Forward, a memoir by Abby Wambach

In the last five years, I’ve gotten into soccer. Around the same time period, women’s professional soccer has grown in leaps and bounds, garnering well-deserved attention for the success of the women’s team in the Olympics, the Women’s World Cup, and the fight for pay equality. A few years ago, I read Carli Lloyd’s 2016 memoir, When Nobody Was Watching. She played on the same teams as Abby Wambach, whose 2016 memoir, Forward, takes a different approach to the same subject: what is it like to be a professional female soccer player when such a thing didn’t exist that long ago?

While Lloyd’s book focused largely on soccer itself, even giving a play-by-play of the more important games, Wambach looks at her identity. Each chapter title is a label she would give herself, such as “rebel,” “teammate,” “lesbian,” “depressive,” and “captain.” The story begins with little Abby, who excels at soccer but doesn’t love it. She’s convinced by a sibling to keep playing. In high school, Wambach struggles with her sexual identity, which she hides from her parents until she goes to college.

Wambach is wildly undisciplined compared to Lloyd’s painfully perfect image (always fit, a long-term boyfriend who becomes her husband, incredibly kind). Wambach eats junk food and drinks too much, falls into and out of shape, goes through multiple relationships in which she thinks she’s in love and buys outrageous gifts to prove it. Instead of describing each pep talk, pass, and goal, Wambach explores her desire to be loved. For instance, she admits she doesn’t love soccer, but the “validation that comes from mastering it.” Wambach explains, “For thirty years scoring goals was my currency, the one skill I could barter for security and acceptance and love.” In fact, Wambach has scored more professional soccer goals — 184 — than any other human. It’s that ability to assess her own motivations that steps Forward up beyond other sports memoirs I’ve read.

She’s an intense player. Photo Credit.

Best of all, Wambach looks at her world through a feminist lens. When she overhears a mother in a restaurant tell her seven- or eight-year-old daughter “You need to find a good man to have a good life, just like I found your father,” Wambach can’t help but seethe:

The words stir a fury inside of me. I think about where I am: twenty-four years old, just a few steps away from being a powerful, self-sufficient woman, someone who never considered relying on a man or anyone else for my well-being and success, someone with an Olympic gold medal. . .

But the athlete doesn’t just get mad, she is an advocate making a case for equal pay for women’s soccer players. She compares wages — on average, women on “the National Women’s Soccer team earn between $6,842 and $37,800 while members of Major League Soccer earn an average salary exceeding $200,000 [despite the fact that the women’s] World Cup final against Japan attracted 750 million viewers worldwide and was the most watched soccer match in U.S. history.” For comparison that’s more viewers than “the 2015 NBA championship featuring Stephen Curry and LeBron James.” I’m quoting numbers at you in the hopes that you will advocate for women’s soccer, wherever you live, and keep in mind that the gender pay gap happens in all professions. Wambach and Lloyd both successfully bring attention to the pay discrepancy in their memoirs and educate readers.

One thing I couldn’t get over, though, was how much Wambach loved her former team owner, Dan Borislow, who asked players about their sex lives and told them to call him Daddy. But, he’s kept the team in business and increased their wages in support of their fight for pay equality. When he died, Wambach was greatly saddened, and even thanks him in the acknowledgements. Since I’m now asking what each book I read says about women, I wonder if Wambach accidentally gives evidence that women tolerate and even admire men who are pigs because that man offers kindness, too. Sometimes, we’re thankful for crumbs.

Wambach famously kisses her wife, Sarah, after the 2015 World Cup. Photo Credit.

Although the message is clear, Wambach typically writes in slogans you might find high school students touting about reaching for the stars, being a team player, and asking for help when you need it. The writing, in this case, is not unique but does make for a quick read. Lloyd’s book suffered from the same issue, which reminds me that not all famous people are good writers. Even Joan Fontaine fell on her face in her autobiography, coming off as shallow and flighty.

In general, the Wambach is honest about her personal flaws, including alcohol and pill dependency and being a needy partner in a relationship, but she also expresses genuine gratitude for each person she meets, avoiding gossip or demeaning other women, and draws attention to women’s and LGBTQ rights.

