveling and visiting new countries and cities, that stuff is exciting. You know, it's flashy. It's shiny. But I always had this separation between who I was as a person and who I was as a player. And I always wanted to be more validated as a human being, as a person, than I was as a player. And I think that that was a really hard balance for me to feel as a deep-feeling person, to understand.

GROSS: Did you feel like you had to stick with soccer whether you loved it or not because you were just so good?

WAMBACH: I don't know. That's - I think that, like, I don't know if soccer - if I found soccer or if soccer found me, especially 'cause when I was younger I was doing it in a lot of ways because I wanted the attention of my mom and dad. Being the youngest of seven, it's hard when you're young and you really just want that love and affection from your parents. And they did the best that they could, you know? Don't get me wrong. My parents did the very best that they could. They just had so much going on. But yeah, I think when I was younger I just really did crave that attention from my mom and...

GROSS: And you got it through soccer?

WAMBACH: ...Pretty much my mom alone. I did. I did get it through soccer. You know, I think soccer was one of those things that gave me the outlet. You know, I could do differently and I could do bigger and better so that, you know, I could be seen. And then soccer - you know, when you're good at something you get this confidence because you're getting this positive reinforcement from all the people around you. And as I became a teenager and went into my high school years, I was labeled as, like, you know, the most athletic and the most likely to succeed in sports and all that stuff, which was great.

But if I'm also an emotional kid and a sensitive kid and want to be seen as a person, not just an athlete, and want to be loved as a person, not just an athlete, you know, those are really hard things to understand and to manage and to deal with into your young adult life.

GROSS: Well, for someone who derives so much identity from soccer, you had to retire when you were young because athletes retire when they're young and also 'cause you had a series of injuries. So how old were you when you retired last year?

WAMBACH: Thirty-six. I just - oh, actually I was 35 when I retired. I'm 36 now.

GROSS: Yeah.

WAMBACH: So I retired last year.

GROSS: OK. So what's it like to not be a professional player anymore, like, in terms of your identity and, like, who you are and what people love you for?

WAMBACH: Yeah. First of all, thank you for calling me young. In the athlete world...

GROSS: You're young.

WAMBACH: ...I was old, right? But in the real world...

GROSS: In the real world, you're young (laughter).

WAMBACH: ...You get out of it and you're like, wow, I'm actually pretty young around here.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WAMBACH: But I think as an athlete - and that's what this book is also about, is throughout my life, my identity was so much of a soccer player. I played the game for 30 years. And I think that that's something that I was also kind of almost begging throughout my career. I didn't want to be known just as a soccer player 'cause I knew at some point that would - that that identity would come to an end. And if I stripped that identity away, what then? Who am I then? And I think that that's what this last few months has really been about for me, is emerging into the person who I really am. And it's not just soccer player. I mean, the identity soccer player is always going to be a part of my life, but it's not all that encapsulates me.

GROSS: I do want to ask you a bit about the game itself. I mean, you're famous for scoring goals with your head (laughter). One of the things that makes that different is that since you don't have eyes on the top of your head, you can't keep your eyes on the ball like you can if you're kicking or catching or throwing. So what senses do you rely on to position yourself to get a good crack at the ball?

WAMBACH: I think that there's just - there's a level of, you know, your trajectory. Like, you're just anticipating where the ball is going to fall, where the ball is going to land, right? And I've actually done some really cool slow-motion videos on the technique of actually heading a soccer ball. And what's really interesting is you're right - even if I did have eyes on the top of my head, once the ball strikes your head your eyes actually close. And then they open really shortly after the ball actually comes off of your head. So it's actually a really interesting video shoot that you can watch.

But the reality is I've done it so many times in my career that it kind of just became second nature. It's like going up and rebounding a basketball. The more you think, the more you do it, the more you jump, the more you can anticipate the trajectory of the ball, where the ball's going to land, the more I was able to get my body in the position that I needed to so that I could strike the ball with my head on frame and have chances of scoring goals.

GROSS: How does it physically feel when you're striking the ball with your head with such impact? And how do you strengthen your neck in order to take that impact?

WAMBACH: Well, obviously, with all the concussion debate swirling around the sports world right now this is a very touchy subject. And I think that when you have proper heading technique and use the proper surface on your head, you're not actually heading the ball with the crown of your head. You're heading with your forehead, where your hairline meets your forehead. And you're not heading it on the side of your head. Those are the most safe places to head the ball. And yeah, there have been times in my career where the ball comes in at a really fast clip. And when it strikes your head, there's impact, right?

