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Heather Mitts (left) and Abby Wambach look to add a World Cup title to their 2004 Olympic gold medals

Saturday July 16, 2011A Head Above: Former Gators Soccer Star Abby Wambach Has Shined in World Cup

Heather Mitts (left) and Abby Wambach look to add a World Cup title to their 2004 Olympic gold medals

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

The Abby Wambach that Gators soccer coach Becky Burleigh has known for nearly 15 years is now known by the world.

The secret is out. Mary Abigail Wambach is special.

She is the kind of special that had hundreds of fans at the Back Nine Grill in her hometown of Pittsford, N.Y., on Wednesday singing “Walking in a Wambach Wonderland.” A parade is scheduled in her honor – win or lose – when she returns home.

She is the kind of special that has made the Women’s World Cup final Sunday between the United States and Japan the most anticipated Team USA women’s soccer game since Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey and made the sports bra famous in 1999.

She is the kind of special that allows Wambach to score goals with her head seemingly easier than other players can with their feet.

Burleigh was in Switzerland watching the game on German TV a week ago when Wambach’s game-saving header in the final moments against Brazil in the quarterfinals made her an instant hit on social media around the globe.

The only head coach the Gators have known since the program started play in 1995, Burleigh was back on campus hosting a soccer camp on Wednesday when Wambach struck again in the final minutes, her header lifting the U.S. to a semifinal win over France. The victory gave the Americans a chance to win their first World Cup since that day 12 years ago at the Rose Bowl when Chastain forever became an iconic American sports figure.

As hundreds of fans and 30 of Wambach’s family members celebrated at the Back Nine Grill that her older brother, Matt, co-owns, Burleigh watched with dozens of young players at a UF soccer camp.

Wambach’s second game-saving goal in four days had soccer fans around the globe buzzing – you know you’ve made it when Tom Hanks tweets about you. Burleigh shouted, too, but she wasn’t surprised at the former Gator’s dramatic score.

“Abby was very much like this when she arrived at Florida,’’ Burleigh told a national audience on NPR Friday. “She is just such a tough competitor. She has always been willing to lay it all on the line.

“Her ability to head the ball is unlike any other woman in the world. She is just physically dominating.’’

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Wambach was no stranger to soccer fame prior to this summer’s World Cup. She was two-time SEC Player of the Year at Florida and as a freshman helped lead the Gators to the program’s only national title in 1998. She remains the school’s all-time leading goal scorer.

After her career at Florida ended in 2001, Wambach set out on a successful professional and international career that saw her score the winning goal for the U.S. in the gold-medal game of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece.

But the past week has been unlike any other the 31-year-old has ever experienced.

Wambach’s late heroics in back-to-back games – in front of a global audience no less – have made her into household name.

“This is the pinnacle. This is the dream,’’ she said Thursday from Frankfurt, Germany, site of Sunday’s championship game. “This is the goal that we’ve all set.’’

In the last week, Wambach has trended worldwide on Twitter. She has done countless interviews and won an ESPY. She has certainly helped business at her older brother Matt’s restaurant in Pittsford, which is located a few miles southeast of Rochester in upstate New York.

“I expect we’ll have between 1,000 and 1,500 people here to cheer her on [in Sunday’s final],” Matt Wambach told the New York Post. “We actually had to rearrange the whole layout of the restaurant to accommodate the crowds.’’

Talking to reporters from around the world on Thursday afternoon during a media teleconference, Wambach tried to keep the focus on the team as much as she could. Still, she understands the excitement from Pittsford to Pittsburgh to many other places around the globe about her role in Team USA’s dramatic road to the World Cup final.

“It's funny, because most people might not like this answer, but the truth is I'm kind of ignoring it all until this tournament is over,’’ Wambach said. “There's this thing called technology. People are emailing, tweeting, texting, you name it.

“Can you imagine – all the energy of the millions of people that are supporting us back home? That is something to be reckoned with. It's an amazing, amazing accomplishment to be where we're at, sitting on the doorstep of a world championship.’’

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Abby grew up the youngest of Judy and Peter Wambach’s seven kids, four boys and three girls. She was a standout basketball and soccer player at Our Lady of Mercy High School in the Rochester area.

For those who did not know much about her prior to this week, a common reaction has focused on her physical style of play and determination at the most critical moments.

Wambach developed those traits at an early age playing street hockey and other sports against her older siblings.

“Being the youngest of seven kids, you become sure of yourself because you always have someone to tell you what to do, where to be – and that gets old,’’ she said. “I was put in positions where my competitiveness was being taught at a really young age.

“All of these things have fueled the fire within me. I think in this tournament you’ve seen a little bit of that fire come out in my passion and my play. This team is showing some of those same attributes.’’

Wambach played from the start after joining the Gators in 1998 in the upstart program’s fourth year of existence. She hasn’t slowed down since, overcoming a sore Achilles heel to make a strong statement in her third appearance in the World Cup. Winning her first title is top priority.

Wambach isn’t alone in Germany. Her parents are there while most of her family is back home watching with the rest of the world.

How much has interest in the event spiked in the past week?

Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl was one of three U.S. print reporters in attendance a week ago when Wambach scored late in the win over Brazil. He told NPR on Friday that there are more than 100 American writers in Frankfurt now thanks to arguably the hottest sports story of the summer.

Seems everyone is suddenly talking soccer. Wambach’s teammate, Hope Solo, now has 100,000 Twitter followers after hovering around 10,000 seven days ago.

At the center of it all has been Wambach, whose head – in the most literal sense – is leading the surge in interest.

“If you make the slightest mistake, Wambach will make you pay for it,’’ Wahl said.

“Her signature goal,’’ Burleigh said. “Her on-the-field leadership that she has exhibited in this World Cup has just been amazing. I feel like the team has rallied behind her and she is just carrying it.’’

Wambach was about to enter her sophomore season at UF when the 1999 Americans won the World Cup, led by Chastain and Mia Hamm. She said this summer’s Team USA has drawn inspiration from that team.

If her dramatic goals are now part of American soccer lore the way Chastain’s memorable celebration remains so vivid, so be it she said. She’ll reflect on that later.

To be truly an equal, Wambach knows what must happen against Japan.

“This isn’t good enough for me. We want to make sure we are on that top podium come Sunday,’’ she said. “We have unfinished business. We want to have a storybook ending to this amazing journey.’’

What a journey it has been Wambach – the big star so far.

 

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