BOYDS, Md. (AP) – Abby Wambach was still in the ambulance, the morphine easing the pain from her broken leg, when she got a call phone from her hero, mentor and friend Mia Hamm.

The conversation – between the most prolific international goal-scorer of all time and the person would could very well take over that title someday – began like something from the theater of the absurd.

“She said, ‘What are you doing, why are you picking up?”‘ Wambach said. “I’m like, ‘Why are you calling me if you didn’t want to talk?”‘

As they shared information about the injury, Hamm was as devastated as Wambach. The fracture, from a collision with a Brazilian player during an exhibition game on July 16, would keep the United States’ most powerful scoring threat out of the women’s soccer tournament at the Beijing Olympics.

“She knew what an impact I would be,” Wambach said, “and she knew how difficult it was going to be.”

Hamm, who lives only 10 minutes from Wambach in Southern California, would bring her twins over to Wambach’s house as a sort of divert-your-mind therapy. Wambach watched every minute of every game on television, occasionally yelling at the screen as her teammates won the gold.

Wambach also chilled out. She played the guitar, read a lot and went surfing once her leg would permit it. The downtime led to a realization: Before the injury, she had worn herself to a perfection-driven frazzle trying to be The Next Mia Hamm.

“I definitely did a lot of soul searching,” Wambach said. “Why did I break my leg? Why the timing? Why then? I think I really need to consider what this game meant to me and why I played it. I was stressed during that time going into the Olympics, and that’s not what brings the best out of me. I couldn’t show it to anybody. I didn’t want anybody to know – and that’s the game. It’s a really big mind game when you’re going into a world event like that. It’s comical how stressed I was, because then I’m laying on my couch with a broken leg, I’m like, ‘Why was I even thinking about being so stressed? It’s a game.’

“And so when they won, it was even more calming to me, like, ‘I’m really not all that important.’ Of course I am, but I’m not the end-all and be-all.”

Wambach returned to the practice field this month at the wind-swept facilities of the Maryland SoccerPlex in the far-out suburbs of the nation’s capital, practicing with her new-old team, the Washington Freedom. Wambach played for the Freedom during the three-year run of the WUSA, and she is back with the franchise again for the launch of the new Women’s Professional Soccer league, which debuts when Washington plays the Los Angeles Sol on Sunday.

“I personally think that (the injury) is going to extend my career five years longer,” Wambach said. “First of all, getting eight months rest for your muscles and your joints and your body, and then the mental thing where if I was stressed like that and we kept winning, I would have stayed that stressed. I wouldn’t have been able to really detach myself from playing.”

Not that Wambach looks any different on the field. She is still big, strong, powerful and agile – a nightmare for any defender. Off the field, she is still a goofball who has yet to meet a practical joke she doesn’t like, yet also a person who speaks her mind as a budding humanitarian and philanthropist. She was one of nine American athletes the Chinese listed as potential troublemakers during the run-up to the Olympics.

So, yes, Wambach is still living life 100 miles per hour.

“Now she’s going 100 miles per hour – but she knows where she’s going,” said Briana Scurry, the longtime U.S. national team goalkeeper and Wambach’s teammate with the Freedom.

Wambach is Exhibit A why the U.S. needs a topflight league to support its Olympic and World Cup teams. She was a bundle of nerves during her first camps with the U.S. team eight years ago, but her games with the Freedom – with Hamm as a teammate – allowed her to showcase her talent and win the confidence of then-coach April Heinrichs.

Wambach has 99 goals in 127 games in international play – an outstanding scoring rate – as well as a gold medal from the 2004 Olympics in Greece. At age 28, she’s well within striking distance of the world record of 158 goals set by Hamm, who retired after the Athens Games.

Oddly enough, the new league could hinder Wambach’s chances of reaching the record because the national team will play fewer games to accommodate the WPS schedule. Also, Germany’s Birgit Prinz (122 goals at age 31) could overtake Hamm first.

Right now, however, Wambach’s priorities are the Freedom and the new league, which both have more modest budgets and expectations than the failed WUSA. Even so, leagues need stars, and she knows that’s a role she’s expected to fill.

“I was clueless six years ago when I first got to the Washington Freedom,” Wambach said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s just totally different. I feel confident. The things that I’ve learn the past six years will really help this team, and really the league. I’m in more of a leadership role and a role where you set the standard, so how I train, how I play, the mistakes that I make, how I present myself, it all makes a difference.”


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