Abby Wambach speaks on leadership and grit

Photo by Izzy Olgaard '18    Abby Wambach’s speech on the nuances of leadership and achievement drew more than 800 students and staff. 

Photo by Izzy Olgaard '18

Abby Wambach’s speech on the nuances of leadership and achievement drew more than 800 students and staff. 


Over 800 students and members of the Mount Holyoke community packed into Chapin Auditorium last Thursday to hear two-time soccer Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach’s speech, “Beyond the Win: Leadership for Life.”

 The talk was the first in the “Imagination” speaker series sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership and was also co-sponsored by the physical education and athletics department. Wambach, a national soccer icon, holds the record for most international goals for men and women. She retired from the U.S. national team in December 2015.

 Weissman Center Director Becky Packard, who opened the event alongside Director of Athletics Lori Hendricks, said Wambach’s activist work with the LGBTQ movement and the fight for gender equality resonates with the mission of Mount Holyoke.

 Hannah Yee ’15, former captain of the soccer team, introduced Wambach not only as an accomplished athlete, but also an activist. 

“What’s special about Abby is the combination of her achievements as a soccer player and her willingness to be fully transparent and accessible in the way she reflects upon herself and her experiences,” Yee said. “Since her retirement, Abby has spoken candidly to the press about the challenges and triumphs of transitioning.”

Wambach called on the audience to engage with their imagination and “try to imagine fighting for something, a position, a job, a career that doesn’t even exist yet, but you know something inside of you is telling you to keep doing what you’re doing.” Wambach went on to say that “we all have the ability to actually create whatever life that we want.”

 Wambach discussed everything from how she made it to the national team to the struggles she experienced after retirement, including substance abuse issues and depression, all of which she dealt with while writing her new memoir, “Forward.”

 During her speech, Wambach openly talked about the DUI she received in April and called it the “best thing in [her] life,” saying she “needed something to wake her up and there’s nothing quite like being woken up to the most publicly shaming thing you could think of.”  

 “I’m here to tell you that you can’t get away with anything. You might be able to cheat on a test. Or you might be able to cheat on your sprints or not do your homework. Or in my case, ignore certain facts about what I was going through. Then they all creep up on you in one way or another,” said Wambach, as she encouraged students to talk more openly about hardships in an effort to create shared experiences. 

As she shared her experiences as a co-captain on the national team, Wambach paid homage to the women who came before her, and recognized her own shortcomings as a leader. She credited the 1999 World Cup won by Mia Hamm and her teammates as having put women’s soccer on the map.

 “I’m not just talking about Mia and the actual team, so many other women before, the Billie Jeans, the other women who worked tirelessly without really ever making anything. Not headlines, not money, not endorsements,” she said. “Very few women got to make a living out of the things we get to do now.”  

One theme of Wambach’s speech was that there are defining moments in each person’s life when the stakes are high, and following through exemplifies courage. Her moment was the goal she scored against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup.

 “I get that most people’s moments aren’t public,” Wambach said, “but if you listen and you look close enough, you might find them. They might be in a child wanting a hug or a friend needing help with something. I think that you put I think that you put people on these pedestals and my World Cup goal is no different than maybe what a friend can give you in that hug.”

 Charlotte Wagner ’17, a forward on the Mount Holyoke field hockey team, praised Wambach’s speech. 

“She is just so unapologetically herself,” Wagner said. “She spoke so passionately about leaving the world a better place than how she found it, and to her I think that means becoming a better person.”  

Wambach also spoke briefly at a pep rally earlier in the day for faculty and their families and held a student leadership seminar with captains of the varsity teams. Wagner rode with Wambach from the event back to the Willits-Hallowell Center.

While some students appreciated Wambach’s off-the-cuff style, others found it off-putting.

“I expected her to have a prepared speech. I thought she sounded disorganized,” said Francis McKane ’17. “I thought her message of ‘equality for everyone’ was basic and underdeveloped. It was clear that she hadn’t prepared to speak at all.”

 Wambach expressed her view of feminism and equality as, “making sure that people from whatever color, whatever gender you identify with, or sexuality you identify with, wherever you are from, whatever religious belief you have, everybody deserves to be treated equally.”

“A friend commented to me that she was getting some white feminist vibes, and I definitely felt a little bit of that as well,” said Corina Willner ‘17. “I’m hoping that while she takes her career further away from soccer and closer to activism, she is able to expand her thoughts and battles to include people of color, and I look forward to that happening.”

 During the Q&A session, Willner asked Wambach what she thought of Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and fellow soccer player Megan Rapinoe taking a knee to protest police brutality during the national anthem. 

“I love this question, because it’s touchy!” Wambach responded. 

“I think what Colin and Megan have been doing, as with many other athletes — they’ve just gotten a lot of publicity for it — is they’re starting a conversation through a safe protest.” 

Wambach continued that she understood why veterans and others might be upset, but that she thought what Kaepernick and Rapinoe were doing was patriotic.

“So do I think what they’re doing is a really touchy subject? Yes,” said Wambach. “But do I respect the hell out of them? You’re damn right I do.” This declaration was followed by enthusiastic applause.

Perhaps the most well-received moment of the evening came when Emet Marwell ’18 told Wambach his story. 

“I’m transgender,” Marwell told Wambach at the beginning of the Q&A session. “I was recruited to play field hockey, and before my first season, I made probably the hardest decision of my life, which was to choose to be myself, and to start hormone therapy, instead of to play. Marwell continued to ask Wambach what trajectory she would like to see in regards to transgender rights in sports.

Before Wambach had a chance to respond, the crowd burst into extended and roaring applause and cheers. Once the applause died down, Wambach said, “You said your name was Emet? I love you.” She went on to say that while progress has been made for trans athletes, it’s really only the beginning.

“I think it’s going to take some time,” Wambach told Marwell. “I’ve gone through an interesting road myself with my sexuality, thinking about what was going 15 years ago, and now with where we’re at in the climate of the LGBTQ community, I’m confident that there will have to be resolution to issues, to what you’re going through, because it’s not fair for you to have to choose. It’s just not, and I want to be an advocate for you.”

   Wambach then admitted, “Hey, by the way? I don’t know everything,” and said that she wants to educate herself more on trans issues and is receptive to hearing from others, so that she can then help educate others.

“Great question,” Wambach concluded, and then added, “and you are a badass!”