IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT at the Olympic Center Stadium in Tianjin, China, and U.S. forward Abby Wambach is getting ready to do one of the things she does best: talk. Chen Gong—a young Women's World Cup volunteer assigned by FIFA to take down everything Wambach says—stands by, pen at the ready, blissfully unaware of the raging case of writer's cramp that awaits her. Wambach takes one last swig of Gatorade and then she's off. � First up is a pack of American reporters. She talks to them about the goal she scored 90 minutes earlier in a 3--0 win over England in the quarterfinals that helped the U.S. advance to face Brazil this Thursday. (It was the 81st time she's scored in her 100 national-team appearances.) Then she chats with a couple of British scribes about England's future (bright) and that team's star striker, Kelly Smith (comparable to Ronaldinho). As Wambach wades through more reporters—Chen trailing, a la Lloyd from Entourage—the rest of her teammates have made their way to the bus. Still, she happily speaks to the BBC about the elbow that bloodied the nose of England defender Faye White (an accident). Last up, finally, are TV teams from Sweden and Singapore.
You name it, the 27-year-old Wambach can expound upon it. In 2003 her U.S. teammates gave her a shirt that read HELP, I'M TALKING AND I CAN'T SHUT UP. A young player on a team full of Cup-winning veterans ( Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain), Wambach was unable to adhere to the don't-speak-until-spoken-to code most newbies follow. "Whatever comes into my mind comes out of my mouth," she says. "It's one of my least favorite traits and one of my most favorite traits."
On the field it's not Wambach's mouth that draws attention. At 5'11", 161 pounds she dwarfs most defenders. Relying on her size advantage, she set scoring records in high school and at Florida. But when she got to the WUSA in 2002 she realized that she'd need to do more than throw her weight around. Playing alongside Hamm on the Washington Freedom, Wambach learned to read the game and discovered the importance of being in shape. "A lot of times she is physically stronger, but it's never that easy for Abby," says U.S. forward Heather O'Reilly. "She's always trying to investigate what's going to make it better. She just solves things."
Of course there are always going to be those who fall back on the phrase bull in a china shop when describing Wambach. "If people think [of me like] that, then I have a serious advantage," she says. "Besides, my feeling is, Who wins in a bull-and-a-china-shop fight, right? So I have good odds." Need proof that she's no one-trick bull? In four matches in China, Wambach has scored four times: once with her right foot, once with her left foot, once with her head and once from the penalty spot. The left footer, in a 2--0 win over Sweden, was one of the prettiest goals of this year's World Cup. She outran two defenders, chested a perfect cross from the captain, Lilly, and in one motion lashed a wicked half-volley into the back of the net. In U.S. history only Michelle Akers scored more times (90) in her first 100 matches.
Wambach's development as a player has coincided with her off-field maturation. Sure, she'll still get down on all fours behind a teammate to trip her up, and she's as chatty as ever. But she likes to talk about more substantive topics, like famine, HIV and genocide in Africa. Even her T-shirt collection has taken on a more serious tone. In the team handbook the U.S. put out before its trip to China, Wambach is pictured with one that says SAVE DARFUR. "I'm the youngest of seven, so I've had to understand a ton of different viewpoints on issues," says Wambach, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y. "I also learned that there was always somebody who wasn't able to speak up in the conversation. It's important that everyone is heard." In the fall of 2005 Wambach spent 10 days in Africa with Right to Play, an organization that uses sports to teach poor kids. Her Thanksgiving dinner, enjoyed at a Nairobi, Kenya, airport, was an energy bar.
Another cause Wambach holds dear is making sure that the trailblazing players who gave her that shirt in 2003 get their props—especially the 36-year-old Lilly, who is two victories from becoming the first woman to win three World Cups. "Even on this team it's hard for some people to conceive that the reason they're here is players like Lil, who played for $5 a day and stayed in crappy hotels," says Wambach. "I have the life I have because of Lil. I would literally run through a wall if you told me on the other side was a World Cup championship, because Lil deserves that."
If Wambach keeps playing the way she has in the first four games, running through a wall shouldn't be necessary. But if it is, she'll oblige. She can still be a bull when she has to.