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Leader-Telegram Special: Former Blugold lends helping hand in Burkina Faso
By: Joe Ziemer, Leader-Telegram Sports
Some of Abby Ofstedahl's fondest memories came while wearing a gold UW-Eau Claire jersey. She was a four-year starter during a period in which the Blugolds women's soccer team won 73 games and three Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. She played in three NCAA Division III tournaments.
But at the moment, Ofstedahl is making some new memories that will rank right up there on her list of favorites. Nearly 6,000 miles away from Bollinger Field in Eau Claire, there's a group of girls in Burkina Faso learning the game of soccer under Ofstedahl's tutelage. And they're wearing those very same gold UW-Eau Claire uniforms.
Ofstedahl didn't score a goal and had a combined four assists as a Blugolds player. But that doesn't tell the story of her career, which lasted from 2004-'07. Like any defender, her play was defined more by the stats she prevented than the ones she recorded.
In four seasons, the Apple Valley, Minn., native made 67 starts and appeared in 78 games. In her final three seasons, she was a part of a back line that allowed a mere 35 goals.
"She was a no-nonsense type of player," UW-Eau Claire coach Sean Yengo said. "A typical defender - does all the dirty work and doesn't get any of the glory."
Defenders are indeed a selfless bunch. And Ofstedahl is as good an example as anyone - on the field and off. When her college career came to an end, she joined the Peace Corps, something that appealed to her interests in foreign cultures and development work.
"That and I wasn't entirely sure what to do with my life after graduating from college," Ofstedahl joked in an e-mail.
Ofstedahl landed in Burkina Faso, a West African country slightly larger than Colorado. It's a land-locked nation low on natural resources and wealth, carrying the historical stains of colonization and political unrest. Ofstedahl works in Solenzo, a fairly large village of roughly 20,000 Burkinabes. There, she, along with two other coaches, formed the village's first girls soccer team. In fact it's the first girls team of any kind for Solenzo and, likely, the surrounding area.
Eleven girls between the ages of 15 and 19 come to practice every day. Another five or six show up sporadically. And when they play games, they have the best uniforms around.
When Ofstedahl and the other coaches formed the team, they knew their players would need proper equipment in order to be viewed as a legitimate team.
"Being taken seriously is a pretty big deal in Burkina because women aren't typically given a lot of respect and are also seen as below the men," Ofstedahl said. "Any time that they take on what is seen as a 'male's role' they are definitely not supported and are mostly harassed. I figured since my girls are pretty timid to begin with it would be necessary to help in every way possible to make them comfortable enough to play in front of a group of unsupportive males (and sometimes even females...)."
Ofstedahl took it upon herself to get some uniforms. The first team she thought of was UW-Eau Claire. After all, that's where she played what she calls her favorite four years of soccer.
"I thought to have a little piece of that team over here in Africa with me would be something really special," she said.
Ofstedahl e-mailed her old coach to see if the soccer team, any of the other teams on campus or even one of the Eau Claire high schools might have something lying around they could spare. As luck would have it, Yengo and the Blugolds had just purchased new uniforms for the 2009 season. Yengo, who likes to stay in contact with his former players, replied immediately that they had an extra kit and would be happy to donate it.
"It was nice to be able to provide them with something," Yengo said. "She's just a wonderful ambassador of the program."
So one day in the much larger city of Bobo-Dioulasso, a box arrived in the mail. In it were the gold uniforms Ofstedahl and her college teammates once wore, along with some soccer balls and T-shirts.
"I was unbelievably excited to think that those uniforms that I spent so much time in would be passed along to our group of girls, a group who I think is making some pretty big and profound changes in our village," Ofstedahl said.
Ofstedahl was so excited that she began jumping and screaming in the middle of the post office.
"Luckily everyone came over and congratulated me over everything that I'd received rather than mistaking me for crazy," she joked.
All of the items were of great help to the team. In a poor nation like Burkina Faso, balls are always at a premium, and the T-shirts gave the girls something to wear during practice. Ofstedahl decided to make her players earn the right to wear the T-shirts, just like Yengo had done with her once upon a time. That process took some time but had the desired effect.
"It's so cool to see the girls wearing their bright orange T-shirts around village," Ofstedahl said. "You can just tell by the way they walk and hold themselves that they are super proud to be wearing them."
To this point, Ofstedahl's squad only has scrimmaged local boys teams. She and some other volunteers are hoping to organize a tournament in March or April that also will incorporate AIDs education. The results are a ongoing process - the first time the girls wore their Blugolds jerseys, they lost 10-2 - but the confidence is building. Every time they play, they get better. And they're getting more and more support.
"We also got a lot of positive encouragement and feedback from some of the male players, something we've never received before that moment," Ofstedahl said. "And I believe some of that came from the respect we earned from the uniforms."
And why not? There's a lot of wins and memories in those uniforms. More are sure to follow.