Kristin Lotito had a successful first year in CRCA, capped by her win in the last race of the season. Prior to racing bikes, Kristin played professional soccer in the Serie A Women’s league in Italy. She discovered cycling while playing in Italy. She was kind enough to share her experiences with us.
I understand that you spent several years playing professional soccer in Italy.
Yes, I spent about four years in Italy playing in the Italian women’s league.
What was your background in playing soccer? What was your general sports background and when did you start playing soccer seriously?
I started playing soccer in kindergarten and never stopped since! In grade school and middle school I was also very committed to the martial arts and tennis, but my passion for soccer was unparalleled. When I was 12 I fell in love with goal keeping and was lucky enough to find a great coach who would teach me the proper fundamentals and techniques of the position.
In high school I played on a travel team dedicated to playing matches and tournaments all over the east coast for college recruitment purposes. At the time I also played with my high school team and for the New York State Olympic Development team.
I then went on to play Division I soccer in college. Our program suffered several coaching changes, but a former US Women’s National Team goalkeeper came to coach us between my junior and senior years. The NCAA limited players to how many hours we could train with our coaches in the off season, but lucky for me our new coach was married to a highly regarded ex-professional European Goalkeeper. I would train privately with him just about every day, all winter long, and often times twice a day. His belief in me, dedication to me, and outstanding coaching were pivotal to my pursuit of post-collegiate play.
How did the opportunity to play in Italy arise?
When I graduated college in 2003, the women’s soccer scene was starting to look bleak in America. The women’s league (WUSA) was about to fold, leaving for the most part just a strong summer league. I had been in contact and ready to commit to a team in Sweden, but the visa situation there proved difficult. I knew about the Italian League and had always wanted to go to Italy. I inquired with a few teams and was invited to a trial period with some of them. Fortunately it went well and I signed.
What was it like moving to Italy? How much time a year did you spend? What was it like learning a new language and living in a different culture. What took the most adjustment?
The move to Italy was surreal. The hospitality that was extended to me was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I didn’t speak a word of Italian and the town that I was playing for didn’t have many people who spoke any English. My teammates and the Italians in general were incredibly patient with me and very generous.
As many Italians tend to leave home at a later age than Americans, people were genuinly concerned for my well-being and checked in frequently. Rarely did I have a meal alone as people frequently invited me for dinner. Our season started in late August and ended in mid June, so I’d come home a bit in the summer and for Christmas.
I found so many things attractive about Italy and it would be hard to list them all. In particular I enjoyed the emphasis placed on family, the care given to simple things, the effort people put into friendship and other relationships, the quality of coaching in soccer, and of course the cuisine, the geography, and the rich history.
I traveled through Italy every chance I got and was able to spend time in most regions and see all the major cities at least once. We’d usually have the Monday after a game off and so I would sometimes stay after an away game to explore the city in which we played and its surrounding area.
One year for Easter break, I decided I’d fly down to Sicily. I had no idea at the time, but the traditions in the South are much stronger than in the north. On Good Friday I was in Siracusa, a town in the south east corner of the island, and around 5 o’clock the townspeople started filling the streets and peering out of windows along the roads. Moments later I witnessed a stunning and emotional, religious procession. The Baroque architecture and the lasting evidence of diverse cultures that inhabited Sicily left me with powerful impressions.
Another time we were playing in Rome and I decided I would take the train to Naples after our match and then a bus to visit the small town in Campagna where my father’s family had emigrated from several generations ago. Our game went into overtime and I was going to miss my train.
The team trainer took it upon himself to flag down a woman on a scooter. He quickly explained my situation to her, and the next thing I knew I was flying through the crowded streets of Rome on a scooter meant for only one person, scared that I was going to lose a limb or two.
I finally arrived at the small, rural town and my stay there was both beautiful and personally touching. I met someone who took me to the home of an elderly woman who had a picture of my great, great aunt. I had lunch with a family at their home and still keep in touch with the daughter who I hope one day will visit me. I got the opportunity to meet and talk with the mayor and tour the local school. These were just two of many, many trips that I’ll never forget.