And so there's now these really amazing protocols. I actually worked with a company called Triax that - it's a headband company. It can actually track your head impacts, the amount of force that actually comes into your head. And I think as we go on throughout the next few years with this concussion topic, I think that you're going to find more companies coming up with these technologies so that people can monitor any possible concussive head impacts that happen throughout - whether it be soccer games or football games.

GROSS: Do you think you ever got a concussion or came close to having one as a result of heading the ball?

WAMBACH: Not specifically from heading a ball. Actually, somebody kicked a ball into my head one time and that resulted in a concussion. But I wasn't aware of that happening. Actually, it kind of blindsided me. But for me to go attack a ball and head a ball and frame, I never got a concussion or had any concussion symptoms from heading a soccer ball myself, which is very uncommon, right? So I think that I'm going to try to go - you know, I try to go around the world and teach clinics to little kids how to properly head a soccer ball because I think the technique is what protects some of those kids from any concussions and issues related to concussions.

GROSS: You say you never actually saw the ball hit the net. Now, I know when you're hitting it, your eyes close at the moment of impact. But you've kicked a lot of goals, too. Did you still not see those?

WAMBACH: Yeah. So I actually never saw any goal hit the back of the net. There's something that happened to me. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's like an actual physiological thing or just like a psychological thing. But any time I struck a ball with my foot or my head that went in the goal, I actually never saw the ball hit the back of the net.

There was something that my screen went black. I was like either too elated and too over the - you know, I was too excited about scoring that I just like lost, you know - I lost my screen for a minute, not a minute, but like - literally a brief second. So then, you know - all my teammates would come and jump on me. They always jumped on me. I'm too big, so I can't jump on anybody else. So I was always really jealous of the smaller girls on my team because I always kind of wanted to jump on somebody.

GROSS: So probably your most famous goal was the one you scored later in the game than any goal in World Cup history. How much time was remaining?

WAMBACH: Actually, I think just a few seconds. It was one of the latest goals that's ever been scored. It was like in the 120-second minute. So there was a couple of minutes of extra time which is - so it was overtime, right? We're in America so not many people know this. In soccer when the game goes to - when it's tied at the end of a regulation 90-minute period, it goes to two 15-minute periods of extra time.

And then in the second extra time of that game, the referee let a few minutes of extra play happen because the Brazilian team that we were playing against - they were kind of trying to waste time a little bit. And so the referee gave us a couple of extra minutes. It gave us a chance to have one more cross sent in. Megan Rapinoe sent this crazy cross in, and I happened to be on the back post and finish what may have been the longest cross to ever get to my head in the history of my career.

GROSS: Yeah. So you mentioned you're in the U.S. so you have to explain what the overtime rules are.

WAMBACH: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, what's it like to play a game that's kind of not all that well-known in the U.S. but it's like the thing in the rest of the world? The rest of the world goes, like, crazy for soccer. So when you're playing in other countries, it's this like huge thing, like the world stops. But when you're in the U.S., like, there are some people who watch, but it's not the same.

WAMBACH: Yeah. It's a little different, right? But here's what's interesting...

GROSS: I underplayed it when I said there are some people who watch it. I mean, you have a huge following in the U.S., but it's nothing - for instance, like football in the U.S. or even basketball.

WAMBACH: Right, right. Well, it's not necessarily one of the top two, three major league sports here in the U.S. But women's soccer here is actually the most popular than in any other country in the world. That's something that I'm really proud of. But, yeah, it's actually really fun to go overseas and to be walking around the streets of Paris or England and seeing all this football - that's what they call football over there or soccer gear or soccer teams or soccer - you know, every TV that you walk by in Europe has some sort of soccer on it.

And it's always really fun because it kind of feels like, oh, these people get it, like, these people understand like the game. And they understand like the passion and stuff that myself and my teammates had for so long. But it's awesome because I think that we're really growing the game here.

GROSS: You had a series of injuries toward the end of your career. You sprained ankle, your big toe collided with another player's leg. You split your head open in another collision, and then you really - you fractured your leg really badly and it had to be kind of pieced and held back together. And then you say after that when you recovered enough to start playing again, every part of your body had to be addressed before you made it to the field. What did you have to do before playing after that?

WAMBACH: Well, it was a dance almost. Every morning you'd wake up. You'd have breakfast. I'd grab all my equipment to get ready for training, and then I'd go into the training room to get worked on by our physical therapist and our training staff. Towards the end of my career, I had a Achilles tendonitis that plagued me and had to get my ankles taped. And whatever happened because, like we said earlier, being 34, 35 years old that's old in the athlete world.

