By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The Southeastern Conference has established a rich soccer tradition spanning the 20-year history of the league’s sponsorship of the sport. Among the countless All-Americans and talented players is an even more elite group of athletes who have competed in this conference.
The SEC boasts six Olympians in the sport of soccer, who have made a total of 10 Olympic appearances. In the 2012 Olympic Games in London, each of those six athletes were on Olympic rosters, including two for the United States in Heather Mitts and Abby Wambach.
Mitts, a former Florida standout, is the league’s only three-time Olympian, and has a great appreciation for the opportunities the Olympic Games have provided her.
“It is the pinnacle of the sport and, just being able to represent your country and being able to compete with athletes from all over the world, it is a phenomenal experience,” Mitts said. “We all dreamed of one day being in the Olympics and, to actually be there, is surreal.”
In two of her Olympic appearances, Mitts was able to compete alongside Wambach, a former Florida teammate, who, in the 2012 Olympics, scored five goals over a six-match span. Mitts has enjoyed watching Wambach grow into one of the game’s top players.
Wambach was the Associated Press’ 2011 Female Athlete of the Year and has been named the recipient of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Athlete of the Year award five times. She boasts 145 career goals in 190 international matches and is second all-time in US history behind Mia Hamm.
“We all knew when Abby came to Florida what a phenomenal player she was and could be,” Mitts said. “It has been a lot of fun to see her from when she first started out until today. Obviously she has always had the tools, but I’ve watched her grow as a leader and that part has been a great experience.”
When it comes to her own career, Mitts knows that she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to develop into a top-caliber player if not for her experiences at Florida and in the SEC.
“Obviously, it was the building blocks to be able to help me get in with the national team,” Mitts said. “I learned so much from my freshman year until the time I graduated. I grew so much as a player during my time at UF. The SEC schools really do put a lot of focus on their female sports and it has allowed soccer and all of the programs to grow.”
The Olympic journey is a unique one.
After all, it takes four years of training and preparation to participate in one Games. According to Mitts, that single-minded drive helped her focus her efforts to be the best.
“Our days definitely go a lot quicker because we’re focusing so far in advance on that one goal,” Mitts said. “I’m so lucky to be able to go do something that I love for a living. If you go to work every day and give it your all with a goal like that in mind, it makes it so much more worthwhile.”
Mitts was a part of three gold-medal winning U.S. teams and describes the experience of taking home the Games’ highest honor as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“It’s a cliché, but it’s like a dream come true,” Mitts said. “You’re not only at the Olympics, but you’re standing on the podium with your teammates reciting the anthem and receiving the highest honor. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
SEC Soccer Olympians
||2004, 2008, 2012