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37 comments

  1. My interest in football is zero but this actually sounds really interesting (I enjoyed Ross Raisin’s novel A Natural despite knowing nothing about football, so maybe this could be along the same lines!)

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    • Carli Lloyd’s book helps explain some basic terminology, but Abby Wambach’s book is more focused on her as a person, so I think a non-sport/football fan could easily read it. Thanks for stopping by, Laura!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not a sporty person AT ALL, but I’ve been so pleased by the increase in attention and respect for female athletes over the last few years. Being a woman in sport must be hard enough, but being a queer woman in sport must throw up a lot of struggles, so this sounds interesting!

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    • I had coffee with a friend of mine on Sunday. We both went to the same college in central Michigan. He was telling me that his parents didn’t come get him during the winter break between semesters, so the women’s rugby team, composed (he made it sound entirely) of queer women, would house him that month during the break. I would love to hear more about that.

      I think if the sport isn’t “feminine” (e.g. cheerleading, gymnastics, figure skating), a lot of people assume all female athletes are lesbian. So, when Abby Wambach subtly came out to her teammates, I was surprised by her trepidation. It was new to me, and I was happy to get a new perspective.

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  3. I don’t follow soccer…like, at all. But this sounds intriguing. From what you’ve said, Wambach seems to have lived an interesting and intense life. Good for her for being so good at what she does. I like the point you made about women tolerating gross men sometimes, simply because they show kindness every once in a while. I hate to say that that’s been true in my life, too. The daddy complex can be tough to overcome, unfortunately. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. 🙂

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    • I don’t have all of the rules of soccer memorized, but it IS a sport I like watching live (I’m not a fan of many sports on TV; it’s just not the same). Baseball: now there is a sport whose rules I do know quite well. Anyway, in my efforts to support women from different walks of life, I felt it was important to start reading some sports memoirs, and soccer seemed like a great place to start given the increase in attendance and viewership.

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  4. I’ll have to read Forward sometime, thanks for the introduction! I typically find celebrity memoirs to be too guarded/superficial to read cover-to-cover, but this sounds like an exception – I can appreciate that the author showed vulnerability and explored difficult topics.

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  5. Just pointing out re the “success of the women’s team in the Olympics” that I’m guessing you mean the US team. There were others, including Australia. Yes you beat us 5-3 in a friendly last month, and no our Olympics record is not that good, but we did draw with the US team 1-1 in the 2018 Tournament of Nations.
    Glad Wambach wrote about herself as a person rather than as a footballer. It must take some getting used to, being famous.

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    • Ha! Yes, I did mean the United States team, Bill. Thank you for reminding me that I have international readers 🙂

      I’m not even sure the female soccer players see themselves as famous. Everything they accomplish they do by fighting to even play. For instance, there was the debacle about them being forced to play on temporary grass instead of the real deal several years ago, which male players were never required to do. Keeping the teams around was itself a challenge, as some teams and leagues folded due to lack of funds.

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  6. This sounds like a great read. Very often these are written by ghostwriters BUT they use the subject’s own words and ways of speaking, so if she uses these slightly pat phrases in real life (and I wonder if that’s part of being a captain and having to throw those short phrases at people to motivate them) then they will come into the book. It’s a fascinating process that I love to observe as a ghostwriters’ transcriber (so it’s partly my job to capture the voices accurately: people really do talk in cliches a lot of the time!). Glad you pulled out her feminism and decency, and I’ll look out for this making its way over here (we’re much keener on our women players now but there’s still a disparity).

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    • Yes, I believe Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo all had ghostwriters. It makes me wonder what their books would be like without a ghostwriter. I’d love to see an early draft of a chapter and then compare the final product (just out of curiosity). I’m sure Wambach speaks in cliches. I think you’re right: to motivate a team you have to say things that are powerful and relatable, even if they aren’t grounded in reality (e.g. “shoot for the stars”).

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      • I doubt they wrote a word of the books, the usual process at least here is for it all to be based on interviews – sometimes they discuss what will go in each chapter, sometimes that’s left to the ghostwriter to work out. It’s really interesting, though – I love seeing the books I’ve worked on in their final state, very often completely recognisable sections I’ve typed! I guess the team motivation stuff is just like what we shout as someone races and we’re spectating – Looking Good! Go go go! You have to take those nuggets that everyone knows.

