July 27, 2011
When Rice soccer practice officially begins on August 3 junior goalkeeper Gaby Garton will miss the first 10 days of the Owls' training camp, but she will still have a chance to get some key (if not elite) preparation time under her belt.
During Rice soccer's two-a-day practices Garton will be busy in South America on a two-week training assignment with the women's national soccer team of Argentina (where her mother was born and raised). It's a one-of-a-kind experience while playing the most popular sport in the world, a fact that hit home for Garton while watching international games on television last few weeks.
"I'm really thankful for this opportunity." Garton said. "It's really been a blessing to be able to play with some of the best in the world and see what women's soccer is like in a completely different culture. I'm still kind of taking it all in. Watching the Women's World Cup this summer has really inspired me to work even harder to take advantage of this awesome opportunity I've been given.
"The opportunity came about via a series of connections and emails that began at Rice. Last spring Owl head coach Nicky Adams had signed a California recruit with dual U.S.-Argentinean citizenship, 2011 freshman Gabriela Iribarne, who had already trained with that country's 20-and-under national team. Iribarne helped get the Rice soccer coaching staff in touch with the Argentina's governing body for the sport (called fútbol) and paved the way to get Garton a national team try-out.
"So as soon as (Rice's) Spring semester ended I flew down to Buenos Aires for a two-week tryout," Garton explained. "It went well. The (Argentinean) coach (Carlos Borello) told me that he wanted me to come down and train again in August. I'll now be training with the team for two weeks, and from what I've heard from the other girls on the team, they might be playing some friendlies (matches) against neighboring countries while I'm there."
Two weeks in August would certainly cut into the Owls' precious training time, a fact not lost on coach Adams. After two senior goalkeepers graduated last season, Rice will essentially be debuting a new goalkeeper(s) this fall so there was something to be said for being with the Owls every step of the way this preseason. However, with the uniqueness of the circumstances and an eye on the big picture regarding the long-term benefit to the soccer program, coach Adams didn't so much as blink about giving Garton an excused absence.
"This is an amazing opportunity that Gaby has in front of her," coach Adams said, "but it's more than that. It's an honor. She will be training alongside the best players from a country that is incredibly passionate about the game of soccer. The sophistication, competitiveness, commitment and discipline that she must have to fulfill a country's expectations is high. These international players understand what it takes and what they have to do to remain at the top of their game.
"As soon as you put on your national team jersey it changes you," Adams added. "Once you are a part of a national team you see from all players the discipline and commitment it takes to be the best. With that vision, Gaby will not only bring that attitude and desire back to the goalkeepers here, but to our entire team. She will learn a lot and that will only help Rice Soccer, now and in the future."
Garton, a native of Sarasota, Fla., originally enrolled at the University of South Florida but transferred to Rice prior to the 2010 season. When she was on her first South American trip for the try out she was able to get some international fútbol experience first-hand. The transition to the international game had a similar challenge of suddenly blending in to a different culture.
With a mom from Argentina and plenty of college and high school Spanish classes, the language barrier wasn't the challenge. The junior from Will Rice College encountered an unexpected hurdle to overcome. The new hurdle was that in soccer the goalkeeper has to direct the defenders around the most critical area of the field - the goal. Its keeper has to be a field general and perhaps the best communicator on the team. The goalkeeper has to be, you guessed it... gabby.
"I'm more-or-less fluent in Spanish and even more fluent after being in Argentina for a week or so," Garton said. "The girls would tease me a little about my accent, but I was fine communicating off the field. On the field, getting myself to think and direct in Spanish was a little tricky. I had never `played soccer in Spanish,' but after the first couple practices I was much more comfortable. The speed of play is very quick and the girls are extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet since most of them grew up playing fútbol with their brothers and friends."
Garton obviously enjoyed her previous trip and South American experience enough to go back, yet she said there are still some distinct cultural differences that make her happy to call the U.S., and now Rice, home. One example is many of the other national team members lived far-outside Buenos Aires and would make a commute-in each day, some up to three hours each way.
"I definitely learned a lot about soccer while I was there, but more than anything I learned how blessed women's soccer players are here in the States. It's really opened my eyes to what we at Rice and at other universities around the country have - the opportunity to go to a great educational institution and play the game we love. I think remembering this will help me keep focused and driven this fall with the Owls."
The Rice soccer team opens the 2011 season with a home exhibition game against crosstown foe Houston Baptist University on August 12 at 7 pm.