AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File

Abby Wambach: The Greatest Florida Gator You Never Think Of

The Florida Gators' history is absolutely littered with amazing athletes. Many of these legends begin their iconic careers the minute they step on the University of Florida's campus in Gainesville, Florida.

Few college athletes accomplished what Gator great Tim Tebow did on the field, and some would consider him the best college quarterback of all time. Emmitt Smith starred at UF before finishing his NFL career as the league's all-time leading rusher. Outside of football though, and on the women's side of UF athletics, the Gators have produced Olympians, WNBA stars, professional softball top picks and so much more.

I guess you can chalk that up as the Gator standard.

Maybe no athlete to don the orange and blue stacks up against Abby Wambach. She is a decorated Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women's World Cup champion, NCAA national champion and considered the greatest American soccer player ever, male or female.

When Mary Abigail Wambach was a senior at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Rochester, New York, she was considered the top recruit of the 1997 class. At 5-foot-11, the imposing forward was a prolific scorer with bionic leg strength and a patented header to pair it with.

Florida's women's soccer team was infant-like at the time. Despite the program's first season coming in the fall of 1995, head coach Becky Burleigh found success quickly. UF went 56-10-3 over its first three seasons, winning the SEC Tournament and earning NCAA Tournament berths in '96 and '97.

Wambach could've chosen from a number of elite programs with a proven history of winning. The University of North Carolina, UCLA, the University of Portland and the University of Virginia all would've taken her in a heartbeat.

No thanks. Wambach wanted a challenge. She wanted to help build a program and win its first ever national championship. She chose Florida and the rest is history.

Abby Wambach's Florida Gators

As a freshman in 1998, Wambach helped lead the Gators to their first ever national championship over North Carolina. She won SEC Freshman of the Year and turned Florida into a powerhouse while she was there.

Wambach became a soccer star at University of Florida, where she piled up the accolades and school records:

  • SEC Freshman of the Year (1998)
  • Freshman All-American (1998)
  • First-Team All-SEC (1998-01)
  • Two-Time SEC Player of the Year (2000, 2001)
  • SEC Tournament MVP (2000, 2001)
  • First-Team All-American (1999-01)
  • UF Athletic Hall of Fame (2012)
  • UF career records for goals (96), assists (50), points (242), game-winning goals (24) and hat tricks (10)

Abby Wambach deserves a freakin' 50-foot statute outside Donald R. Dizney Stadium, where the Gators play their matches. But the reason her name carries so much weight is also because of her professional, international and Olympic career.

USWNT and International Career 

Wambach has had a storied career with the United States women's national soccer team that is arguably the greatest of all time across men's and women's soccer history.

The stat that matters: She scored 184 goals in 255 appearances for the USWNT, which is a world record for goals scored at the international level. She surpassed Mia Hamm's mark of 158 on June 20, 2013 with a hat trick in a friendly against South Korea. Canada's Christine Sinclair trails behind Wambach with 182.

Of course, the world's leading scorer has won plenty of medals and trophies over her playing days with the U.S. women's national team.

Wamabach earned two Olympic gold medals (Athens 2004, London 2012), won one FIFA Women's World Cup (2015) and was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year six times (2003-04, 2007, 2010-11, 2013) by the U.S. Soccer Federation and FIFA World Player of the Year in 2012.

Renown for her physicality, strength and uncanny ability to head balls into the back of nets, Wambach put together an impressive highlight reel over her career.

One of her most memorable plays was a header on a cross from Megan Rapinoe in the 122nd minute of a quarterfinal match against Brazil in 2011 that tied the game up. The U.S. women's soccer team went on to win in penalty kicks.

The amazing and unlikely last-minute goal won the 2011 ESPY Award for Best Play. Sports Illustrated ranked it No. 9 on the 10 most significant goals in U.S. soccer history. She also won the Bronze Boot and Silver Ball at that year's World Cup. In addition, she became the first ever soccer player to earn the Associated Press Athlete of the Year award.

Considering her impressive international resume, it's no wonder Wambach has deals with Nike, Gatorade and Panasonic, among others.

Club Soccer Career

Wambach played in three different professional leagues. The first was with the Washington Freedom in the Women's United Soccer Association from 2002-03, when she teamed up with another American icon: Mia Hamm.

After the WUSA folded, the Women's Professional Soccer league was formed. Wambach stayed with the Washington Freedom, which relocated to Boca Raton, Florida, and was renamed the magicJack in 2011. Wambach not only played for the team but managed it as well.

Wambach's final professional stint came in the National Women's Soccer League with the Western New York Flash from 2013-14. She scored 75 career goals in 119 appearances across her club career.

Social and Political Stances

Part of what makes Wambach an incredible athlete and person is that she's always stood up for what she believes in.

Of course, she's human. She makes mistakes. In April of 2016 she was arrested for driving under the influence of intoxicants. Later that year she wrote about her longtime struggle with prescription drugs and alcohol dating back to her college days. She goes in to more detail about it in ESPN Films' Abby Head On.

"That night getting arrested was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Because if I don't get so publicly shamed and publicly humiliated, I don't think I wake up," she said as she prepared for a book tour. "I think I was asleep for a lot of years. Asleep to the pleas from my family and friends, and even myself, to get help. So that night I was humiliated enough to wake up."

Wambach, who has been married to two women, Sarah Huffman and Glennon Doyle Melton, has been very vocal about eliminating homophobia and transphobia in sports and joined Athlete Ally as an ambassador in 2013 to further that message. Why? For example, a group of teens stole her truck from her home in Naples, Florida and wrote hate speech on it in 2018, per the Miami Herald.

She also avidly supported Hillary Clinton in the 2020 Presidential Election and attended numerous campaign events.

Wambach's life story is one anyone can appreciate, Gator fan or not. That's why her autobiography, Forward, was a New York Times bestseller in 2016.

A natural competitor, she won championships at every level she played at and nobly helped put Florida's women's soccer program on the map before becoming the greatest women's soccer player to ever step on a field.

Players like Tebow, Smith, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel are often thought of as a few of the greatest UF athletes of all time, but not one of them has accomplished as much as soccer star Abby Wambach has in their respective sport.

For that, Gator Nation says thank you, Abby.

Read more University of Florida coverage here.