Abby Wambach shows some skin

The U.S. National soccer team forward talks about posing in 2012 Body Issue

Updated: July 11, 2012, 12:57 PM ET
By Morty Ain | Photographs: Carlos Serrao

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

What do you want people to know about you?
AW: I'm a confident human being, but my body does not bring my confidence -- it's my heart and my head. Confidence is the most important factor about your body, whether you've got five pounds to lose or 100. If you have the confidence inside, that will exude on the outside, regardless of what your body looks like. Yes, I'm a professional athlete, so I'm more fit than the average person, but I'm also bigger. There are so many different sizes and so many different shapes that you can't compare yourself to another human being. That would be unfair. You can't look at a model or even a professional athlete and think, "Oh, my body isn't as fit," because all you are doing is putting yourself down and not feeling good about yourself.

What was it like growing up as the youngest of seven children?
AW: [My siblings] think that I was babied; I thought I was beaten up and tortured. But the truth is that having so many other people to watch and observe taught me a lot of life lessons at a young age. I learned a lot through their failures and successes. I am a mixture of all my brothers and sisters. In some ways, I've been training my entire life to be a professional athlete. When I was 6, my siblings would throw hockey pads on me, send me into the goal and fire slap shots at me. At first you're frightened, but after you realize the pad does all the work, it's not a big deal. At a young age, I was developing not only physical fortitude but also the mental toughness to deal with crazy situations. But I was never really terrified because I was an adventurous kid. When I was 2, my mom found me on top of our van because I had crawled up there and was just hanging out.

What was your parents' attitude toward sports?
AW: My mom would just say, "Go outside and play." With seven kids, I'm sure she didn't have much personal time, and she wanted her kids to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. We weren't allowed to come back inside. Nowadays, parents are so much pickier about where their kids spend their time. But that was a time when you could just send your kids outside.

What do you like about your body?
AW: That's a really interesting question, especially for a female athlete, because there's so much emphasis on the way your body looks. I am a firm believer that if you feel good and you are happy and you are doing all the things you need to on a daily basis -- whether it be for your profession or as a professional athlete -- you are going to be more comfortable in your skin. I've always felt comfortable in my skin, whether it was as muscular as it is now or when I was in college and carrying that "freshman 15." Male athletes have it easier in terms of their body fat percentage. Female athletes are a little different. We are getting into a time when female athletes are looking uberfit, but I'm a different body. I'm a bigger woman, I have bigger muscles, and that's okay because I need to have bigger muscles. For me, more muscle gives me more power and speed, and that's better.

When you play soccer, you are going to get cut, you are going to get bruised. If stitches have to happen, if staples have to come, that's just part of the game -- just take it.

What challenges do you face with your body?
AW: The body is always evolving. Some of my teammates who are getting older will say, "Gosh, I can't get rid of this little bit of fat on my rear end. Usually, it goes away after we start training, but it's getting a lot more difficult." That's the truth. It's a battle because your body is always changing. My challenge with my body is my weight fluctuating. I like to put on weight in the offseason because sometimes during the season you can be riding too low on fat stores and energy levels. So the challenge for me is the time frame to lose that and get back into my peak fitness. It's also ironic that you have to expend a lot of energy exercising in order to gain energy in your daily life. When you don't exercise, it's harder to get motivated, it's harder to get excited.

How does diet play a role in your fitness?
AW: My diet plays a huge role in the way I look at my fitness. I come from three square meals a day, meat and potatoes, always a dessert after dinner -- that kind of thing. Then in college, you tend to eat more than you should, eat things you shouldn't, drink more than you should. After college I realized I really wanted to dedicate myself to this sport and try to do everything I could to be the best I could be. I stopped drinking Coke as much and started eating healthier. Learning how to cook things that taste good was an important shift for me. Now I love to cook. I love cooking good, healthy meals.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
AW: I would be lying if I told you that I wasn't a little bit skeptical of showing my body to the world. But for the most part, I've always been confident in the way my body looks just because I've always been comfortable in my skin. There are so many factors that are out of your control: different shapes, sizes, heights, weights, where you store fat. But there are also many factors that are in our control, such as nutrition and exercise, and for the most part I've been pretty comfortable with who I am and with the body I've been given. Having four older brothers and two elder sisters is a huge factor in that. They would never let me win, so I've been very competitive my entire life, and that brought on a sense of confidence because I was successful in sports. I also went to an all-girls high school, and I wasn't worrying about what I wore because we had uniforms. I wasn't competing for a look, I wasn't trying to be the prettiest; I was trying to develop my strength and confidence.

What's the most difficult thing you put your body through?
AW: Any sort of sprints. When I'm fit, it's hard to get my heart rate into the fit zone, as we call it, so any time you are getting your heart rate into that area it's pain. Usually the better professional athletes are the ones who can deal with that kind of pain better than others. But our coaching staff likes to get that fitness through playing. So we do interval training work, where we have a high-intensity work rate for four minutes, then two minutes off. It's fun because you are playing -- you aren't on the line sprinting.

What's an exercise or training activity you can't live without?
AW: I would say I have a stronger upper body, and I like to torque my arms out in the gym, so I would say something on that front. As soccer players, we run so much that when you get into the gym, you do maintenance and work on the other parts of your body that you don't work when you're on the field.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any further?
AW: The beauty of being in a team environment is you don't get the opportunity to say "I can't train anymore," because the person next to you motivates you to push yourself a little harder. She is probably feeling the same thing you are, and it's a matter of whether you are capable and mentally strong enough to do more than you think you can. That's what makes champions. That's the culture of our team.

Do you think there's a misperception about the physicality of soccer?
AW: The way I play the game is physical! I want to get into a physical battle with the defender. I want to go one-on-one because I believe not only in my strength but also in my skill and ability to beat my defender. When you play soccer, you are going to get cut, you are going to get bruised and maybe even break your leg. In the game of soccer, you put your body under so much pressure and so much stress that pain is common. That's where we live -- within a pain world. You are always struggling and running hard. So if stitches have to happen, if staples have to come, that's just part of the game -- just take it.

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