BEYOND THE BOOK BLOG

Pioneers: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Still Imparting the Life Lessons of the Game

Published: May 19, 2021
Written by: Paul Tukey

INTRODUCING: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams

COLLEGES — Western Washington University, University of California-Berkeley

Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, left, tracks a ball in front of U.S. National Team goalie Ruth Harker (courtesy of Kathy Ridgewell-Williams)

TOUGH KID IN TOUGHSKINS — Growing up in Enumclaw, a rural farm community southeast of Seattle, Kathy’s only initial connection to soccer was the “Soccer Made in Germany” show hosted by Toby Charles on PBS in the early ’70s. “I am the youngest of four siblings who are all much older — so I had to do everything I could to keep up,” said Kathy. “We had a pretty competitive household, including my brother, Wally, who was four years older and super athletic, so by the time I started school I didn’t even think about what girls did at recess. It wasn’t really a question for me. I went to school dressed in Toughskins ready for any sport on the playground with the boys.” What she didn’t realize, at 5 years old, was that it had only been a year or two since girls weren’t required to wear dresses to school and that she also wouldn’t be allowed to play on the boy’s club soccer team.  So, when Don Ryan, a local attorney, started a U9 girls’ team called the Auburn Devils a few years later, he found Kathy ready and waiting.  She remembers watching the German men win the 1974 World Cup at 9 years old and having her first spark of the idea of a National Team — just for women.

THE REALITY CHECK — Playing with fellow future National Teamer Lori Bylin Sweeney on the Auburn Devils, their team won several consecutive state championships. The reign ended abruptly, however, when Michelle Akers’ team from Shoreline, Wa., moved up an age bracket to U16. “Michelle was a flat-out revelation,” said Kathy. “I mean, I thought we were pretty good until she came along. She just tore through our defense like we weren’t even there. Honestly, as aggravating as it was to lose, I think we all knew we were witnessing something really, really special. I suddenly knew there was so much more I could do to improve my game.” 

Kathy, fifth from left in the front, was a maintain of the Cozars for many years. Michelle Akers is third from left in the same row

THE COZARS CONNECTION — College was on her radar, but earning a degree from a high-profile school wasn’t a priority for Kathy when she graduated from Auburn High School. Only a handful of universities, the majority on the east coast, even funded soccer programs in 1983.  At first, she migrated with a group of male soccer friends to the local Green River Community College — but again was only allowed to practice with, not compete, on the men’s team (no women’s team existed). Her life changed later that year when Booth Gardner, the soon to be governor of Washington, asked her to join his club team known as the Cozars, which he fully sponsored and coached. “That team was as close as you could get to being professional players at the time,” said Kathy. Traveling to tournaments that included trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, she scored 38 goals in the first half of 1984 and made such an impression when the Cozars landed in St. Louis for the national club finals that the University of North Carolina and several other schools offered full scholarships. Kathy turned them all down. “Honestly, at that point, Cozars were offering me a level of play I didn’t want to give up and I thought to myself, ‘Why would I leave this?’”

BOOTH WHO? — The Cozars’ camaraderie, including their team relationship with the team founder, is legendary in women’s soccer. “Booth was a really special human being and did so much for the team. He was so down to earth, but also a Weyerhaeuser family heir and, by 1985, the Governor of Washington.” To this day Kathy loves reminiscing with the Cozars alum. “Booth would literally drain the gas out of the cars for his security detail to get away from them and show up alone at our practices. Or he’d show up to McDonald’s with us after our games, not have any cash on him because he was Governor, and he’d steal our French fries. It was hilarious.” A year later, Kathy would attend nearby Western Washington University with her best friend, Diana Inch, and several Cozar players including National Teamer Cindy Gordon, helping them to a NAIA Regional Finals berth. “The Cozars evolved over several years to have some of the most amazing talent and coaches, including Berhane Andeberhane, in women’s soccer at the time. It was unique, like the soccer universe aligned to bring everyone together.”

Booth Gardner, the biography of a soccer-loving governor (courtesy of the Legacy Project)

THE MOMENT OF A LIFETIME — In July of 1985, Kathy traveled to Baton Rouge, La., after being chosen for the historic Olympic Sports Festival tournament, from which the 17 members of the first-ever National Team were selected. Picked for the starting lineup in the inaugural game, Aug. 18, 1985, against the host team, Italy, Kathy said standing on the field and singing the national anthem was forever embedded in her lifetime of memories. “It’s one of those pivotal moments you look back on and say you wouldn’t trade for anything. It was truly overwhelming. It was a ‘Wow! I achieved my dream. I did it!’ moment. It was an incredible experience and a rare bond that we share. But for me, as a woman playing soccer at that time, I didn’t know if or when there would be more. It was like, ‘That was amazing, but now what happens?’”

