When Elixabete “Eli” Sarasola ’14 arrived at the College in 2012, she had already won a European championship as a professional soccer player.
Not bad for a freshman résumé.
At the College, the Spaniard built on that record, stingily minding the Cougar net. Then, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, she returned last year to Europe to restart her career as a professional keeper for AFC Ajax in Amsterdam, joining the best team in the Netherlands’ top soccer league.
It almost goes without saying that Sarasola is an intense competitor. Certainly she was at the College, says women’s soccer coach Christian Michner ’98, which was only natural given the level of competition in Europe where Sarasola was first exposed to the sport. At age 16, Sarasola signed with one of Spain’s top clubs, Real Sociedad, in her hometown of San Sebastián. Then she played for FC Barcelona, helping the team win three Catalunya Cups, the Spanish Cup and a Spanish League championship, before bringing her grit and determination to Charleston.
“Eli was very focused and super competitive on the field,” says Michner. “She wanted to win every game, but more than that she hated to lose. She played and trained at a very high level and in turn demanded that from her teammates as well. She was easily one of the best goalkeepers in the country while she was here, but injuries really limited her with us.”
One moment in particular stands out in Michner’s mind: a Southern Conference semifinals match against Furman University in which Sarasola made an incredible save to keep the score tied.
“Eli dove to her right and picked one straight out of the top corner and the entire stadium couldn’t believe it,” says Michner. “She made a save that very few goalkeepers in the world could make…not that many would have even considered diving for it. She had a flair for the dramatic.”
Also quite dramatic: Sarasola’s habit of belting out Céline Dion songs to amuse her teammates.
Off the field, Sarasola was gregarious and well liked, Michner adds, but serious when it came to schoolwork.
“Excelling academically at a tough school like CofC when English isn’t your first language isn’t easy,” says Michner. “The NCAA also made it harder for her as she was required to take more hours per semester than almost any student, we’re talking 19-23 credit hours in a semester! That’s crazy! She did all of this and still maintained over a 3.0 GPA! Incredible, actually, when you consider the many hours also spent on the soccer field and training room.”
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Though Michner is sad his time with Sarasola has come to an end, he’s pleased to see her excel across the Atlantic in the Netherlands.
“Ajax is one of the biggest clubs in the world and the best in Holland,” says Michner. “We are so proud of her and what she has accomplished so far! Eli will be a success long after her playing career is over as well and I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for her!”
The College Today caught up with Sarasola to ask her about her time at the College and what the life of an international soccer star is all about.
You left a professional soccer team in Barcelona to come study and play at the College. What was the motivation for this decision?
A: Since I was very young I was a big fan of the U.S. Women’s National Team and players like Mia Hamm and I tried to follow international women’s soccer as much as possible. It was always in my mind to travel abroad and experience it firsthand. I am a very curious person and love new experiences, and when the opportunity came I didn’t think about it twice. It was my third year playing for FC Barcelona, where we had won the Spanish League and Cup, and I thought it was the perfect moment to leave Spain and start my collegiate career in Charleston.
Can you tell us your greatest athletic memory or highlight while playing for the Cougars?
A: I have a lot of good memories as a Cougar, but I think the best one was the SoCon quarterfinals my first year (2012). Samford was hosting the tournament that year and we traveled to Alabama to play them as the underdog. We ended up winning the game 2-1 with a late winning goal in the 84th minute making it to the semifinals and kicking them out of their own tournament. It was an important game for a lot of our players because Samford had beaten us the year before in the SoCon finals.
How about off the field? What do you remember most fondly about the College and Charleston?
A: I am absolutely in love with the City of Charleston. I always say I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to live there for three years. The people, the food, the architecture… there is just something very magical about Charleston. My college experience was a little shorter than usual because I was a transfer from Spain, but I have great memories about the school. Sometimes I wish I could go back! There are a lot of professors who I remember very dearly, and of course our women’s soccer advisor Keith Merritt who made sure I could graduate in 2.5 years. Charleston and The College will always be an important part of my life wherever I go.
Now you’re playing professional soccer for AFC Ajax in Amsterdam. What’s the biggest difference between NCAA soccer and international competition?
A: I guess the main difference is the duration of the league and the load of games, which conditions the way of training. In the NCAA we are used to playing every Friday and Sunday, so training sessions are more fitness oriented because of the demands of the season. Right now in Holland we play every Friday night. We have a lot more time to rest and get ready for the following week since we don’t have to play at least 180 minutes in 72 hours. Practices are more technical and tactical, but of course we also do fitness and lifting.
Many people dream about the chance to become a professional athlete. Can you tell us about some of your favorite perks?
A: It might sound like a cliché but the best part definitely is being able to do what you love for a living, which is not a specific perk of being a professional athlete. Personally, I wake up every morning and know I am going to spend the best part of the day kicking a ball around, diving on the grass, and doing what I love. Some people can’t wait for the moment they get off work. I can’t wait for the workday to start!
Beyond stopping the other team’s shots, what other responsibilities does a goalkeeper have that might not be obvious to viewers?
A: A goalkeeper is like a coach on the field. Since we are watching the game from the back we can see everything that happens; where the spaces are, where the free players are, where the opponents are going… Saving goals is just 50% of what goalkeepers do. We are responsible for organizing the team and making sure everyone is doing their job.
You’re already a professional athlete: What kind of training do you do now to make yourself an even better competitor?
A: Lifestyle and training are the most important things for any athlete, not just professional athletes. The way you eat, how much water you drink, and how much you rest is the key to keeping yourself fit and getting better. I always either go to practice early or stay late so I can do some extra conditioning at the gym. I want to make sure I minimize any chance of injury to be 100% every Friday. I have a lot to thank to the CofC Health and Human Performance Department in that area!
In a perfect world, what does the future hold for you?
A: In a perfect world I would like to live off of soccer for the rest of my life. I would love to go back to America in the near future, and once I retire from playing I want to coach for a while and do different things related to soccer and sports in general.
Watch AFC Ajax’s Eli Sarasola below (Note: While Sarasola speaks in English, the narration is in Dutch).