So whenever I'd have to get worked on, it oftentimes related very much from the day before's practice. If my muscles were sore, if I pulled - if I had a little pull here or there - and those are the things that I had to tackle every single day. So it wasn't necessarily even just about the training. It was almost about the prehab, the regeneration so that I could actually go out and perform the next day, depending on whatever it was I had to do the next day.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you say your ankle required wrapping, your Achilles tendon needed a combination of electric stimulation and ultrasound therapy. At night, you wore a splint that flexed your foot and in the morning you needed to pump your ankles - your ankle for a half hour to be able to stand. So is that the shape you were in when you scored that last-minute goal?

WAMBACH: Yeah. The last-minute goal was in 2011. So, in fact, during that tournament, I was dealing with a torn quad. So actually I even have like a huge gap in my quad to this day. I don't think it'll ever fill back in. And the thing about a pro-athlete is you're never really at 100 percent. People see these really strong and toned and ripped, muscular, fit athletes in all sports. And I think something that they have to understand is there is some level there's a 5 percent or a strain or a pull that all athletes are dealing with at any given time - fatigue, whatever it may be. So never is an athlete at peak 100 percent. It's about maintaining a level of fitness, a level of health that allows you to keep playing your craft and doing it at the best level that you possibly can.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Abby Wambach and she is the - considered, like, one of the best or perhaps the best player in the history of women's soccer. She has a new memoir called "Forward." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Abby Wambach. She's written a new memoir called "Forward" about her amazing career in women's soccer. Playing on the U.S. national team she scored 184 goals, which is more than any other player, man or woman, in soccer history. And she's considered one of the best players in the history of women's soccer.

Because of injury, you couldn't play in the Olympics. And you wrote an inspiring letter to your team about carrying on without you. And you say you were thrilled when your team won, but you were also terrified by the thought that they won without you. What was terrifying about that? I think I get it, but tell us anyways.

WAMBACH: Well, I think that the narcissistic side of me and also the side that wanted to feel valued and to feel important to the team...

GROSS: ...Essential (laughter).

WAMBACH: Yeah, essential. That's a great word. I think when your team wins without you, when they can still be successful without you, that just begs certain questions inside of you. That's like, oh gosh, like, do I really even need to be here? And I know that I added value even after the team won the gold medal in 2008. It actually showed the resilience, that they were able to go over to China and be able to bring home a gold medal. You know, I was the leading goal scorer.

And to be fair to them, they had to kind of scramble to figure out how they were going to in fact win, which just really shows how amazing - those women came together at the last minute because I broke my leg five days before our flight was leaving to go to China. And the team had to really go back to the drawing board a little bit and figure out what they were going to do to win. And I couldn't be more proud of them.

But if I were to turn it back on myself, which I do quite a bit in this memoir - I guess, you know, you have to. It's a memoir about myself and my life and the way that I felt about things. You know, that was a really hard time because I wanted - I always want to bring value to things that I'm doing, and I always want to make the room better. I always want to make the team better, the opportunity, whatever I'm doing. And, you know, I had to ask myself that very hard question is - am I still bringing value to this team, so much so that they - that I want to still participate and be on it?

GROSS: Though you stayed in the game for four more years.

WAMBACH: Well, actually, I stayed in the game for more than that. That was back in 2008, so I stayed...

GROSS: ...That was 2008. I'm thinking '11. Yeah. Right.

WAMBACH: Yeah, that was 2008. So I stayed in the game for quite a bit longer.

GROSS: Yeah.

WAMBACH: I guess I needed more validation of the value that I added to the team.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I'm sure you loved it, too. I mean, you didn't want to get your sole identity from soccer, but that doesn't mean, I don't think - does it? - that you didn't really also love playing. Like, did -

WAMBACH: You know, I loved parts of it. I loved the locker room. I loved the girls. I loved the team. You know, I loved the camaraderie. Nobody loves to do sprints. I loved when those were over. Nobody loves to basically be on a diet for their whole life. I loved my off seasons 'cause I could just eat whatever I wanted. But the truth is the time that I got to spend with my teammates, the learning about life and about different people's beliefs and different people's opinions about things, those are the things that I'll take away. Those are the things that I'm going to value the most about my time spent on the team. So yeah, not all was lost. And there are things that I definitely loved about playing and being a pro athlete.

GROSS: How did soccer become your game as opposed to, say, basketball?

