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Abby's Back from Her 'Break'

If you were in the stadium or watching on TV, it was not a scene you will soon forget. U.S. forward Abby Wambach twisted awkwardly on the turf after a thunderous collision with Brazilian defender Andreia Rosa during the USA’s final Olympic tune-up match on July 16, 2008.

Any Wambach fan knows the U.S. forward has taken more than a tumble or two during her career. When Wambach is playing, bodies always seem to be flying and collisions just seem to gravitate toward her, whether initiated by frustrated defenders or by Wambach herself. But she has always risen to her feet, adjusted her jersey and gotten back to work.

This time it was different. You could sense something was seriously wrong.

A strange hush came over the crowd at Torero Stadium in San Diego. Fans put their heads in their hands. Her teammates were visibly shaken. Medical personnel rushed out to the field.

It soon became clear that everyone’s worst fears had been realized. Wambach had broken the two major bones in her lower left leg. Tibia and fibula, snapped’em both. The leg was immobilized, and she was wheeled off the field and into a waiting ambulance that rushed her to the hospital.

Her Olympics were over.

Strangely, the two people in the stadium who seemed most at ease during those tense moments were the two people who are probably most happy to see Wambach back in a national team jersey.

That would be U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, and Wambach herself.

Sundhage, sensing the potential psychological blow to a team that had just lost its top scorer and emotional leader to a gruesome injury, knew that her body language would speak volumes. She knew that in order to win a gold medal, the team would have to move on … and fast. While she felt extreme empathy for her fallen star, she realized that in order to have success in China, the U.S. would have to look immediately forward and not be bogged down with the “what ifs” of the past. Sundhage was calm and collected, sending on Angela Hucles for Wambach and later inserting Natasha Kai while urging her team to a 1-0 win on a header with five minutes left from the Flyin' Hawaiian.

“Pia and I have a special relationship,” said Wambach, just days after surgery to insert a titanium rod in her leg. “Off the field is more important than on the field. I think she felt for me on a personal level, aside from being the head coach of my team, that she was just upset for me. It was so honest and so truthful. [She came to my house] and we sat and talked for a while. She’s a realistic person. She knows that it was an accident that may never be explained. You just have to live with it and deal with it. She is great. She isn’t going to feel sorry for me but she sure feels for me. I appreciate that.”

Now, 10 months after the injury, Sundhage will get her star striker back as the USA faces Canada on May 25 at BMO Field in Toronto. The match will be broadcast live on Fox Soccer Channel at 7 p.m. ET.

“I am very happy to have Abby back. It is wonderful,” said Sundhage. “Abby is a character and a great person to have in a team. On the field, she has a heading presence that is world class and she is a threat from anywhere, with both feet, with her head, inside the penalty area and outside. She will make a difference for our team. She has always been a winner, but the fact that she got injured 55 minutes before the Olympics is a guarantee that she will do her best every day because she wants the gold in the World Cup in two years.”
One of the more remarkable facets of the groundswell of support after Wambach’s injury was the collective amazement at how calm she was on that infamous evening. How she kept a serene look on her face. How she gave a thumbs up sign to the crowd as she was wheeled off the field on a gurney, the worst way for any athlete to leave a field.

“I realized and accepted in that moment that my Olympic dreams were not going to be what I had planned,” said Wambach a few days after the injury. “This was a deep down acceptance of my reality. A lot of the times when you freak out about stuff, it’s when you are more unsure of reality. It was an all-encompassing moment. I wasn’t freaked out.

“A lot has to do with my experience with this team and my competitiveness. I surely didn’t want to affect the competitiveness on the field. I know what it takes to win a gold medal, and I know that one person isn’t going to be the answer. I wanted to set the example for my teammates, for them to see on my face, that whether or not I’m on the field, no matter who we’re playing, that we can win on any given day. I guess I am proud of the way I reacted because it was truly the way I felt. I was only scared because I had never experienced that before or ridden in an ambulance. The most important thing at that moment was winning the game and showing my teammates by example that they have to lean on each other a little bit more to get that gold medal.”

Of course, the match against Canada will not be Wambach’s return to competitive soccer. She trained sparingly with the U.S. team last January during a camp at The Home Depot Center when she was just putting the cleats back on and has been going full bore with the Washington Freedom in WPS, going the full 90 in five matches while scoring two goals with two assists.