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  7. This sounds interesting! I’ve never heard of Wambach but this reminds me of a few years back when the captain of the Canadian women’s soccer team was suspended for remarks she made after the team lost a major game. She argued with the ref and a lot of people felt that she didn’t behave well but I’m not sure a male player would have been criticized in the same way.

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    • OMG, the male soccer players and their fake injuries. I feel like if one more dude falls on the ground, rolling around and his ankle, he should be fired and suspended from the league. Hope Solo on the U.S. team said some crap to the media after a game about her coach/teammate after she wasn’t chosen as first pick for an important game. She got in loads of trouble for that, and I think it still haunts her.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, the fake injuries are super annoying to watch. Sinclair (the Canadian captain) was fined and suspended after they lost an important game and she blamed the ref. From what I understand, there were some controversial calls. It just seems like part of that expectation that women shouldn’t get angry or express that anger. Sure, there might be better ways to do it but it’s an honest reaction.

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  8. I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the two covers at the top of your post. The cover of “Forward” is much more appealing to me – it looks more personable, like you’re about to have a conversation with the writer. Lloyd’s looks more like a non-fiction book about leadership or something.
    Abby Wambach sounds like an interesting person – one I’d love to read about. And I hope she and her wife have that photo framed on their wall!

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  9. Oooo I like the sounds of this book. I really appreciate how you point out both the strengths and weaknesses of books Melanie. And I have to agree, many books written by celebrities, even when they have ghost writers tend to be a bit…underwhelming. But their topics and opinions are so fascinating so it’s something I’m willing to put up with.

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  10. Great review! I’m looking forward to reading Wambach’s book. I like her honesty about her flaws, and I’m wondering whether she includes her reaction to Borislow among them. When she writes about him, does she acknowledge how problematic he was? Sexual harassment is so pervasive in our culture that perhaps he didn’t seem unusual or as bad as other people.

    As for equal pay, the women’s soccer team is an interesting example that counters what opponents of equal pay legislation (such as the Chamber of Commerce) often say: that it must be “neutral” factors other than sex/gender (or race or LGBTQ identity, etc) that result in lower pay for people with these identities compared to white, cishet men. But what could those “other factors” be when you’ve got a team that is better than the men’s team AND attracts more viewers? The only explanation is sex. That is true in other individual cases and fields too, but it’s less obvious.

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    • If you’re quite busy (and I know you are!) I would recommend Wambach’s shorter work, Wolfpack instead. It’s pretty empowering!

      If a case like the women’s professional soccer team went to court (maybe it has??), how could someone argue that neutral outside factors keep them from being paid the same as men?

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  11. Great review! I’m always so fascinated when I hear of a highly successful athlete that doesn’t love the sport they play. She’s really done a lot for women in sports, and watching the US Women play is a lot of fun!

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    • You’re catching up to me, Ami! I’m so glad you’re still visiting. I was thinking of you the other day when they were talking about California forest fires on NPR. Some branch of government there is actually asking people to stop rebuilding in certain areas because there’s too much “fire fuel” on the ground to encourage folks to live in the area.

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      • There are too many people in California and we are building more and more in areas that should be left alone. Also, we had a LOT of rain this year (enough to finally pull us out of our very lengthy drought!) and so there is a ton of undergrowth now that will just die off as it dries out over the summer (we typically have a very wet winter/spring and a very dry summer/fall).
        What was different about our fire was that some of the areas that burned were in known fire prone areas, or high fire danger areas, but then we also had fire spread where it never had been before, and that’s the very scary thing. Was the fire encouraged because of the sprawl into known fire danger areas? Perhaps – but we also had an abnormally strong wind storm that night which pushed the fire into neighborhoods that you’d never in a million years think would be in danger of a wildfire.
        Unfortunately, there will be more wildfires, and I fear that they will continue to get stronger and more deadly/destructive…along with all of the other natural disasters that seem to be the norm these days.

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