Toledo’s Gaitan reflects on her experience at Olympics
UT women’s soccer standout Natalia Gaitan has garnered several accolades in her collegiate career, winning multiple Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament championships and being named an All-MAC first team selection.
At just 21 years old, she can now add “Summer Olympian” to her ever-improving resume.
“It was a lot of pride and a lot of emotions,” Gaitan said. “It’s unbelievable to represent your country, be a captain and play with a great team.”
The senior defender captained her native Colombia in the nation’s first trip to the Summer Games.
“You can tell how proud she was to be doing that,” said UT head coach Brad Evans, who accompanied her to the United Kingdom. “You could tell in her preparation last spring before she left and certainly when we caught up with her at the different venues, she was taking the role seriously. She was proud.”
Colombia, whose roster featured eight other college players, was grouped with North Korea, France and the eventual champion United States. They entered the games ranked 28th in the world.
Gaitan started each game on defense and was never afraid to put her body on the line, one of many things teammates and fans have come to admire her for.
The team’s first match in pool play provided one of the most notorious and bizarre events of the Olympics when the North Korean team left the field, creating an hour-long delay. During pregame introductions, the South Korean flag was inadvertently shown on the scoreboard next to the names and pictures of the North Korean players.
“At first, we didn’t know what was going on,” Evans said. “We knew the game had been delayed and then we saw the North Koreans clearing their bench. UT photographer Dan Miller actually caught a shot of one of their officials angrily pointing at the scoreboard and we quickly figured out what had happened.”
Tension has existed between the two nations for decades and the Korean War began in 1950.
A parade of apologies began the next day, including one from British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“There was a lot of impatience going on,” Gaitan said. “We didn’t know in the beginning. It was kind of like, ‘let’s get this started, we want to play now.’”
The unfortunate incident quickly overshadowed the match, which North Korea won 2-0.
Next up for Gaitan and Colombia in Glasgow, Scotland was a game with the high-powered Americans. The U.S. went on to shutout Colombia 3-0, but Gaitan said the game was much more competitive than the score indicated.
“We played them last year, it was a tough game, as it was this year,” Gaitan said. “I think we played better, we could find good moments for our team to get some chances in goal. But they’re a good team.”
All four countries in the group stayed in the same hotel in Glasgow, where a strong security presence was on display.
No cars were allowed to drive up to the property, which felt more like an airport than a hotel.
“Empty your pockets, metal scanners, pat-down, and that was just to get into the hotel,” Evans said.
He also said games involving the United States called for armed security both inside the stadium, above the stadium and on the rooftops of the buildings surrounding it.
Colombia’s final contest of the 2012 Olympics resulted in a 1-0 defeat to France in Newcastle, England. Despite coming up short in each of their three matches, Gaitan and her teammates left many people impressed.
“She left it all on the field, that’s for sure,” Evans said. “She was impressive to watch. The way she represented herself, her family, and ultimately her country and to a degree our program, I think she did it wonderfully well.”
Colombia’s first visit to the Olympics didn’t produce as much success as they would have liked, but there were still several positives that Gaitan and her teammates took away from the United Kingdom.
“Not all athletes can get to the Olympics,” Gaitan said.”We’re fortunate, we’re blessed to say that we went and we represented our country. We did our best and hopefully we get to go again in four years in Rio”.
Gaitan is no stranger to the big stage. She was co-captain for last year’s National Team that competed in the FIFA World Cup in Germany.
Not many NCAA athletes can bring the wealth of knowledge and experiences to their team that Gaitan is able to.
“First and foremost, it brings perspective,” Evans said. “She’s got a view on pressure situations and the talent on the opposition that we’re just not going to encounter at this level. She’s far more even-keel because of these experiences.
“She’s very level-headed, unflappable, and I think that plays out certainly as an advantage for our team.”
Gaitan hopes that her country’s first Olympic appearance will help to boost support for the soccer program. As is the case with many international sports, the best countries are the ones with the most funding.
The financial backing from the country is slowly improving, but they’re not yet at a level that’s comparable to the world’s best soccer nations.
“It has been increasing over the past couple years, but we’re far away from where we want to be,” Gaitan said. “We need more support from the federation, from the sponsors. It’s getting better, but we need to be even better.”
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