U.S. forward Abby Wambach has been named the Associated Press 2011 Female Athlete of the Year.
Wambach’s inspirational leadership and goal scoring helped the Americans to the cusp of the World Cup championship this past summer, capturing the hearts and minds of the American public along the way during the team’s dramatic run in Germany.
The award, selected by members of The Associated Press, saw the 5-foot-11 striker receive 65 of the 214 votes cast, while teammate Hope Solo (38) was a distant second, and UConn basketball star Maya Moore (35) was third.
Wambach is the first individual soccer player – man or woman – to win one of the AP’s annual sports awards, which began in 1931. The entire U.S. Women’s National Team won the award in 1999 when their World Cup triumph at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., transfixed the nation.
“We, as a team, did something that no team since Mia Hamm was able to do,” Wambach told the AP. “Even the team that won the (Olympic) gold medal in 2008 wasn’t able to inspire and get people excited about women’s soccer. It goes to show you the impact drama can bring.”
Wambach scored four goals during the Women’s World Cup this past summer, including a goal in each of the USA’s knockout games, tallying famously against Brazil in the quarterfinal, against France in the semifinal and against Japan in the final. She was also the only player to convert in both of the USA’s penalty kick shootouts.
Those four scores gave her 13 Women’s World Cup goals for her career, pushing her past the legendary Michelle Akers and into third on the all-time World Cup scoring list, behind Brazil’s Marta and Germany’s Birgit Prinz. The 31-year-old Wambach sits third all-time on the U.S. career goal scoring list with 125 goals, trailing only Mia Hamm (158) and Kristine Lilly (130).
Wambach’s dramatic equalizing goal in the dying moments of overtime against Brazil in the quarterfinal off a cross from Megan Rapinoe will go down as one of the greatest moments in women’s soccer history, made ever more impactful by the fact that the U.S. team played a woman down for more than 60 minutes. It was the latest goal ever scored in a FIFA competition, coming in the 122 nd minute.
“It just seemed surreal,” Wambach told AP. “Even in the moment, I was feeling like it was a dream because we were so against the ropes, and everything was poining to us going down that day. But there was something inside of us that wasn’t going to allow that to happen. We weren’t quite ready to give up.”
Wambach and her teammates have had little time to look back on the past, however, as qualifying for the 2012 Olympics is coming up fast in January. The U.S. team ends its training camp today in Los Angeles and will go on a holiday break. The team will come together again in early January for a week-long training camp before U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage names a 20-player roster for the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Women’s Qualifying tournament taking place in Vancouver, Canada, from Jan. 19-29. The eight-team tournament will produce this region’s two qualifiers for the London Olympics.