WAMBACH: I think soccer - as a young kid, I kind of trended to playing soccer more than basketball because I was better at it and I thought that it was going to offer me more opportunity to get a college scholarship. And it's a weird thing to say because, you know, when I'm 11 and 12 years old I shouldn't be thinking about it. But I was thinking about it because being the youngest of seven, I felt like it was the only thing I could do at that age to give back to my family, to give back to my dad who worked tirelessly to get my other brothers and sisters into college. He paid for everybody to go to college and get a college education, which, you know, is something my dad's really proud of.

My mom and my dad, they worked so hard to make sure that we had more opportunity than they had. And I guess when I was young, I really wanted to take ownership of my own life. And that was definitely something I could do when I was young. And it was a goal that I put in my life and a goal that I accomplished. I got a full ride and I went to the University of Florida, and I'm really proud of that.

GROSS: My guest is Abby Wambach, one of the best players in the history of women's soccer. She retired last year and has written a new memoir called "Forward." After a break, we'll talk about the viral video of her kissing her wife after winning the Gold Cup and recently getting sober after addictions to alcohol and pills. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with soccer star Abby Wambach. She's a two-time Olympic gold medalist and scored 184 goals, more than any other man or woman in international soccer history. She retired last year. Her new memoir "Forward" is about her life on and off the field.

You went to Catholic school. You grew up in a Catholic home that was in a predominantly Catholic suburb of Rochester, N.Y., upstate New York. When you started to realize that you were a lesbian, were you afraid that it was sinful or that your parents would think it was sinful? Let's start with whether you thought it was sinful, whether you were a believing or practicing Catholic at the time. And the Church is, you know, not - especially then, like, not for gay rights. Yeah.

WAMBACH: Right. Well, I think that who I felt like I was at the time I think was very much wrapped into who my parents felt like I was, right? So I'm 15, 16, 17 trying to figure myself out, figure out what I wanted. And, you know, I had a boyfriend in high school. And towards the end of my high school years, I met my first girlfriend, and I think that that was the first time in my life that I started to think for myself, right? And so yeah, I do feel like at the time being an indoctrinated Catholic, I did feel like that was a sin.

And so I kind of turned my back away from the church and did steadily until kind of - not necessarily the church, but just like my faith until recently, where I'm like, OK, that was something that I felt definitely like the church, you know - I get shut away from and shut down from. And my mom and my dad - well, mostly my mom, you know, God bless her soul - literally. She's a wonderful woman and brought me so much joy and so much love throughout my life, but this was a hard thing for her to understand because of her faith. And I get it, right? I want so much for her to accept me, right?

And I pleaded in so many different ways with her, but because of her faith, it just took - it has taken her a long time to understand this whole process, this whole idea - the whole that this-is-not-a-choice-this-is-who-I-am conversation. And I think over the years, she understands it more, but over the years I've also accepted her and her faith more.

GROSS: So I want to ask you more about like comprehending your sexuality, your sexual orientation. You'd had a boyfriend in high school. You went to the prom together. You were considered like the jock couple of Rochester, N.Y. Was it helpful in the long run to have had a boyfriend, to have had sex with a boy, so that you could know with more certainty, no, I love women?

WAMBACH: Yeah. I mean, I think the person that I am - I'm kind of one of those people - and maybe people get that from the book that I will pretty much try anything once because I can't have an opinion about something that I don't know of or that I haven't experienced. And that's kind of the same thing that went into sorting my sexuality out, right? Being - going to all these Catholic - I went to Catholic high school, Catholic grade school when I was younger believing in this God that was basically telling me that the feelings that I might be having internally were sinful. I was like, all right, well, I got to try this other life out. I got to see about it, and I tried.

You know, I did what I was kind of, quote, unquote, "supposed to do" as a kid. And I dated the boy and I experienced the boy, and as soon as I met and started dating my first girlfriend I then got it. I understood what I was missing all along, and this is no disrespect to my boyfriend in high school. This is just, like, more of a knowing like I met this woman, and I was like, oh, I get it now. This is how you're supposed to feel.

I remember having conversations with my friends in high school, like, what do you think love feels like? You know, I don't know. I think I'm in love. And if you ever in your life say I think I'm in love, you're not, right? When you are in love, it's a knowing. It's a knowing like you know your own age, and you know your own family's, like, last name. That's what love feels like. And if you are in question of it, you probably aren't in love and I'm sorry to tell you that (laughter).

GROSS: Your first crush was a waitress in a restaurant.

WAMBACH: Yeah.

