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UT's Gaitan to be Olympian

Junior blazing trail for aspiring Colombian soccer players


UT women’s soccer player Natalia Gaitan controls the ball against Jaime Morsillo in practice. Gaitan will compete on the Colombian soccer team in London.

The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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Natalia Gaitan remembers the moment she became attached to soccer. Attending her older brother's game, young Natalia drifted off into the background, finding a ball and kicking it around to conquer boredom.

Females growing up in Colombia tend to gravitate toward volleyball, and others to basketball. Soccer there was largely de-emphasized during Gaitan's youth, but she was drawn to it anyway, and several years later she is among a group of players that are pioneers in their native land.

The University of Toledo junior will take her final exam of the semester May 4 and board a flight to her homeland, where she'll convene with her national teammates that have assembled to reshape the way women's soccer in the country is viewed all over the world.

One year after Colombia participated in the World Cup for the first time, Gaitan and her teammates will clear another barrier by playing in the Summer Olympics in London.

It's a revolution that began, say 10 years ago, with preteen girls throughout the country, like Gaitan, essentially asking, "Why can't we do this?"

That trailblazing group crashed the world stage in 2008, capturing the U-17 South American championship over historic power Brazil. Their movement soon manifested at universities in the United States, with team members popping up at Maryland, Kansas, Indiana, and Austin Peay. And, of course, Toledo, where Gaitan was a first-team all-league defender in the fall on a squad that won its second straight Mid-American Conference regular-season title. She was co-captain on the World Cup squad last summer that finished 0-2-1 -- falling to runner-up United States -- and failed to advance from pool play.

"The group that's been together since 2008, we have to feel proud of what we've done," Gaitan said.

Among the team's accomplishments is a runner-up finish at the 2011 South American championship and a semifinal appearance at the 2010 U-20 Women's World Cup.

"It's a young stage for us right now," Gaitan said.

She and her teammates will learn of their Olympic draw Tuesday. They will arrive in London in the first week of July and open competition on the 25th. Preseason practices at UT begin July 31, and Gaitan will probably be absent from the Rockets' season opener Aug. 19.

That will be fine, said UT coach Brad Evans, whose knowledge of women's soccer in Colombia was very limited until a recruiting service Gaitan solicited contacted him. Gaitan won't be the last Colombia player Evans brings to UT, but "that's all I can say at this point," apparently because he doesn't want to violate NCAA rules by commenting on unsigned recruits.

"When we got the call here about kids looking to get into the U.S., we went to the FIFA Web site, looked at the youth World Cups, and looked at the South American championships and said, wow, they're doing really well," Evans said.

Evans invited Colombia national coach Ricardo Rozo to UT last month, where he conducted clinics, lectured on the development of the country's soccer program, and watched the Rockets' exhibition match against Ashland.

"It was good to see him," Gaitan said.

Despite the team's recent success, funding received from Colombia's soccer federation is limited. For the country to take the next step and compete with the best teams in the world, they need more financial assistance, Gaitan said.

"The support for us has to increase from the federation and even from people that don't know a lot about us," she said. "It's getting there."

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