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Soccer has taken Natalia Gaitan all over the world and given her numerous life-changing experiences, but nothing matches her time in Germany this summer serving as the team captain for Colombia at the Women's World Cup.
The University of Toledo junior and Bogota native started playing for the Colombian national team when she was 15 years old and has been on the leading edge of history ever since.
Colombia had never before qualified for the Women's World Cup until this year and last summer with Gaitan again serving as team captain, Colombia qualified for the U-20 World Cup for the first time and became only the second South American nation to advance out of group stage before bowing out in the semifinals.
Although Colombia wasn't able to advance out of pool play this year, it still made for another unforgettable summer for Gaitan.
"It was amazing," she said. "It was just unbelievable to be there and to experience that."
Colombia was the second-youngest team at the World Cup with an average age of 21 and only three team members older than 24.
Gaitan said the experience she and her teammates gained at the U-20 World Cup helped them grasp the level of competition they'd face.
"We had an idea but we knew it was going to be different because we faced players that have been playing for 10 or 15 years and have played professionally," she said.
After spending some time back in Colombia after the World Cup, Gaitan returned to Toledo last week to begin preparations for the Rockets' season-opener Friday at home against Purdue.
Her international experience can't be measured in terms of importance and impact on the rest of the Rockets, UT coach Brad Evans said.
"Obviously she's been a real source of steadiness for the team these last two years," Evans said. "Since she's gotten back we've been talking with her about her experiences and trying to see what I can learn from her."
She's still just Natalia to her teammates, but Gaitan nonetheless possesses a wealth of newfound knowledge and there's hope that could translate into more success for the Rockets.
"I can say I have more experience now and I can bring that to the team," Gaitan said. "I'm ready to play with the girls here now and start the season and win a championship in the [Mid-American Conference]. I'm happy to be back and happy to play with [my teammates] again."
At center back for the Rockets, Gaitan anchors the defense and is known as "El Professora" by her head coach.
"She's so smart," Evans said. "What makes her special is the way she diagnoses the game as it's happening and even before it happens. She's right where she needs to be right on time.
"Natalia is a high-level athlete but she's not blessed with great speed. But her brain more than makes up for that. She is very calm under the most intense of pressures. She rarely if ever gives the ball away and she times her tackles better than any other player I've coached, men's or women's, in 15 years."
Although Gaitan's focus is back on her collegiate career, it won't be long before she's once again wearing her country's colors.
Gaitan plans to play for Colombia at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
After that, Gaitan hopes to be back at the World Cup with Colombia in 2015, when it will be contested in Canada.
By then her career will be over in Toledo, but she hopes to still be making an impact on soccer back at home.
"It's amazing to be a role model for the girls there that are just starting to play soccer," Gaitan said. "We just hope the sport continues to grow in the future."
Contact Zach Silka at: email@example.com or 419-724-6084.