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Katy Saleh Martínez: UPRM’s First Female Champion Goalkeeper

The UPRM’s female soccer team has been around for decades, but it was only in 2016 that they won their first “CAAMpeonato” at the Justas LAI. This victory was in no small part due to goalkeeper Katy E. Saleh Martínez, a third-year Computer Engineering student who joined the team her freshman year in the newly vacant position. The Añasco-native continues to be an integral part of the soccer team.

Saleh started playing sports as a preteen and made her rounds through most of them before settling down with three which she excelled at: karate, handball, and soccer. At eleven, she began training in martial arts, specifically Hawaiian Kenpo karate, which incorporates all of the different martial arts into one. Saleh says she’s always loved everything that had to do with kicks and violence; this, combined with the fact that martial arts was the first sport she stood out in, prompted the karateka to dedicate herself to it. She would often go to invitational tournaments around neighboring towns in order to showcase her talent. “It took me nine years to attain my black belt [in karate], but I am one now” said Saleh on reaching the highest rank attainable in martial arts.

 

Saleh often incorporates her knowledge of karate into her game as a goalkeeper. The discipline she learned and the reflexes she developed are key to how she responds in the field. As much as her training has improved the way she plays, Saleh sometimes gets in trouble with her coach for using moves that are not particularly safe; but for her, these moves are what give her an edge in the game.

Some years after starting martial arts, Saleh began playing handball in local teams, and later went on to represent Puerto Rico in the National team. She played as a goalkeeper for this team for two non-consecutive years in the International Handball Federation Trophy. The first year (2014) the game was held in Puerto Rico, where the team won their silver medal; the second (2016) in Canada where they won bronze.

  

Saleh’s participation in Puerto Rico’s National Handball team is a cause of great pride. She says there is no other feeling that can compare to that of representing her Puerto Rico on a national stage. This experience is among the top moments of her life.

Finally, Saleh began playing soccer as a teenager in high school after being invited to play by one of her teachers. She realized she was good at it, and decided to pursue it. She worked throughout her teenage years to become good at the sport, and later to get a university scholarship. For the goalie, soccer is her top sport among all the others she has played because it is the most fulfilling. Precisely for this reason, she joined UPRM’s soccer team back in 2015 and took over as goalkeeper. The UPRM’s participation in the Inter-University Athletic League (LAI) was her first experience as a goalie in a more “professional” setting than the one she was used to, but she was determined to make it work. Regardless, she gets extremely nervous during every game so much that she chews through a pack of gum every game just to keep the nerves at bay.

During the 2016 semi-finals, UPRM faced UPR-Cayey. It was then that Saleh first faced the challenge of finishing a game by penalty kicks. When the 90 minutes ran out both teams were tied, which meant the game would be decided by penalty kicks. During the penalty kicks, the kicker stands at 36 feet from the goal, which is 24 feet long, and it’s the goalkeeper’s role to stop the ball. When the whistle blew, Saleh didn’t know what to do, and broke-down crying. Thankfully, her performance was favorable and the team passed to the finals.

During the finals between UPRM and INTER, the deciding game also came down to penalty kicks. Saleh suffered cramps in both her legs during that part of the final game. When people came to help her, they set her down in an anthill where the ants had a field day and Saleh had an allergic reaction to the bites, making her face fill with scratches; yet she continued to play.

The game stayed tied throughout the penalties; both kickers would score a goal or both goalkeepers would stop the ball during the same round. When the last penalty kick was struck, Saleh didn’t know it would be the defining one; her teammate had scored a goal and it was on her to stop the last kick for the win. “The one that mattered, I stopped,”  Saleh shared with a laugh as she remembered the game.

For Saleh, this finals game will always be her favorite, “a million more [finals] can come, although a thousand bad things happened to me, that one will always be my favorite.” After this championship, the goalie was named “Rookie of the Year” in UPRM for her distinguished participation. Saleh said she “wasn’t expecting it… when I heard my name I was really happy.”

Last year’s finals were also down to UPRM vs INTER; this game was played under the rain in a muddy and slippery field. The first goal of the game was scored by the opposing team. The ball was a few feet in front of Saleh, and when she went to kick it she slipped and fell, leaving the goal open to an easy score for the opposing team. According to Saleh, she broke down, “how was I supposed to face my team after such a stupid mistake?” The probabilities of her mistake causing the team to not only lose the game, but also the “BiCAAMpeonato” were now extremely high. She explained how pressure works differently in the field; how she stands by herself in the goal, and as a goalkeeper, it’s her entire responsibility to stop any ball that comes her way. When in the field, there’s usually a line behind that can pick up the slack, but once a goal is made the fault is put on the goalkeeper. Regardless of her mistake, the team won last year as well (2-1).

After winning the game, Saleh recalled how her team did not blame her for the mistake and reassured her. In fact, that support between her teammates is what she thinks makes them the winning team they are. She has noticed in other teams that when one player makes a mistake they fight among themselves, which usually lowers morale and allows the opposing team to take advantage and causes them to lose. In her experience, UPRM’s team always has each other’s backs. It’s a big team, so there are always little groups of friends, but they all come together in the field. Unity in the field is one of the most important factors that goes into a winning team. Another reason as to why Saleh considers UPRM’s team to be great is the orgullo colegial each one carries for their university. There is a distinct pressure that comes from representing the best university in the island, according to Saleh. Everyone on the team is aware of what they are representing; they do it with pride and they play to win because of it.

Besides the support of her teammates, the UPRM soccer team doesn’t lack support from the university. Saleh was pleasantly surprised when she saw the immense support the team receives from other athletes. “You go to the games and you can see the groups of athletes supporting the players,” Saleh comments on the solidarity shared between the athletes at UPRM.

Of course, all this support doesn’t hold a candle to what her family has done for her. The Saleh-Martínez family has always been her number-one fan, especially her mom, Katy Martínez, who has gone above and beyond to support her daughter. It was thanks to her sacrifice that Saleh, still in high school, was able to go to Puerto Rico’s National Handball team’s practices 3 to 4 times a week in Rio Grande. The support that Saleh receives from her mother did not stop there. According to Saleh, her mom does not miss any one of her games, and she’s not the only one, as the moms of the entire team are there for every game, giving unparalleled support to their daughters.

For the UPRM soccer team, the season started on Tuesday, March 20th. This is Katy Saleh’s third year participating as a goalie in the LAI and, in contrast to past years, she feels more confident and relaxed in her roll. Her experience in past years and better knowledge of how the players execute their game gives her an edge. Though she won’t speculate about this year’s champions, she says that it feels a lot like it did in the past two years; most teams are balanced as they were before and the competition is basically the same. There are pre-LAI tournaments where the teams go “check each other out,” so to speak. One of those tournaments was Offside Magazine. At this tournament, UPRM vs INTER faced each other once again in the finals, so if this tournament is any indication of how this season will turn, we can expect a repeat of past years’ finals. Now, the finals are weeks away and only time will tell. As Saleh said, “the ball is round and can favor any team on the field.”

Natalia M. Betancourt Malavé is currently a fourth year B.A. student in the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez Campus. She studies English Literature while minoring in Writing and Communications with special course work in the Italian language and International Relations. "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." – Winston Churchill
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