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Aug 1, 2006

Wambach an unstoppable force

CARY, N.C. -- Economist John Maynard Keynes put an especially cynical, if accurate, spin on time's instructive potential when he said, "In the long run, we are all dead."

The basic concept that age is no guarantee of wisdom is hardly one most of us need brilliant but bygone bean counters to validate. The trick, of course, is to find a way to use the weeks, months and years to seek out knowledge instead of waiting for some form of alchemy to turn the accumulation of time into something meaningful.

So while Abby Wambach continues to emerge as the face of women's soccer in America, the truly remarkable thing about one of the most consistent goal scorers in national team history is how the once brash kid with an unmatched blend of size and agility continues to grow. Whether it is by harnessing an indefatigable spirit and seeking out the world on the sands of California's Hermosa Beach or on the war-torn rolling hills of Rwanda.

And make no mistake about it, Wambach is the face of the U.S. team as the Americans seek to qualify for next year's World Cup in China and win the event for the third time.

A dominating physical presence at a thick and toned 5-foot-11, she also possesses the ball skills and vision of her smaller rivals for the title of best forward in the world. Dangerous in the air and from distance, she is perhaps most frightening for opponents when bearing down on goal on the dribble, precisely because she has the ability, even at her size, to make a run with the ball at her feet.

Sunday's game against Canada offered Wambach at her best. Bottled up for most of the first half by a Canadian defense that sought to offset her quality with the sheer quantity of red jerseys around her, Wambach found herself one-on-one against Christine Latham on the right side of the box in the 44th minute. Sliding the ball past Latham toward the end line, Wambach deftly ducked inside and had Latham beat until she was pulled down by the helpless solo defender and awarded a penalty kick.

After converting the penalty for the team's first goal in what ultimately proved to be a 2-0 win, Wambach has 57 goals in 75 games for the national team, reaching 50 goals faster than any American but Michelle Akers (Mia Hamm took 94 games). And Wambach has managed her scoring exploits at a time when parity at the international level is at an all-time high.

"Abby has scored more goals in a shorter time than Mia did," United States coach Greg Ryan said. "If Abby was playing in 1991 to 1996, the number of goals she would have had by now is astronomical. She's done it in a much more difficult environment. The opposition is much better."

As she sat across a hotel table shortly after completing practice in the stifling heat and humidity of a North Carolina summer in advance of an international friendly against Canada, the prolific striker looked comfortably weary. She carried herself with a casual confidence, resting her arms on the table in a relaxed conversational way that belied she was answering questions from a complete stranger.

"I have a lot of things I want to accomplish in my life, and soccer is part of it," Wambach said while branching out from a discussion of the purchase of her first house, a pad in Hermosa Beach. "I have a life in my head that just seems like so much fun to live. And in order to do that, I have to make sacrifices and plan for it now."

Although only 26, Wambach qualifies as middle-aged on the national team, wedged between the generation that captivated the country in the 1999 World Cup and is still represented by Kristine Lilly and Briana Scurry and the younger players who finished their college careers after the demise of the WUSA in 2004 (against Canada, Wambach was one of just six players on the roster who were alive when Jimmy Carter still resided in the White House).

"It kind of seems like a blur," Wambach said of her transition from rookie to veteran. "I feel like when I was first on the team I was so nervous all the time. And now this is just my lifestyle. We come into camp, we have residency, we go on trips; it's my life. And it's something I've learned to appreciate because it's not easy having to travel as much as we travel. But it's not sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day, either. You have to take the good with the bad. … It's a fantastic thing because as time goes on, I think my love for this game and for this team just continues to grow. And I think there's nothing but good things that can come from that."

Ryan apparently agreed, handing over the captain's armband to Wambach for the first time in a game against Ireland on July 23. For Wambach, it was a honor she said meant something special because it placed her in the same company as role models of her own, such as April Heinrichs, Akers, Carla Overbeck and Julie Foudy.

From the right to talk to the referee to the obligation to pay a mortgage, it's a learning process that recently led Wambach to a moment of introspection.

"Just the other day, I was having a little overwhelming moment, like 'God, I feel like an adult; I own a house, I bought a car.' You know, all these things that you never think are going to happen, especially you never think that can happen by playing something and doing something that you love so much."

Of course, as is often the case with love, Wambach only discovered how much the game meant to her by having that devotion tested and pushed to its breaking point. To understand how she came to be the person and the soccer player she is today involves understanding the route she took to get here.

Because a few short years ago, while Wambach was still at the University of Florida, it wasn't clear to her that soccer was what she wanted anymore.

