“Abby Head On,” an ESPN Films documentary about Abby Wambach that premieres Wednesday on ESPNU (8 p.m.), is part of the network’s “Storied” series about Southeastern Conference athletes. But this portrait of the soccer superstar will hit home for anyone within about 100 miles of Rochester.
Wambach, of course, grew up in Pittsford and this year returned home to play for the Western New York Flash in the National Women’s Soccer League. While any fan of the sport will find plenty to like in “Abby Head On,” the interviews with her parents, siblings and high school coach — all of whom speak in various upstate accents — serve to make you feel that Abby was once one of us.
Wambach is among the greatest female soccer players of all time. She is four goals away from breaking Mia Hamm’s record for career goals in international competition. And she has provided some Michael Jordan-like moments of drama in international play.
None was bigger than her game-winning goal in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal game against Brazil. Kristine Lilly lofted a corner kick toward the goal and Wambach headed the ball into the net to stun the Brazilians in overtime.
A broken leg suffered in a 2008 exhibition match kept her out of the Olympics that year. But four years later, Wambach helped the U.S. capture the gold medal in the London Summer Games.
A World Cup title has eluded Wambach. In 2007, she and her teammates suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat against Brazil in the tournament. They rebounded four years later, ousting Brazil in the quarterfinals; the game was decided on penalty kicks after a Wambach header goal in stoppage time tied the score. (Abby’s goal won the ESPY Award for 2011 Play of the Year.)
It is no coincidence that many of Wambach’s most dramatic goals were produced by heading the ball. Her coach back at Our Lady of Mercy High in Rochester, Kathleen Boughton, says in the film that Abby would stay after practice just to work on diving headers. It’s a maneuver that involves throwing your whole body into the play, which embodies her approach to the game.
“She plays women’s soccer like a man — and that’s a compliment,” says Becky Burleigh, Wambach’s coach at the University of Florida. “She will do whatever it takes to win.”
Wambach was one of the nation’s most sought-after players coming out of high school. She chose Florida over soccer power North Carolina and helped the Gators to an NCAA championship during her freshman year.
There have been disappointments, also. Boughton, the Our Lady of Mercy coach, chokes up while recalling Abby curling up on the field after their team lost its state championship game against Massapequa her senior year. Though Wambach had a sterling career at Florida, her freshman season was the only one that ended with an NCAA title.
In 2002, Wambach was drafted by the Washington Freedom of the Women’s United Soccer Association. She and teammate Hamm helped the Freedom to a WUSA championship in 2003, but the league folded later that year.
For all of Wambach’s honors in the sport, it was not entirely clear early in her career that she had the dedication necessary to become an elite player. Boughton recalls Wambach consuming six cans of Coke for breakfast, or her grabbing meals at a fast-food drive-through window.
Jerry Smith, a coach from the U.S. Under-21 national team, was one of the mentors who made Wambach realize that her raw skills wouldn’t be enough to carry her in the international game. “It has to be a full-time commitment,” Smith told her.
Wambach took the feedback to heart.
“I’ve always been motivated more by negative comments than by positive ones,” she says. “I know what I do well. Tell me what I don’t do well.”
Andi Sellers Goodwin, a teammate at Florida, observed Wambach’s new level of dedication.
“She saw it as, ‘This could be my livelihood. This could be my career.’ And as she grew older and college went on you saw that focus really sharpen and you saw her training just really intensify.”
Wambach was honored as FIFA Player of the Year in 2012. She has achieved almost everything in the sport, except for a World Cup trophy.
“Abby Head On” ends on a thought-provoking note.
“The World Cup kicks off June 6, 2015,” the filmmakers write. “Just four days after Abby Wambach’s 35th birthday.”
Ramsay steps aside
Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Basketball Hall of Famer who once coached the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, took a leave from ESPN Radio’s playoff coverage last week to seek treatment for an unspecified medical condition.
“I’m going back to Naples (Fla.) and will start the treatment on Monday there,” Ramsay told The Miami Herald.
Ramsay, 88, had earlier said this would be his last season in the broadcast booth, meaning his career is likely over. NBA fans will miss his wit and wisdom on radio broadcasts.
“I’ll miss doing the broadcasts,” Ramsay said in a statement, “but I’ll be watching and listening.”