It was late Sunday night, and Abby Wambach was boarding a plane in Vancouver with the rest of her teammates on the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Wambach, the team’s star striker, had just scored two goals against Canada, becoming the second all-time leading scorer in women’s international soccer, and the U.S. had concluded the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament with a 4-0 victory.
The mood on the plane was joyous. Until the emails started pouring in. Wambach and the rest of the players were being notified that the Women’s Professional League was suspending operations for 2012.
“It’s been a tough week,” Wambach said Friday, standing outside a hotel ballroom at the Sheraton Crown Center.
As Wambach recounted the story, a crowd of high school girls formed a few dozen feet away. They were all here for the 18th Annual Win for KC Women’s Sports Awards Celebration, where Wambach would serve as the keynote speaker. The theme of the day was “Be the Inspiration,” and Wambach noted that it was fitting.
The story of women’s soccer in America has been one of euphoric highs and devastating lows, she said, and the canceling of the WPS season was just another reason to think back to her predecessors — the pioneers of the sport — and reach for more inspiration.
“It’s so hard because you’ve worked so many days, so many hours to try to solidify a professional league,” Wambach said. “It just means that we have to work harder. We have to mobilize more people; we have to get more sponsors involved. And as a national team, we think that bringing home a gold medal (this summer at the Olympics in London) will do just that.”
Wambach invoked the same passion during her 20-minute address to a crowd of 1,400 at the luncheon. She talked about growing up near Rochester, N.Y., as the youngest of seven kids, motivated by her older siblings. She encouraged the young girls in the audience to not specialize in one sport, saying that her days playing youth basketball were one reason she became so dangerous in the air on the soccer field. But mostly, she asked the women in the audience to continue the good fight.
“This event has felt different to me than any other ever that I’ve been to,” said Wambach, who also spent part of her day speaking to students at St. Teresa’s Academy. “…This event feels like almost everybody in the room has had some sort of hand in the growth of women’s sport.”
Also at the luncheon was Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who has made it a habit of attending, as well as a collection of state championship high school teams from throughout the Kansas City area.
And once lunch was served, the parade of award winners began. The Evelyn Gates Award Committee — including Melinda Minks, Maureen Dahnke, Dianne Schmidt and Betty Seale — accepted the BKD WOW Award; Monica Steiner, an Olathe woman who has battled Stage IV breast cancer, received the DST Systems Adversity Award; Judy Swofford of Prairie Village took home the UMB Senior Sportswoman Award; Kelly Pfannenstiel of Olathe received the Hallmark Cards Outstanding Mentor Award; Beth Savidge of Independence received the Sprint Spirit Award; and finally, Frances Neunuebel, a sophomore at St. Teresa’s who battled brain cancer before returning to compete in equestrian and golf, won the Price Chopper Youth Sports Girl Award.
“I’ve heard the stories, and by these stories, I feel inspired,” Wambach said. “It really does inspire me to push myself even harder. When you get to go to different places around the country … and actually have a conversation with somebody who is in the dogfight, like we all are, it feels like we all are a community.”