Pioneers: Gretchen Zigante, the First Full-Time Professional Women's Soccer Player
INTRODUCING: Gretchen Gegg Zigante
COLLEGES: Universities of Washington and North Carolina
LOVE AT FIRST SITE: Gretchen said she knew within a minute of stepping on the middle school soccer field practice for the Dash Point Dashers that soccer was the only sport she would ever take seriously. Though Gretchen would have preferred to remain a field player, one of the area’s many pioneering girls coaches, Dan Swain, quickly saw her potential as a goaltender and recruited her for his Team Adidas club that ruled the soccer landscape in Tacoma, Wa. “I’m not sure he thought I was that good, but he did think I was brave,” she said.
18-0 AND NOWHERE TO GO: Amidst the birthplace of American women’s soccer that the Tacoma-Seattle area of Washington state represented, Gretchen soon found herself playing with or against many of the 12 other women from that era who would join the National Team via her club team, the Cozars, which competed for national championships for several years. Her Hall of Fame teammate Michelle Akers was the legend in the making, but the area also produced Sandi Gordon Yotz, Cindy Gordon, Lori Henry, Denise Bender, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Denise Boyer Merdich, Amy Allmann Griffin and Sharon McMurtry. Gretchen even allowed her future National Team teammate Lorraine Figgins Fitzhugh to live for a year on her family's 25-foot sailboat in the Seattle harbor when Lorraine was attending the University of Washington and fighting with the school administration about adding a women’s varsity team. As Lorraine told us in her interview, the UW club team was beating all comers, including an 18-0 season in 1984, but were denied the opportunity to play for anything but pride.
MOM VS. MOM: Gretchen’s biggest rival might have been the other goalie, but instead the pair were each other’s biggest supporters and instigators of hijinks. “There’s not a human being in the world that doesn’t like Amy Griffin; she’s one of my greatest friends to this day and will be forever,” said Gretchen. “Our mothers, on the other hand? They were fiercely competitive with each other about who should be playing the most, Amy or me. That carried on for years.”
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Gretchen declined to attend the infamous tryout in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985 for what became the first National Team. “I honestly didn’t think I was that good,” she said. She changed her mind in 1986, however, and National Team head coach Anson Dorrance liked what he saw enough that he not only offered her a spot on the roster, he also offered her a scholarship to attend North Carolina that fall for her senior year. Though she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament after college and was sidelined for long periods — with no surgery to repair it — Gretchen managed to remain a regular attendee at National Team camps through 1990 and appeared in two games, one in 1986 and the other in 1990. “I think I was in the best shape of my life at that point and I gave it my all,” she said. “When I didn’t get picked for the World Cup roster in 1991, I was at peace with the decision. I was in the stands when they won in China in 1991 and I was in the Rose Bowl with my mother in 1999 and I still felt connected to the players and the team.”
THE CALL THAT OPENED A HUGE DOOR: The day after being cut from the National Team, Gretchen received a phone call from Hiro Watanabe, a professional men’s player from Japan who she had met while completing her college degree at Idaho State University. “He said, ‘Did you make the team?’ When I told him I had been cut, he said, ‘Great! That means you can come to Japan.’” Hiro, who was instrumental in developing Japan’s team that beat the United States in the 2011 women’s World Cup, helped Gretchen land what is believed to be the first-ever full-time professional contract for an American woman in soccer. The Fujita Tendai paid her six million yen annually, along with housing and other covered expenses — which was the equivalent of a $30,000 American salary with myriad other benefits from 1990-1995. With Gretchen serving as an unofficial ambassador for the only professional women’s league in the world at the time, several other Americans followed her to Japan, including Stanford standout Heather McIntyre and 1999 World Cup hero Brandi Chastain.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES: Sexism was rampant in the early 1990s in Japan, as evidenced by the marketing pieces for the women’s matches that Gretchen saved. Still, she said the experience was positive overall. “I was treated very, very well,” said Gretchen. “Once they trust you over there, that means everything.” The men of Japan, however, were not necessarily used to seeing women with muscular physiques. “I had a man in the supermarket walk up to me and say, ‘Your legs look really strong!’ He proceeded to grab my legs right there in the store to test how strong they were.”
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: While still under contract in Japan, Gretchen was back in the U.S. in 1993 recruiting players to come to the Orient when she met a man on an airplane who seemed unusually impressed with her status as a professional goalie. “He said, ‘If you’re a goalie, you need to come train with my friend.’ He kept going on and on and on about his friend, Ziggy.” When that same man called a day later, she agreed to drive to a soccer field outside of San Diego where she met Nenad “Ziggy” Zigante, a goalie for Dinamo, the top team in what was then Yugoslavia. At the end of their first encounter, Gretchen invited him to go sailing in her mother’s boat. “There he is in his thick Croatian accent trying to find the words to say ‘Yes’ . . . ‘I’m very sorry, but I would like to come.’” The couple’s daughter, Susana, was raised playing goaltender in the U.S., but due to her father’s heritage, she has become a member of the Croatian women’s national team.
THE LONG, WINDING ROAD: With teaching the art of goaltending as their calling cards and the only jobs they’ve known, the Zigantes have traveled the nation and world together in the past three decades. Gretchen has coached in Japan and for colleges in Colorado, California and New York, including a year as interim head coach at Cornell University. In more recent years she has focused on club soccer, but only on her terms. “There’s a lot of crazy people in this game right now,” she said. “I’ve been in situations where the club team’s parents think they know more than I do, so I tell them, ‘Then I guess you don’t need me,’ and I’ve moved on.” In 2018, they landed in Heber City, Utah. “It’s a small community and more mello,” said Gretchen, who works with a local soccer club and previously coached the high school team. “I see this as my retirement job.”