Wambach, women’s soccer and winning

When she walked on to the field wearing loafers, it was evident she would not be actively participating in this particular game. And who could blame her. Abby Wambach had just spent the last three weeks in Germany leading the U.S. Women’s National Team at the World Cup, suffering a heartbreaking loss in penalty kicks to Japan on Sunday. So it was understandable that on Wednesday she wasn’t quite ready physically or emotionally to take the pitch for a pro women’s soccer game even if it was in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

I spent yesterday on Abby Wambach watch, attending a pep rally at a local mall then moving on to Sahlen’s Stadium for a WPS match between the magicJack and the Western New York Flash. Wambach embraced her role as spokesperson — for soccer, for women’s sports, for America and apple pie. In return, she was lavished with gifts and adulation. Heck, when you’re compared with Susan B. Anthony — another Rochester woman who claimed international fame for following her passion — you must be doing something right.

I have no cogent observations or arguments in the wake of the U.S. Women’s World Cup run, but a lot of tangental thoughts. Female athletes seem to live in a perpetually defensive state. They have to defend their sport, the economics of their game, marketing and attendance. (Seriously, so you think Derek Jeter has any clue about attendance trends at MLB games? Yet I’m willing to bet most WNBA and WPS players regular field those types of questions.) They have to defend their public persona, getting bashed if they’re too feminine and conversely if they’re not feminine enough. They are expected to embrace the women’s sports movement, to serve the greater good, when really, all some of them want is to make a comfortable living following their passion. With this constant identity tug-of-war, I’m sure there is good money to be made by all kinds of qualified therapists if they chose to specialize in female athletes.

Meanwhile, an interesting question posed among sports media types after the U.S. lost the Women’s World Cup was this: Would it be a true measure that women’s sports has “arrived” if instead of celebrating the effort, the team was criticized for letting a title slip away?

First, let’s all remember the 1991 Super Bowl when and the infamous “wide right” field goal attempt by Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood. After the loss, Buffalo had a rally to welcome back the Bills from their Super Bowl appearance. Fans cheered and chanted for Scott Norwood, made him a hero of sorts, despite the fact that the Bills lost the game. Celebrating second place isn’t just a girlie thing.

And secondly, perhaps it’s time to shift the paradigm. Perhaps there are other ways to define success. Abby Wambach noted that while she wanted to win the World Cup, while she was still heartbroken, devastated and depressed at the game’s outcome, there was a larger outcome she never considered — the fact that she and her teammates captured the attention of a nation and brought soccer into the American sporting consciousness. She modeled the values of tenacity, determination, grace and humility. Sometimes, we don’t get the outcome we had planned and prepared for. But often, the new outcome is better, richer and more meaningful if we let our heartache heal and see what truly has been given to us. That, my friends, feels a lot like winning.

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