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Wambach's 'Forward' a refreshing, insightful read which smashes stereotypes

Abby Wambach's memoir doesn't preach the morals and values of sports; it hits on the realities which millions of people struggle with. Beau Dure reviews:

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For better or for worse, the stereotype of women’s soccer writing is that of pony-tailed girls falling in love with soccer and making sacrifices to pursue their dreams.

Abby Wambach’s memoir, “Forward”, wastes no time smashing that stereotype. She opens by recounting a presentation for kids in which she said aloud all the familiar clichés about succeeding in sports and life but was, in her own mind, chastising herself as a phony.

While typical sports memoirs extol the virtues of self-expression and self-discovery through sports, Wambach’s memoir raises the question of whether the whole endeavor is worthwhile. She loves being good at soccer, collecting the praise and goal-bounty money from her parents (every youth coach’s nightmare). She doesn’t love soccer itself. Early in the book, Wambach makes that much clear:

My future teammate and friend Mia Hamm will one day offer this advice: “Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back . . . play for her.”

I am not, and never will be, that little girl.

Instead, she embraces life as a hard-partying high school jock. Like Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, she’s often either drunk or hungover, she’s skating through classes with sarcasm and disinterest, and she’s in danger of squandering her prodigious talent with poor diet and exercise habits.

Buckle your seatbelts. This is a bumpy, brilliant ride.

Sure, Hope Solo’s memoir already broke a lot of the unwritten rules of writing about life in women’s soccer. But Solo’s book tackled external demons. Wambach blames no one but herself. (The exception: She takes issue with Brazilian gamesmanship, though she admits to some bad “flopping” later in her own career.) Even when writing about infidelities by her high school boyfriend and one of her first serious girlfriends, she hardly seems angry. Wambach blames herself for rare defeats on the field and for any failings, real and imagined, off it. The reader wouldn’t be surprised if she blamed herself for the recession.

This book is primarily a book of pain. She pops pills to deal with physical and mental anguish, particularly after a shattered leg forces her to miss the 2008 Olympics. Her postretirement months, which take up a significant amount of the book, are a harrowing take on a shattered relationship and alcohol.

And yet it’s an inspired read. Wambach’s easygoing, occasionally dark sense of humor helps. So does her drive to get better off the field.

She’s not bragging about her own determination to survive and thrive. In fact, she often seems detached from the parts of herself that succeed. When she describes a wave of raw willpower that gets her through a fitness test at Florida after a summer of ignoring coach Becky Burleigh’s conditioning advice, she describes the feeling as something that simply appeared from nowhere, not some deep resolve that revealed good character. She credits herself as a world-class B.S. artist, watching with dismay as the skill doesn’t translate into a TV analyst debut she describes as “epically horrible” but feeling relieved when she wins praise for public speaking.

Her openness is a startling shift for someone who put up more barriers as her career went on. I landed an interview with her shortly after she finally revealed her sexuality and her relationship with Sarah Huffman, only to be told by U.S. Soccer staff she would not talk about the relationship, the wedding and so forth. She was always approachable and at ease with the media in her Washington Freedom days, but she was a cornerstone of the veil of silence around the short-lived magicJack team and maverick owner Dan Borislow in WPS in 2011.

She doesn’t dwell on a lot of women’s soccer controversies – which might hold back sales in comparison with Solo’s spitfire takes on everyone else in the women’s soccer world – but she does pull back the veil on a few things, including life as a magicJack player.

The late Borislow is a mutual admirer and drinking buddy – “There are many, many nights out with Dan that I don’t remember at all” – but she confirms reports of some of Borislow’s more questionable behavior, describing and not denying the incidents that led to several players filing a grievance against him. In retrospect, their friendship and business relationship is no surprise – they’re both driven, complex people who struggle with a never-ending quest for extremes. (In one colorful anecdote, she pays tribute to Borislow after his death by going to Vegas intent on losing $15,000, but no matter how stupidly she bets, she keeps winning.)

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The last few years of her career are difficult. Her body breaks down. After their wedding, Huffman decides to stay in Portland rather than play another season with Western New York, and the long-distance relationship takes a toll on Wambach’s play. Her 2015 playing hiatus, she reveals, was less about saving her body and more about saving her marriage. She reads Internet discussions (yikes!) dissecting her declining form and accusing her of flopping for calls.

“I have to admit it’s true,” she writes. “If only I were half as talented as flopping around as I once was at playing soccer.”

Some athletes thank their enablers. Wambach thanks everyone who ever kicked her in the butt – coaches like Jerry Smith and April Heinrichs who told her to wake up and work on her conditioning, friends like “Kara” (a disclaimer at the end of the book says some names have been changed to protect their privacy) who warn her away from being numb and drunk all the time, and finally Sydney Leroux, who emerges late in the book as a vital force in pulling her out of her self-destructive ways.

But there’s no simple, happy ending here. There’s no happily ever after. Wambach’s journey is just beginning.

And it’s worrying in this respect – a lot of the message of women’s sports is that the drive to succeed in sports will pay off in other aspects of life. “Forward” presents another reality familiar to those who follow men’s sports – a prodigious talent driven by internal and external forces toward a single-minded goal, and then left to wonder what happens when the playing career is over.

The good news: We get a glimpse of Wambach’s powerful support system as well as her own self-awareness. This book doesn’t read like a calculated best-seller full of gossip. It reads like a confessional, written either to assuage her ingrained Catholicism or simply as a catharsis to start fresh.

And it gives us a fresh look at the athletes we cheer and scrutinize. Women’s soccer is not the exclusive province of cheerful, homogeneous suburban girls.

Wambach is different. But she’s one of many. One of the millions who struggle with alcohol and addiction. One of the tens of millions who deal with anxiety and depression.

So “Forward” is an inspirational, insightful read, not giving easy answers to life’s problems but showing what can be accomplished even while someone’s life isn’t as perfect as it seems from the outside.

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Beau Dure is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @duresport.