She credits that January camp with igniting a competitive flame that had dimmed just a bit, and also giving her an excellent test for her healing leg, ensuring that she did not push her recovery too fast. She was also able to sit on the bench through quite a few trainings and squad games, which allowed her to see things from a different perspective.

“Watching from the sidelines, you see things you can do to help the team on the field and you see things that others can do to help,” said Wambach. “It’s harder to see those things when you are playing, harder to see how the breakdowns happen, but watching helped me become aware of things we can do to work towards getting better.”

She will finally get that chance to do that work, 313 long days after her injury,  when she pulls on the national team jersey against Canada. It is something she is looking forward to immensely.

“Obviously, I am so excited to play in a match against another international team,” said Wambach. “Getting back on the field together is also going to be different. We’ve all been in the WPS with different teams playing different roles. Now getting to play with each other again, we’ll appreciate playing for the national team more because the chances are fewer with the league. It will be great to get back on the field and play again.”

It took a lot of hard, painful and lonely rehabilitation to get back to where she is now physically, and while Wambach doesn’t feel she’s in her pre-Olympic form yet, she says she’s making strides. During her two-goal performance against FC Gold Pride a few weeks ago, she started to feel like the Abby pre-July 16, 2008.

“Perhaps a few games before (the FC Gold Pride match), I started to react quicker and feel a bit better out there,” said Wambach. “When you take so much time off having to recover from injury, the muscle fibers don’t react as quickly and you just feel slow. So, a couple of games into the season, I started reacting and responding like I used to. I still feel like I have more to go. My muscles got a little bit of a break while I was out, so now I feel stronger and pretty fit. It’s just about getting more comfortable. They say the leg is going to feel a little different for a few years so it’s just about getting used to it.”

Before Wambach’s injury, one of the USA’s big question heading into the Olympics was who would pair with her with on the forward line. After Wambach went down, Sundhage tweaked the USA’s attacking style, inserting Hucles as a withdrawn forward while Amy Rodriguez nudged past Kai into the starting lineup. History will show that the combination worked very well in China. Now, provided Wambach earns back her starting spot, the question looms large again.

“Pia is obviously a woman with plans,” said Wambach. “She has a plan in her head and she wants it to fall into place as it should. The expectations of where we will be for qualifying and then hopefully when we go to Germany for the World Cup are obviously not the same right now. It’s a process. I don’t know what formation we will be playing. We will have new personnel and a different dynamic. Things are totally different now. It’s a slow process, but we have to take advantage of the time we do have together as obviously it is less than we’ve had in the past.”

Perhaps overshadowed by Wambach’s return is that she comes back sitting on 99 career goals in 127 caps. She had several chances for her 100th before the injury, but now that historic goal seems even more of a gift. It could be the conclusion to an emotional return for a player whose career has been defined by big plays and big goals.

“I just want to get out there, put a jersey on and play,” said Wambach. “If and when that goal does happen, I’ll be thrilled about it. At this point, I have confidence that it will eventually happen, but when, I don’t know. The sooner the better, I think.”

It goes without saying that her teammates are happy to have her and her 99 goals back in the side.

“We’re super pumped to have her back because she adds such good vocal leadership and leads by example,” said U.S. midfielder Heather O’Reilly. “She is always playing with heart and passion and that is something that really makes the team better. Quite honestly, she has a presence that is really missed when the team is without her.”

But what does Wambach think of the team that without her, won the Olympic gold medal? With the vision of a soothsayer, or perhaps someone with supreme confidence in her teammates, she had this to say before the team left for China, foreshadowing the USA’s run to golden glory in Beijing.

“It’s going to be important not to forget about this team just because one player has gone down,” said Wambach on the eve of the USA’s departure for China. “This team is special. I am a component of this team. I am a moving part of this team, but I do not encapsulate this whole team. With the missing parts, the bus moves a little bit differently but there’s no doubt that this team can win a gold medal. They have to play with passion and ultimately with honor. This can happen with this team. You just have to open your eyes. I will be proud to see them win a gold medal. I am going to be fine, this team is going to be fine and I hope that our team can bring home gold for this country.”

They did bring home the gold. And now she is fine. And that means the start of another journey, this one in pursuit of another world title at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.