Sunday, July 05, 2015

The ineffable beauty of sport.

The first time I saw Abby Wambach play was at a friendly game between the U.S. women's national team and a team from Ireland.  We went because it was an exhibition game, played at the University of Utah, and Mia Hamm would be there. She was splendid. She was nearing the end of her career but she was deft and canny and really just altogether estimable. A champion in every sense of that word.

Abby Wambach was near the beginning of her career on the U.S. national team. You could see how excellent she was simply as a physical being--long, strong, with her great ability to head the ball. But no one, I think, could have predicted how truly superb she would become as a player, over a long and storied career.

The second time I saw Abby Wambach, she came to speak at our commencement at SLCC. Because the commencement speech is a tricky genre, and so many commencement speeches feel platitudinous, but treating the genre and its occasion as anything but square and sincere is terribly risky (witness Morgan Spurlock, insulting mathematics to all in attendance at a previous commencement), I was on the one hand thrilled to be in the same room as a sports hero, and on the other hand, a little trepidatious. But she did not disappoint. She began by telling us facts about herself--how tall she was, how much she weighed--which I loved, because these are, in fact, important facts for an athlete, but more, these told us how entirely comfortable she was with who she was. She talked about the time she faced a crushing disappointment--she broke her tibia and fibula in an exhibition match against Brazil, which meant she'd miss the Olympics in Beijing. Her message was clear: your failures and disappointments don't define you: it's the way you respond to those failures and disappointments that ultimately defines you and the kind of life you'll live. It might have been cliche-adjacent, but I found it inspiring even so. She knew whereof she spoke.

I just think she is magnificent.

Tonight, like millions, I saw Abby Wambach on television in the final match of the FIFA Women's World Cup. She subbed in in the 79th minute, she didn't score. But it was such a joy to see her again, moving swiftly, playing her part. The team was ahead by three, so the strategy had to be to play a defensive game. It would have been magnificent to see her score in that game, but the game--the whole tournament--had already been magnificent.

I grew up in a time when the world of sports for girls was only beginning to open up. I remember my freshman year in college, when people were talking about Title IX, which has made such an incredible difference for girls. All my daughters and all my sons played sports. For years, soccer was an enormous part of my life because of this. I feel so glad that my daughters and sons had the chance, as they were growing up, to see the beautiful game played so beautifully by such magnificent athletes. And tonight, I found myself exhilarated again and again by this team, playing a wonderful, thrilling game.


  1. Beautifully said, HT.

  2. I have been surprised how so much of my pleasure in life has been tied up in physical exertion. Sports were open to girls in my school years but I didn't live in my body much in those years. The biking for me opened that door - there's a clarity about experiencing what can be done in the body that has become precious to me.

  3. Beautiful post. I saw Abby on both of the occasions you mention. The Ireland exhibition allowed her to showcase her physical gifts—there was nothing those Irish players could have done to stop her short of tying her up like so many Lilliputians. The advantages she had by dint of her size and strength were impressive—so impressive that they sometimes (too often, sadly) obscure the immense talent and skill she has and has worked so hard to develop.

    Your point about her helpfully listing her height & weight is important. And interesting.

    I was reminded of the experiences of another athlete with similarly imposing physical gifts. Serena Williams is one of the few athletes—male or female—of Abby's generation whose professional accomplishments rival Abby's.

    In a recent interview, Serena was quoted talking about coming to terms with her strong, muscular body, “It wasn’t very easy -- growing up. [My sister] Venus was like a model. I was thicker….Most women athletes are pretty thin. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I had to come to terms -- as every teen and young adult does -- with loving myself. I had to find different role models.”

    Of course, Abby has been great as a role model for the reasons you mention. For girls, especially, to see her be so comfortable in her own skin is amazing. Her confidence and excellence inspire all of us.

    While we’re basking in the collective accomplishments of the USWNT & in Wambach’s individual achievement, we might remember how far we have yet to go. Yes, Title IX has been a tremendous gift to our society and to women here and across the globe. But there remain many disparities—especially regarding race—in the way we think, talk, and write about women. Here’s just one example:



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