The Moment This Olympian Realized She Had Lost Control

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Abby Wambach holds the record for most goals scored by any player — male or female — in the history of international soccer. She’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women’s World Cup champion, and an outspoken advocate for equal pay and women’s rights. Her history-making accomplishments have taken her to the White House and all over the world to play. Yet, underneath all of these achievements, she has been hiding a private struggle with alcohol and prescription drugs, as she reveals in her new memoir, Forward.
A few months after retiring in 2015, Wambach made headlines with a DUI arrest — and she decided: no more secrets.

“The DUI really uncovered a lot of the issues that I was having in private. And I felt like, not just the right way, but the only way, for me to really heal was to be honest about the struggles that I was having,” she says. “Because hiding from the truth and keeping this secret, which is what I had been doing for years, was actually making it worse.”

We caught up with Wambach recently to talk about why she's opening up now, how she dealt with parents who didn't accept her sexuality, and who she's supporting in the election. (We'll give you one guess.)
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What made you decide to go so deeply into these issues in your book? Couldn’t you have easily just written about your career and lessons learned?
"Yes. My publisher was interested in a book about my life and career and what I wanted to do post-retirement. I agreed to write the book, and it was a really intricate process — trying to create the story, regurgitate all my memories, interview people — and then I got arrested [for DUI, in April 2016].

"I think I thought, When I retire, this problem will kind of just fix itself. The DUI was evidence that this was not going to go away on its own. I also felt like, we’re all struggling with things privately — no matter what it is — and, in my opinion, the only way we can truly deal with things is to be honest about them. I couldn’t see any better way for me to move forward with the rest of my life. We all have struggles in life, and we all have ways we choose to cope with them. I chose ways that are really unhealthy and, in fact, dangerous."

Some of these things you wrote about — binge drinking, specifically, when you were in college — don’t seem very different from what culturally, we sort of expect athletes, certainly male ones, to do. When do you think it tipped over? Was it when you started getting injured?
"There’s no real moment I can pinpoint, where I realized, whoa, this is really getting out of control. I just know that, over time, for me, it kept getting worse. And then I was using [alcohol and prescription drugs like Vicodin, Adderall, and Ambien] as a crutch, rather than as something I would do with my friends in the off season to blow off steam, which is how it started. As somebody who has the propensity to feel depressed, I think I was using [alcohol and pills] to self-medicate, which is something so many people do. And then, once I got the DUI, I realized, I don’t have control of this. And that’s when I realized I needed help, and I needed to start talking about this, because keeping secrets is the kiss of death."

We all have struggles in life, and we all have ways we choose to cope with them. I chose ways that are really unhealthy and, in fact, dangerous.

Abby Wambach
So, in a way, you were lucky that this book was already in progress.
"Absolutely. I wanted to take the DUI and turn it into a positive. Something that was going to help me not just get better, but be a better person, and maybe help other people who are struggling. This DUI might end up being the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being put in jail, being shamed in the media, allowed me to focus on what was important — and that’s allowed me to save my life."

It seems like you were able to keep things under control while you were playing, but then once you retired, it spiraled.
"Soccer kept me somewhat in check. I could self-medicate for only specific, short periods of time, but then I’d have to go back into training. So I could keep some balance in my life. But then when I retired, I didn’t have the 'protection' I thought soccer gave me. I have to be able to create stable environments for myself, without somebody else telling me I have to run, or I have to do this. Those are adult maintenance things I wasn’t necessarily exposed to as much because I had this whole soccer thing. Without that structure, I ended up feeling overwhelmed."

You had to be your own coach.
"Exactly. And that’s the hardest thing, as an athlete, that I’ve had to adjust to. Not just with the drinking, but with just life maintenance things — paying bills, knowing what my schedule is, getting up and making myself accountable."

And you’re 36 years old.
"Yeah. That’s a crazy thing to admit, right? I do feel like my maturity was stunted a bit. I think it’s a balance a lot of [retired] athletes struggle to figure out. There’s so many things you now have to take charge over. It’s stressful."

One of the main themes of the book is how hard you struggled, as a lesbian, to feel accepted by your family — particularly by your mother, who is Catholic. You write, “If I play well, my mother might forgive me for being who I am.” Has she?
"My mom and I have had an evolving relationship. It’s so much better now than when I first came out to her. We have a fantastic relationship now. I got to a really cool psychological place. I’d been saying accept me for who I am, accept me for who I am, and I realized, I wasn’t accepting her for who she was."

Meaning, a religious Catholic?
"Not only that, but when she was brought up, she wasn’t brought up with the gay rights stuff, the women’s rights stuff. I think there are a lot of older women out there who are like that. So much has changed, even just in my lifetime. But we still have to respect the older generation, even if we don’t agree with them. Their feelings are still valued. That’s a higher level of consciousness."

How did you get there?
"I realized, how can I expect something from her that I’m not giving to her? I want this compassion, but I’m really not giving it. It’s a very simple thing. I think I was blinded by hurt. But realizing that allowed me to really see her and to talk to her about some really hard stuff."

Speaking of which, there was some controversy following your interview with [NPR’s] Terry Gross. People were really upset that she asked you if you had to date a guy in order to know you were gay. How did you feel about it?
"I understand why some people were offended by it, but I wasn’t. Terry had zero bad intentions. I think that she was just asking questions that posed themselves from the book. I am a person who figures out life through experience, and when I was 17, that was definitely something I needed to experience. And I wrote about it in the book. So I think she was picking up on that, and that’s where the question came from. I wasn’t offended."

Now that you’re retired, and you’ve gotten all of this off your chest, what are you up to? You have been a vocal force in the women’s soccer team’s push for equal pay, and you’ve been showing up for Hillary Clinton. Are you going to keep doing that?
"Yeah. Whenever I have a moment of time, I’m going to be on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton. I am such a big fan of Hillary, and the symbol of her being in the Oval Office as a woman is enough for me to want to vote for her, not to mention her decorated career and her ideas for where she wants to take the country. So I will be there supporting her.

"[For us], for a long time it was, 'Oh, well the men’s soccer team gets more sponsorship dollars, and more viewership.' But when the women played in the 2015 World Cup and we had more viewers watch our final than any other game that’s ever been played, then that whole argument goes out the door. We’re the team that everybody else takes their cues from, and that’s really important for women — not just in other sports, but for women being badass and kicking ass and taking names — in Hollywood, in business, across the board. Women see us and say, 'Hey, if they can do it, so can I.' It’s so much bigger than one athlete being able to pay her mortgage. We want to be treated equally."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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