GROSS: This would be before you'd had an experience with another woman, and you actually took the initiative and sent her a note, a kind of cryptic note (laughter)...

WAMBACH: It's so funny and kind of embarrassing that I even, like, put this in my memoir, but it's true.

GROSS: What did you write in the note?

WAMBACH: Well, basically I was like - it was an anonymous letter because, surely, at the time, I couldn't let anybody know that I, you know - in my little small town, I was kind of a known athlete, so I didn't want any - I didn't want there to be any proof out there that I was gay - right? - or even like attempting to hang out with a girl in like a relationship sort of way.

So I basically was just like we met the other day. You were my waitress. If you know who this is, call me. Look me up in the phone book and call me. And she did. I'm like, oh, my gosh. So here's the deal. I'm just like this hopeful romantic. I'm very much a romantic like through and through. And that story kind of worked out for me, even though that relationship didn't work out because I ended up going to college far, far away, that story worked out. We fell in love, and it was a really passion-filled summer before I went off to college to allow me the time and experience in the learning about my sexuality. So yeah that was - that's kind of a hilarious story thinking back about it now.

GROSS: I want to ask you what might be one of the most famous kisses in sports history (laughter). This was in 2015 after America won the World Cup - your team - and then you ran to the stands and explain what happened.

WAMBACH: Yeah. I ran into the stands, and, you know, I wanted to go over and see my family. And, Sarah, was there - my wife at the time - and I look up to her and we hug. And she kind of pulls her head away and she goes kiss me. And I was like, oh, we're doing that here now. Got it. And it was really sweet. Little did we know - right? - that it would go viral and be kind of this epic and this kiss that goes down in the history. And so I'm really - actually really proud of it. I'm proud of her for forcing me into it. I was kind of just going over for a hug, and she was like, no, kiss me. And I'm like all right. Here we go.

GROSS: But, you know, when you have this, like, really romantic kiss and people are tweeting, you know, about what - you know, how beautiful it was, but the fact was things weren't really going well in your relationship with your wife Sarah at the time.

WAMBACH: Yeah, I know. And it is ironic to look back at that time, but I think what that kiss for even Sarah and I represents is we got there, even though things weren't great. There was a lot of turmoil in our relationship, even leading up until that game. But that game kind of symbolizes a lot for us because Sarah put a lot of her life on hold, especially for those months leading up to it. And I'm proud of her for giving me the space to prepare for that World Cup. You know, and internally I was just really - I was just really struggling because I could feel the end of our marriage. I could feel that happening, and I couldn't stop it.

It felt like my marriage was falling through my fingertips, and I could do nothing to help, stop that from happening. But that moment for us was real, and the kiss represented all the things, all the struggles - right? - like I think that people can relate even though our marriage is ending. I think people can relate that, you know, even though sometimes hard - you might be going through hard times in your marriage, moments like that, you can kind of put aside some of those really hard feelings and just be there for each other and still love each other no matter what.

GROSS: And it was also just a victory in terms of gay rights. It wasn't like - you kissed your wife, and that was fine and everybody loved it, you know? I mean - so it wasn't like, oh my god, she did the unspeakable, but maybe it's OK.

WAMBACH: I know. And, like, 10 years ago, you think about it - and I'm really proud of that fact because I haven't ever - I'm not the person that's going to stand on top of a mountain and be like, I'm gay, hear me roar because I actually don't believe that my sexuality matters to myself. It doesn't change my life in any way, if that makes sense. I think that nowadays, coming out and being like, oh, yeah, I'm coming out of this closet - I think that that's so, you know, 2010. I think that it actually speaks more volumes for people to just be who they are rather than having to explain who they are, if that makes sense.

GROSS: Absolutely. If you're just joining us, my guest is Abby Wambach. She's one of the best women's soccer players in the history of the game, scoring more goals than any other player, man or woman, in soccer history. She has a new memoir called "Forward." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Abby Wambach. And she is one of the greatest women's soccer players in the history of the game. She retired last year after scoring 184 goals, which is more than any other player, man or woman, in soccer history. Her new memoir is called "Forward." We were talking about your marriage breaking up, and my impression is part of the problem was your drinking. And you were drinking a lot even when you were still a professional athlete. And I'm thinking you must have an incredible body to be able to drink as much as you did and remain in the game.

WAMBACH: Yeah, a lot of people ask me that. And I think something that I have to explain is that I was never drinking while I was playing, right? I was never drinking while training or practicing...

GROSS: ...Not during the season.

WAMBACH: Well, I mean, I would drink during the season, just not, like, during a game, right?

