Pioneers: Linda Gancitano, the Champion of Change

Linda Gancitano with teammates at the University of Central Florida
Linda, left, at the University of Central Florida with teammates Kim Wyant and Michelle Akers . . .

COLLEGE: University of Central Florida

YOUTH CAREER: Linda grew up near Mullins Park in Coral Springs, Fla., where she spent countless evenings scrimmaging with boys, including her brother, Nick, who would become the field goal kicker for Penn State University’s national championship team that beat Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl. Linda joined her brother on the Coral Springs High School team, becoming the first girl in Florida history to play boys’ varsity soccer.

NATIONAL TEAM: After selection as defensive MVP of the first-ever NCAA women’s soccer tournament in 1982 and appearing in the Olympic Festival in 1985, Linda was selected to join the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team for its four games in Italy that summer. She was the team’s first substitute, replacing captain Denise Bender in the opening game, and then appeared in one more game. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in 1986 ended her playing career.

Linda at the first National Team training camp in 1985 (courtesy of Cindy Gordon)

COLLEGE FUN AND GAMES: With four future National Teamers — Linda, Michelle Akers, Kim Wyant and Amy Griffin — all with larger-than-life personalities attending the University of Central Florida at the same time, Linda said she had her hands full as captain. She recalled frequent “swatting” on campus whereby players would hide high in trees waiting to ambush their teammates with flying objects. One night, after being out late, Linda came back to her dorm room only to find it filled floor to ceiling with newspaper. “Oh, you can be sure I made them pay for that!” she said.

Linda Gancitano with her UCF teammates today
Thirty-five years later, Michelle, Linda and Kim are still smiling

GOOSE BUMPS: Memories of the first official National Team game can still fill Linda with emotion. “Way back in the mid ’80s, we weren’t playing for the money. We weren’t playing for anything other than the joy of the game and for each other. But then you get out there in the middle of the field and they’re singing the United States national anthem. And it felt like ‘Oh, my God, this is real.’ You were playing and representing the United States. I’m still in awe of that moment.”

THE FAMILY BUSINESS: After college, Linda decided to follow her father, Nick Sr., into the classroom, but didn’t know if she could handle it at first. “These kids are off the wall!” she told her Dad after her first day. “He was a principal in Broward County and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Kids aren’t perfect in middle school and, at this age, they might not ever learn anything. But the biggest gift that you can give them is to love themselves.’ And I always remember that because that is that stage where they have to be able to start accepting who they are and loving who they are — no matter what. And I think that message is finally getting out there. A lot of things have stayed in the dark for so long: racism, inequality, sexual orientation. It’s finally becoming OK in school to talk about these things.” Linda offers further perspective on the subject of race on Page 35 of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.”

GOING GREEN: Linda said she was deeply impacted by Al Gore’s 2006 movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She brought that passion into Driftwood Middle School in Hollywood, Fla., by creating an environmental “Green Team,” and launching an energy-reduction challenge campaign “How Low Can You Go?” that ultimately expanded throughout her entire school district and led to a high-profile partnership with LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

OPENING DOORS: Linda said that having the phrase “National Team” near the top of her resume has meant more and more as the team has become more popular in recent years. Recognized as a “Champion of Change,” by the Obama Administration, Linda has been invited to the White House on several occasions in the past 13 years and authored an official White House blog: “There’s an instant level of respect now when people hear you played on that team,” she said. “That’s a reflection of the amazing women who have been on the team through the years and, especially, the incredible team we have now.”

Linda Gancitano with National Team superstar Alex Morgan
Linda, with National Team superstar Alex Morgan

BETTER THAN EVER: An avid photographer and beach volleyball player, Linda said she still thrives in the middle school environment after more than three decades. Leading the school’s curriculum in a progressive direction —  she teaches yoga, mindfulness, heart mapping and Rose Quartz meditation — keeps her job fresh. “The core of every child’s health is how they’re doing mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. You can’t have a healthy child without addressing all aspects of the whole being. You just can’t. You can have the smartest child in the world, but if they don’t know how to be social, to be able to connect emotionally, they’re not going to be very happy.”