- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

Abby Wambach broke two bones in her left leg during an exhibition game just before the Beijing Olympics last July. Confined to her couch and accompanied by a titanium rod that doctors inserted, she yelled at the TV and exhorted her U.S. women’s soccer teammates to a second successive gold medal.

The pain was deep, physically and emotionally; the rehabilitation was long and arduous. But just the other day Wambach, fully healed, said of the injury, “I think it’s gonna extend my career five years.”

The time off proved to be a relief for the Washington Freedom star, who’s arguably the world’s best all-around female soccer player.

“Eight months’ rest for your muscles, your joints, your body,” Wambach said. But more important was resolving what she called “the mental thing.”

“I definitely did a lot of soul-searching,” the 28-year-old forward said. “Why did I break my leg? And why then? I really needed to consider what the game meant to me, and why I play it. I was stressed during that time. And that’s not what brings out the best in me.

“It’s a really big mind game when you’re going into a world event like that,” said Wambach, who scored the gold medal-winning goal in the 2004 Olympics. “I couldn’t show it to anybody. I didn’t want anybody to know. It’s comical how stressed I was. I’m laying on the couch with a broken leg, and I’m like, ‘Why was I even thinking about being so stressed? It’s a game.’ … If I was stressed like that and I kept winning, I would have stayed stressed.”

Wambach’s recovery has been remarkable on several levels. The Women’s United Soccer Association rookie of the year with the Freedom in 2002, she will now lead her reconstituted team into the inaugural season of Women’s Professional Soccer. The Freedom plays its opener Sunday at the Los Angeles Sol.

“I’ve been extremely proud of her from the moment she broke her leg,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. “The way she handled it, I’ve never seen anybody go through that catastrophic of an injury with such a positive attitude and a strong personality.

“It might have been more of a psychological battle than a physical battle. Your leg can heal. But you miss out on being part of a team and an Olympics, and it really rattles you all the way down to your core. It really tests you. She always thought of it as a test.”

Wambach wasn’t the only Freedom player knocked out of the Olympics. About a month earlier, defender Cat Whitehill suffered a torn knee ligament.

“I texted her when I saw it happen,” Whitehill said. “She was like, ‘Thank you very much. We’ll get in touch soon.’ We finally got in touch in September. We needed that time away. Not only was it a physical injury, it was a mental injury, and we had to recover from that.”

Pals from the U.S. national team, the pair go back several years. Whitehill said it’s been “kind of interesting” watching Wambach evolve.

“She always had the size,” Whitehill said. “But skillwise, she’s gotten a lot better. Her knowledge of the game, she’s the kind of forward who helps you out as to where to run. She has such a great knowledge of where to go. She can direct. She’s really a good leader out there.”

Wambach has scored more goals in international play than any woman, but Gabarra said “intangibles” and “subtleties” set her apart.

“She’ll do whatever it takes to win,” he said. “If it means coming back and defending and doing all the dirty work, she’ll do that, too.”

Although she excelled as a rookie, Wambach said she was “clueless” when she joined the Freedom in 2002 out of the University of Florida.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

But now, “it’s just totally different,” she said. “I feel confident that the things I’ve learned will really help this team specifically, and hopefully the league. … By no means has my potential been tapped.”

Wambach loves talking about her teammates and the Freedom’s developing chemistry, on and off the field. Likewise, she accepts the torch passed from her close friend, Mia Hamm, and other players who vaulted U.S. women’s soccer to prominence. She is willing to provide the star power needed in a new league and embraces her stature as a role model.

“Ultimately, what I do or why I do it is not only for selfish reasons,” she said. “There’s a responsibility that goes along with being a professional athlete, and moreso a female professional athlete. Because there are fewer and far between in that area.”

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