Wambach works to keep focused on soccer

Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 1:02 a.m.
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Former Florida Gator Abby Wambach, right, made a name for herself during last summer's Olympics.

The Associated Press
There will be no Olympics, no World Cup, no professional women's soccer league dangling in front of her this year. No opportunities to head in a goal the magnitude of the one that produced a gold medal in Athens last August. No more chances to work a give-and-go with her idol and friend, Mia Hamm.
Which means a year after establishing herself as the most feared scorer in all of women's soccer, Abby Wambach will have to battle not only defenders ganging up her, but the emotional letdown that's sure to follow her 2004 dream-come-true season. The former high school All-American and college All-American at the Florida (1998-01) will need to find new worlds to conquer. Not an easy task when you are coming off the year of your life at the ripe, old age of 24.
''It's like, 'Whoa, what do we do now?' '' Wambach said recently from Phoenix, Ariz., where she trains in the off-season. ''All of us who are coming back are going to be battling the same thing. We're going to have to guard against that letdown. I keep saying that we've reached a critical stage for women's soccer because we don't have immediate things to shoot for, like the Olympics or the World Cup. It's going to be up to me and the other women on the national team to keep things moving forward. We can't afford to go idle.''
And they'll have to move forward without Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett, the three players who combined to drive women's soccer for nearly two decades before retiring last month.
''It's going to be so weird to report to camp next month and not have them there,'' Wambach said. ''But we can't dwell on that. They left some awfully big shoes to fill, and it's going to be up to us to fill them and keep this going. We owe that to them and to future generations of women soccer players.''
Wambach said the United States will play in a number of international tournaments this year, starting with a trip to Portugal in early March. The goal is to keep interest alive this year in order to re-launch the Women's United Soccer Association in 2006. An organization called the Women's Sports Initiative has been lining up potential investors and sponsors for the new league, and Wambach says soccer-rabid Rochester, N.Y., is in the running for a franchise.
''I think the turnout for the farewell tour match in September really opened some eyes,'' Wambach said, referring to the Frontier Field record crowd of nearly 15,000 that showed up to see the U.S. play Iceland. ''That would be so cool for me, personally, to see a team here and possibly play professionally in my hometown.
''But that's still down the road. We want to learn from the mistakes the league made the first time around. Ideally, we would loved to have launched it this year to take advantage of the momentum from the Olympics, but we didn't want to rush into it before we had a really solid business plan. This time, we want it to last and flourish.''
Wambach resumed her training regimen a few days ago. Her visit to her family's home in Pittsford, N.Y., during the holidays helped recharge her batteries.
''It was probably the first time in nearly two years that I took some time off,'' she said. ''I had 10 days to just chill out and do nothing. As a result, I'm feeling re-energized. I'm waking up in the morning again and looking forward to going to my workouts.''
During her downtime, she attempted to answer some of the mail she has received since her Olympic heroics. But she barely made a dent in the bagfuls of correspondence.
''There are literally thousands of letters and cards from all over the United States and the world,'' Wambach said. ''Between all the mail and all the stuff I brought home from the Olympics, my old bedroom has been turned into a storage room. It's uninhabitable.''
As she plots her future, she continues to explore various business opportunities. Her Olympic success has made her a hot commodity. Wambach recently re-signed with Preferred Care, an agreement that will have her stage more youth clinics, including one in Rochester on Jan. 22. Her shoe contract with Nike expired on Dec. 31, and she said she is in negotiations with several companies for a new deal. She also recently signed a two-year contract with Gatorade that may include a television commercial.
''There's no guarantee that will happen, but Gatorade isn't the type of company that signs you just to throw you a bone,'' Wambach said. ''They usually have a number of things they'd like to do with you, so that's exciting.''
Her top priority, though, will be to make sure women's soccer builds on the legacy established by Hamm & Co. Maintaining interest and laying the foundation for a new professional league will have to take the place of going for Olympic gold.
''The rest of the world is improving as far as women's soccer is concerned, so we can't afford to stand still,'' Wambach said. ''You look at countries like Brazil, and you just know they are on the verge of becoming a world power. But we have so much talent in this country. It's just a matter of us making sure we continue to develop that talent and continue to do like Mia and Julie and Joy did, and play as a team.''
Wambach will have a huge say in how that future unfolds. With her size, strength and tenacity, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound striker emerged as one of the team leaders in 2004. Her demeanor and her play make her a candidate for Foudy's captain vacancy, though the title probably will go to one of the more experienced veterans, such as Kristine Lilly or Brandi Chastain.
''I don't think my role is going to change that much regardless who is captain,'' said Wambach, who is expected to team with Hamm's replacement, Heather O'Reilly, on the front line. ''I think I will continue to be called upon to score goals and be physical, and that's fine with me.''

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