-- She has been hung from a doorknob by her underwear. She was regularly outfitted with goalie pads, stuck in net for roller hockey games in the driveway, and fired upon. "Stand here for a little bit," she recalls her big brothers and sisters saying. "We're going to take some slap shots at you."
"Okay," Abby Wambach would respond, and clamp her teeth together. Thud. Thud. Thud again. She would stand there, and she would take the punishment.
"They tortured me, in some ways," Wambach said, "and it was fun."
Most Olympic athletes, most 24-year-old women -- most humans, really -- don't use "torture" and "fun" in the same sentence. But this is Wambach, the U.S. women's soccer team's rather forward forward. Childhood humiliations and opposing defenders roll off her back with equal ease. And if the U.S. women are to beat Brazil on Saturday in this 2,319-year-old city, Wambach is much more likely to give an elbow than to receive one, to make a hard tackle than to fall victim to one, to provide torture than to accept it.
The basis for all this comes from those days as the youngest of seven in an athletic family in Rochester, N.Y., times during which she played "every sport known to man." But it has been hard-earned on the soccer field, too. It seems odd now -- what with Wambach the Americans' most consistent goal scorer of late, a trend she continued by heading one home in Wednesday's 3-0 victory over Greece -- but last spring, she wasn't even ensured a spot on this team.
"The best thing about Abby," teammate Mia Hamm said, "is that she put the work in to get where she is."
Much of the work came with Hamm by her side. The two would seem to have little in common. Hamm is 5 feet 5, a graduate of North Carolina, the all-time leading international scorer, the face of American soccer. Wambach is 5-11, went to Florida, had played just eight international games before last year, a woman who, for now, could walk down the street in her home town without turning a head.
Yet the pair came together on the Washington Freedom of the Women's United Soccer Association, the now-dormant women's professional league, with Hamm the established star, Wambach the protege. Almost immediately, each brought out more in the other. Hamm, a graceful, creative wizard with the ball, suddenly had the perfect partner in Wambach, who would bowl over defenders just for the privilege of receiving one of Hamm's passes.
"Mia, people say sometimes she's hard to play with, sometimes her intensity or her standards are so high," Wambach said. "But . . . when I got to the Freedom, I was willing to accept that. I was willing to accept her intensity, because I wanted somebody to push me. I was willing to accept her standards, because I wanted to get better."
She improved herself. A lot. She tied for the WUSA scoring lead with 13 goals and seven assists. The Freedom won the league title. Wambach scored both goals in the championship match. In doing all that, as the national team roster was being assembled for last fall's Women's World Cup, she built a reputation that, as teammate Shannon Boxx said, defenders ought to be "scared" of her. Boxx, who played against Wambach in the WUSA, had to deal with what Brazil will face Saturday -- figuring out how to defend Wambach.
"I was so tired by the end of the game just because of the physical battle," Boxx said. "You had to deal with her every time the ball came into her. It wasn't like, 'Okay, let me just stand her up' [and make her pass the ball away]. It's, 'Okay, fight, fight, fight, push, pull, whatever you can do.' "
Because that's how Wambach approaches it. It is an approach that can, at times, be troublesome because she is still learning how to downshift that aggression. She led the WUSA in fouls committed in 2003, and said she has only recently learned that not every tackle needs to be made so forcefully.
In the victory over Greece, she drew a yellow card following a collision, a development that could have ramifications. Should Wambach draw another card against Brazil or in the Americans' final preliminary-round match, Tuesday against Australia, she would be suspended. That thought, she said, will stick in the back of her mind against the Brazilians -- who beat Australia, 1-0, in their opener. Still, she said, "I'm not going to change the way I play."
She won't change it, because she remembers those days last spring, before she had even made the national team, let alone become a fixture on it. "I remember making a mental note," she said, "saying, 'It's now or never.' "
She made the team, and led the United States with three goals in the Women's World Cup, including the lone tally in a 1-0 victory over Norway in the quarterfinals. She gave opponents someone else they had to figure out how to defend.
Wednesday night, the Greeks showed exactly how not to defend Wambach. In the 30th minute, Greek defender Angeliki Lagoumtzi curiously decided, with the United States about to throw the ball in, that she needed to take her necklace off. Lagoumtzi ran to the sideline. Wambach ran to the vacant space she left behind. A moment later, before Lagoumtzi had re-engaged in the play, Kate Markgraf crossed the ball. Wambach put her head to it, and the U.S. team led, 2-0.
"Scoring is about confidence," Wambach said. "Scoring is about getting the ball to your feet, or the ball to your head, and being the person to take responsibility to put it behind the keeper in the back of the net. If you have that level of responsibility like I do, like Mia does . . . you're going to be a starter on this team."