In the end, Abby Wambach came full circle.
On Tuesday, October 27, 2015, the most prolific goal-scorer in the history of international soccer began her day at the White House, where President Barack Obama honored Wambach and the U.S. women’s national team for winning this year’s Women’s World Cup.
Thirteen years ago, in 2002, Wambach started her professional career in the same city, Washington D.C., where she arrived as a talented yet uncommitted forward with the Washington Freedom and became something else entirely: A relentless force of nature who would go on to score 184 goals for the U.S. on her way to winning a World Cup, two Olympic gold medals and six U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year awards.
The nation’s capital is where Wambach toughened up while playing alongside the legendary Mia Hamm, who helped unlock Wambach’s potential and release the beast that she knew Wambach could become.
On Tuesday, in a city dear to her heart, the 35-year-old Wambach announced she will retire from soccer at the end of this year, after her final U.S. game on Dec. 16 in New Orleans against China. The timing was typical Wambach, which is to say it was nearly as good as it was on her most famous goal, the 122nd-minute Hail Mary equalizer against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals.
As she contemplated her future in recent weeks, Wambach did not want her decision to take away from anything else connected to the team. Not their visit to the White House, where President Obama said “this team taught all of America's children that playing like a girl means you're a badass.” And not the planned retirement farewells for teammates Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny and Lauren Holiday.
Wambach has always been a team player that way. In fact, at one point Wambach had told her friends that she just wanted to quietly fade away, avoiding any big celebration for her career in the final games of this year’s Victory Tour. She reconsidered, thankfully, after realizing that properly celebrating her accomplishments would also be a good thing for her sport, which has come so far, and for showing a 10-year-old girl in the stadium on Dec. 16 that you, too, can do this with your career—and perhaps even surpass it.
The timing was good in another way, too. Wambach can go out having just won the World Cup, the trophy that had eluded her for so long, the one she said her career would not be complete without. She could have tried to hang on for next year’s Olympics, a tournament she has already won twice, but there might have been more costs than benefits in doing so, both for her and for the U.S. team, and no guarantees she would have made the roster.
And so, even though we will still see plenty of Wambach in the public sphere, our lasting final images of her as a competitive player will be from that magical time in Canada this summer, when she finally raised the World Cup trophy and when, in a remarkable seven-minute monologue on Fox Sports, she spoke directly to her teammates on the eve of the World Cup final.
Wambach’s finest moments have always been unscripted. That’s what we love about her. That's what we love about sports.