GROSS: Oh, I see.

WAMBACH: I would drink after a game.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

WAMBACH: And, you know, with the national team, I would prepare for three weeks and so I would never have a drop. And then, you know, during my one week off during the month I would have some drinks or whatever. So just to clarify that kind of routine - I wasn't, like, boozing every single night. That wasn't my thing. I was more or less self-medicating, right? And there's also - I think there's a theory of the adrenaline high, that playing and being on the biggest stage and whatnot.

But I also - you know, I also had some demons inside me. I had some really hard things that I was dealing with, whether it be my relationship with my mom or this deep desire to be seen and not feel like I was ever really truly seen by anybody. You know, even at the time - even Sarah, my wife. And I think that the self-medication just kind of got out of control. So yeah, when talking about my marriage and all the reasons why that may have ended, you know, we don't have enough time on this show to talk about all the reasons. But definitely one of those contributing factors was my alcohol use.

And Sarah didn't even really know about my prescription pill abuse because that happened very late in the game as it pertained to my career. When she found out, she was obviously really upset. But, you know, Sarah was one of my biggest supporters and knows that I've struggled for, you know, the last bunch of years with my career, the pending retirement. You know, so there was a lot of things going on for me at one time that kind of bubbled over and exploded kind of all at the same time, which then led me to kind of spin out of control after my retirement. And that's kind of how I found myself in jail on April 2.

GROSS: Of this year.

WAMBACH: Yeah...

GROSS: Yeah, a DUI.

WAMBACH: ...I got arrested. Yeah, got arrested, got a DUI, which, you know, at this point now in hindsight was the best thing that could've ever happened to me. Getting so publicly shamed and humiliated - right? - was maybe the only thing that would've woken me up.

GROSS: You mentioned prescription medication that you were addicted to. You were addicted to opioids. Did you start using opioids because of your injuries?

WAMBACH: Yeah, of course. That's another thing I definitely want to clear up with all my fans and readers. You know, all of the prescription pain medicines and prescription pills that I ended up using and abusing started because there was a medical issue that I was having. And that's so common. And it's something that people - you know, we talk about this opioid epidemic right now and people talk about how it's getting out of control and a lot of - and I never used heroin or anything. But a lot of the opioid abusers and addicts out there go to heroin because it's a cheaper version - right? - and gives you the same kind of high, I guess.

GROSS: You've been very outspoken for equality in sports between men and women. What are some of the ways in soccer in which you think women's teams have not been treated equally?

WAMBACH: Well, in every single possible way. I mean, you name it and a women's team has not been treated equally. I mean, not just pay and not just medical coverage and retirement plans. There's just - there's so many things that I could talk about. But what I think is important for not just me - and a reason why I got impassioned about this later in my career was I started to, like, see the end of the road. And then I started to think, well, what's going to happen to me next? What am I going to do next?

And when I looked across the aisle and I thought about what the other men in my position would be thinking if they were me, I was thinking about some of the other men that had played and won FIFA Player of the Year and and won medals and whatnot. And not one of those guys would ever have to work if they didn't want to for the rest of their life. And, look, I'm not here to say, gosh, I wish I didn't have to work. That's not what this is about. That's just about being treated equal, right, and having the same opportunity that my counterparts would have had. And it's a sad truth.

And, you know, women's sports has come such a far way. You know, in 1972, our president enacted into law Title IX, which gave so many more rights to women who not just wanted to play sports - in fact, the law was enacted because there was a ton of women who wanted to become doctors. You know, they didn't want to just be a nurse. They wanted to become a doctor. So in fact, Title IX was put into law for that reason. And a massive amazing byproduct that came out of it was that it really impacted women's sports and college sports more specifically. And I'm a byproduct of Title IX.

We need to have women in more powerful positions that are making decisions, right, so when that 10-year-old girl is looking up and wondering, what can I do and what do I want to be when I get older, she has the opportunity to do and be what ever she wants. And that's something I'm proud of, being a pro-athlete. When I was growing up as a 10-year-old, it wasn't really an option, not until 1999 when the women won the World Cup did it kind of become a viable option to do something after you - after you got out of college.

And so I want that 10-year-old girl to look up and be able to feel and actually do whatever she wants. And then more importantly than that 10-year-old girl, I want that 10-year-old boy that she goes to school with to be able to look at her and to be able to say she can do whatever she wants.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for, you know, writing as openly as you did about your life in the book and for talking with us today.

WAMBACH: Thanks, Terry. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Abby Wambach's new memoir is called "Forward." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.