Soccer Star Abby Wambach Turns Rallying Commencement Speech Into New Book, 'Wolfpack'

Apr 20, 2019
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Abby Wambach was a major soccer star - two Olympic gold medals, the all-time highest goal score among women and men internationally, global recognition. But when Barnard College, the all-women's school in New York City, asked her to give its commencement address last year, she felt underqualified. So she poured her heart into her speech and decided to turn it into a rallying cry for women.

That hard work paid off. Her speech went viral, and she's now turned it into a book about leadership for people everywhere. It's called "WOLFPACK: How To Come Together, Unleash Our Power, And Change The Game." Abby Wambach is with us from Colorado Public Radio to talk about some of the leadership lessons in her new book.

Abby, welcome to the show.

ABBY WAMBACH: Wow. That was that was maybe the best introduction that I've gotten...

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

WAMBACH: ...Over the last couple weeks being on the road with this. So can I take you with me everywhere I go now, Sacha?

PFEIFFER: We're glad to hear that. Thank you for that. So you actually start your book with a note to readers. It's about a company that was hiring you to teach leadership. And the man you were talking with told you he wanted to make sure that your presentation was also applicable to men. You had a sassy reply. Would you tell our listeners how you responded to him?

WAMBACH: Yeah. I said, good question, but only if you ask that of other male speakers for the women that will be in the audience. You know, and I think that - the reason why I wanted to start the book off with this specific anecdote is because I have to bring light to some of the micro-aggressions or insidious things that men say that women have to take and eat and store away.

And, you know, this is also part of the book, where I'm inviting men into this solution, into this conversation. Because I don't believe myself to be this righteous feminist who doesn't - and is male-hating. Like, I actually really think that men have to be a part of the solution for us to create the change that we want to see in the world. And so this is kind of my invitation. And a way to draw men into this conversation is to kind of showcase an instance that has happened to women so often.

PFEIFFER: A constant theme is the book is that leadership has no universal form. You can lead from wherever you are in life. And you give an example near the end of your career. It's your final season on the U.S. women's national soccer team. You're no longer a starter. That could feel really devastating. But you realized you can lead from the bench. I love that idea - lead from the bench. Can you talk about that a little?

WAMBACH: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think everybody knows what it feels like to be benched. And I think that we have to acknowledge the fact that we're human beings, and that's going to hurt. So you're allowed to be disappointed. But what you're not allowed to do is to miss your opportunity to lead from the bench.

You know, in 2015, I came off the bench for our Women's National Team and my final World Cup. We ended up winning this World Cup, and I think that there was a reason. And it wasn't just because of the players on the field - it was because of the support that they were given by those players that were sitting on the bench and that came off the bench to close out those games.

You know, it's not easy. Like, I have children, and I see the feelings that run through them when they aren't starting. But I also have to get my children aware of what they're doing in their body language and their response to that benching, what that can do to the collective because, at the end of the day, we have to figure out, we have to decide if you and your ego mean more than the group's win, than the collective success of everyone else, whether it's being left off a project or not given the raise or not getting the - not got the job. Or you're at home, and you're nursing your child, and you're home on maternity leave and fearing that your colleagues are getting ahead.

There's so many different versions of what it means to be benched. And I can safely say that I wouldn't have learned the full context of what really true leadership is about until I had the opportunity to lead from the bench.

PFEIFFER: You write about how after you retired, your greatest loss was losing your team, your teammates. That was so important to you. And at a certain point, you had taken a break from physical activity. You were trying to get back into running. It was really hard. And your wife pointed out to you, well, you've lost your team. You're trying to do it alone. So you have a lesson that says, find your pack. I like that, too. Tell us what you mean by that. How do you find a pack?

WAMBACH: Our Women's National Team has been so successful over decades since the beginning of the creation of the team, right? And all of these women - we all think that we're the best in the world. Rightfully so - but you can imagine that environment and the standards and the competition and the challenge and the demanding aspects of it. So, having lived inside of this little ecosystem for so many years, I became so accustomed to having those around me push me to become my best self.

So I took a few years off, and I got super unfit, but I needed - my body needed a complete reset. So I started running again, and this whole thing - like, I hate running. I hate every step of it. And I would come home, and I would complain. And eventually, my wife was, like, look - like, you don't have your teammates around you.

And it dawned on me - like, wow. Oh, OK. I see how this works. Suffering and joy is made so much better when you get to do it with people around you that see your best self and hold you to that account.

PFEIFFER: It's common for professional athletes after they retire to feel like they've lost their identity. What have you done to kind of rebuild who you are? Do you feel like you have an identity again after your pro career?

WAMBACH: You know, that's a really great question. Our book hit No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list on Wednesday. And here I am having written this book and stepping into a different version of, you know, women's rights feminist icon. And it's something I'm really proud of because I had to really educate myself on what I believe to be true.

And so I - I don't know. I think that recreating a person's identity is happening on the daily. And I - for me - I want to keep breaking free from all of these identities and get down to that last one, which is human. And I hope that people out there feel the same way because we are all the same matter.

PFEIFFER: That soccer star Abby Wambach.

Abby, thank you.

WAMBACH: Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.