Kathy, right, with Berhane Anderberhane and National Teamer Margaret "Tucka" Healey (courtesy of Kathy Ridgewell-Williams)

COMPARING GENERATIONS — When considering the remarkable total of 13 players from the Seattle area who played for the National Team from 1985-1990, Kathy balks at the suggestion that today’s soccer players are fundamentally better than those of her era. “It’s tough to compare. An elite athlete is an elite athlete regardless of when they were born,” she said. “Maybe our era didn’t play soccer year-round as kids or have private trainers at 9 years old, but we had something just as good: we played with boys and men. That made us quicker physically and mentally, and technically sound at faster speed of play. If you’re an elite player, you know it; you have a hyper-drive growth mindset, you want to be better than the player next to you, woman or man, and that’s going to be true in any generation. Not to mention we had a long list of players with soccer IQs off the charts including Sharon McMurtry, Lori Bylin Sweeney and Shannon Higgins Cirovski.” Kathy was one of the players born in the 1960s who were named Washington state’s 50 all-time greatest players. That 2016 list also included all of her National Team teammates including Michelle — who Kathy believes belongs at the top of any list of women players. “I have loved watching so many great players come through. I’m really proud to see these young women have this opportunity and just dominate on a world stage. And as the pioneers, I think we are all amazed at how far the program has come. But Michelle was on another level. It’s kind of like Pelé. How do you compare Pelé to Ronaldo, or Messi? You can’t. If you saw Pelé and Michelle play in their prime or had a chance to play with them, you just know they’re different.” (NOTE: Michelle's story is a major component of our critically acclaimed new book, Raising Tomorrow's Champions)

A SUDDEN END: A torn hip flexor kept Kathy on the sidelines in 1986, but after six months of rehab, she returned for the Cozars season before appearing in two more games with the National Team in the summer of 1987. Targeted to join Colorado College that fall, Kathy changed course and followed long-time University of Washington coach Lesle Gallimore and National Team legend Joy Fawcett to the University of California-Berkeley, where Kathy became a third-team All-American in her final year of college eligibility. After graduating with a political economies degree, and with the Cozars disbanded, Kathy spent 15 months working and traveling in China. On her way back to the states, she was recruited by former National Teamer Gretchen Gegg Zigante to play professionally in Japan. Fatefully, she said, she turned Gretchen down. Returning stateside and training with a new Seattle women’s club team, Diadora, Kathy’s soccer future was instantly truncated a few months later when a driver sped through a stop sign and devastated Kathy’s car and body. “It was all neck and back injuries and my competitive days of playing, heading a ball and winning a tackle, were over. Just like that. But even so, I still am so grateful for the time I had at that level.”

Kathy, with one of her recent students, Elizabeth Baltz (courtesy of Kathy Ridgewell-Williams)

EVER THE COACH: Despite playing in an era with little financial return from the game, Kathy has cashed in by turning those experiences into a professional career of coaching and managing business teams. After owning a couple of sports bars with her husband, Tim, and starting their family, she moved on to serve as a corporate manager and coach for Walgreens to help turn around financially struggling stores. She worked for many years after that consulting and managing private education programs within public K-12 school districts. Her last few years have been spent at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services consulting as a certified diversity executive and coaching leadership development programs for an organization of more than 16,000 people.  She’s remained an avid student of the game and also coached many youth teams along the way — and sees little distinction between managing the game and business. “It’s amazing how many people lack basic team management skills,” she said. “What I learned from those early days and being a bit of a nomad in my playing career is that we didn’t all have to agree all the time as long as we all had the same strategy in mind. The most successful teams I played for had people with diverse perspectives and different ideas that were willing to learn from each other then flex enough to get the win. As a leader, coach or manager in soccer and in business, build trust and relationships, allow freedom to innovate and fail; that’s what will bring you success. We learned how to experiment, fail and be more adaptable in those small-sided pickup games, right? ‘Winner Stays On! or Last Goal Wins!’ How many times do you let yourself look foolish and fall, literally, flat on your face before you pull off a Maradona in a game and everyone goes crazy? You have to trust each other to be that vulnerable. By removing the barriers that prevent people from being creative and taking risks, you’re creating an environment where they're going to get better, faster and stronger no matter what they’re doing.”

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