"It's an overwhelming thing," she said of the transition to the demands of college soccer. "And if you're not prepared to tackle the sacrifice and if you're not prepared to tackle exactly what's in store with all that comes with this job, it can and will get overwhelming.

"So it was a learned love. I learned to love this game, I learned to love to be fit, I learned to love to eat healthy. It was difficult; it was hard for me to stray away from my family upbringing [of] eat whatever you want and we'll deal with being overweight later. And it wasn't healthy, and it wasn't the best environment for me to be in."

The seventh of seven children who grew up just outside Rochester, N.Y., Wambach is clearly fond of her family. In her own words, "I've been a part of a team my whole life. Some introverts on the team, I think, struggle at first trying to make it in a group atmosphere all the time. But that's never been my issue. … I mean, it's where I learned my first competitive nature; it's where I first learned that I didn't like to lose. It's family; it's good."

At the same time, for all the fun memories of backyard games and all the challenges of competing with older siblings that helped shape Wambach's fierce spirit and athletic demeanor, the simple math of years forced her to grapple at an early age with the reality that even those you love most won't always be there for you.

"It's weird what adulthood will do to you; everything isn't so petty anymore," Wambach said with a wry smile. "I've gotten much closer with all of my brothers and sisters. My brother Andrew and I were always really close because he was the next closest in age. But my sisters Beth and Laura, they were gone off to college before I turned 10. And you know, that's kind of a traumatic experience for a kid. So you know, yes, I do have my commitment issues and my issues with keeping in touch with people because all I've ever known in my life is either people going off to college or me going off to soccer camp."

The result was an independent spirit that Wambach is perhaps only now learning to fully harness and embrace.

"Where I think my family and my upbringing -- and you know the whole thing is you can sit back and you can talk about your childhood and you can talk about your adolescence and your teenage years and how it all affects you now," Wambach said. "And I've done it. I've done the psychology on it, I've talked with people, I've talked with my mom about different things that might affect me more because of my childhood. And I think it's all pretty important and valid, but on the other hand, I also think that I'm a 26-year-old woman who makes choices for myself and has the personality that I have because of my environment and because of my genes and genetics and my heritage."

Comfortable with herself and secure in her place on the soccer field, Wambach has been seeking ways to expand her horizons away from the game. Last fall, that took the form of a trip to Rwanda and Uganda on behalf of Right to Play, an organization founded by Norwegian speed skater Johann Koss that, in its own words, "uses sport and play as a tool for the development of children and youth in the most disadvantaged areas of the world."

For Wambach, the goal while visiting refugee camps and orphanages was to help teach children about the dangers of HIV in a region where the disease runs rampant and knowledge of even the most basic prevention methods is largely absent.

When asked whether the eye-opening experience would have meant as much to her five years ago, she paused, then offered a candid assessment of her growth.

"Five years ago, I was a really different person," Wambach said. "I'm not sure I had the head on my shoulders that I do now. I surely was more immature; I surely was less worldly. The people I've met in the past five years have given me a broader idea of what the world really is, rather than the world we see through television screens sitting in the United States of America."

For now, it's a world she still sees largely while traveling with one of the globe's best teams. And her explorations away from the field in no way suggest she's getting bored with the sport just as it shows the potential to take another leap in competitiveness.

"The smallest difference, the smallest detail is what changes games now, and it never used to be that way," Wambach said. "And I think that challenges me a lot; it challenges me to be more on my game, it challenges me to be more focused. And now my biggest challenge is carrying the weight of being the major goal scorer on this team. And what comes with that, the responsibility and the pressure. Whether it's the limelight, articles, pictures, endorsements -- all of the things that come with that are things that I'm challenged with now.

"It's a new perspective, and I like that. If it gets mundane and boring, you'll probably see my game go like this [she plunges her palm downward] and me go like this, 'See you later.'"

Considering she also said she'd love to play as long as her body will let her and wouldn't mind heading to the World Cup at least "a couple more times," don't count on mundane and boring winning out anytime soon.

At an age when many athletes are just scratching the surface of their athletic potential, Wambach has emerged as arguably the best player in the world by dedicating herself to the sport. But it's in simultaneously scratching the surface of life beyond soccer that she appears to have found an even greater reward.

Wambach may well be wearing the captain's armband when the United States takes the field for the 2015 World Cup, or she might have long since traded in cleats for other adventures. She has a long-standing desire to hike the Appalachian Trail, something she says she might get the most out of going it alone, although she's not sure she's brave enough to do it.

But whether rumbling toward goal in a small swatch of empty space or a solitary figure striding up the side of Maine's Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Wambach always will be looking to make the most out of her time.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com