Did you learn much about how Italian girls soccer is organized? Do many girls play as they do in the US?
Yes, I learned an incredible amount about the organization of both girls and boys soccer. Many children start playing soccer by attending their town’s ‘scuola di calcio’ or soccer school, where they are carefully instructed by talented coaches.
One of my team coaches directed a ‘scuola di calcio’ and so I would go there often with him and participate in training sessions with the older boys.
Coaches are so well versed on proper training at every age and level and there is excellent continuity in the development of players. Individual technical and team tactical development are taken very seriously.
Kids from the scuola di calcio play on teams according to age and thus play for their town growing up. When players get a little older they may be asked to play for junior squads of strong regional teams or professional teams if they show promise.
Unfortunately girls are largely outnumbered by boys, but the number of girls playing is rising, especially in the northern part of the country.
How is the Italian women’s league organized? What is the level of play compared to US college and US Pro
league that folded?
The women’s league is organized fairly comparably to the men’s league. There is Serie A, Serie A2, Serie B, Serie C, and Serie D. Serie A has 12 teams and A2 has about 24 teams. Serie B has about twice that of A2 and Serie C I believe has about twice that of B and so forth. Serie A teams all tend to play in beautiful stadiums.
I fondly recall playing in the oldest stadium in Milan; the stadium was actually built during Mussolini’s rule. It was quite an experience. Fan attendance varies greatly but is usually much higher in the north. I recall there being nice numbers when we played in Torino and Bergamo, albeit nothing anywhere remotely close to what the men get!
The top Serie A teams were probably quite comparable to the US pro league that folded. Serie A2 teams are probably on par with many Division I college teams.
Men’s sports get much more attention in the US than women’s sports especially at the professional level.. I imagine that this is even more true in Italy. Is that the case? Serie A is huge. What recognition do the women get? Where does cycling fit in terms of sport popularity. Football is one then what? Basketball, track and
field , Formula 1, cycling?
Yes, the men definitely steal the attention with respect to soccer in Italy, but the women’s game is well respected there in my opinion. Many Italians however get frustrated with all the coverage given to the sport. When the Olympics were taking place in Torino, the sport section of newspapers would be 80% soccer and 20% Olympics. I’d say cycling and Formula Uno fall right behind soccer in terms of popularity, but volleyball and basketball are also quite popular.
I understand that you became interested in cycling while in Italy? How did you come in contact with cycling?
Yes, I did become interested in cycling while in Italy. As a goalkeeper your body goes through a lot of pounding and I’ve had my share of injuries. I would look at the cyclists that were always out and think about how nice it would be to try something non-impact.
Gradually I became more and more attracted to the sport and one day I stopped in a bike shop. I told the owner I had never ridden, but that I wanted to learn.
I went home for Christmas and came back with an old touring bike and shoes. He took me on a flat ride and instructed me on cadence and pedal stroke.
I guess that went well in his mind because the next day he invited me along with his friend to do a climb. I agreed , not knowing better, and remember wanting to cry on one of the switchbacks when I had all my body weight down on the pedal and the bike wasn’t advancing. When I got home, my legs shook for hours, but I loved everything about the experience.
The next soccer season I ended up living above a nice seafood restaurant whose owner, unbeknownst to me, was very close friends with Marco Pantani. I would always enjoy talking with Franco, the owner, and when I mentioned that I was starting to enjoy cycling, he asked me about my bike.
Next thing I know, he’s taking me to his house where he has a large collection of bikes. He pulled out a Moser as the frame size looked appropriate for me and told me to enjoy it and come back to him when I needed something more for racing. He was very supportive of me and arranged for me to meet a lot of people who were all eager to teach me something about the sport.
How prevalent is cycling in the general culture? do you see people riding racing bikes all over the place? Are there many organized races for people at different levels. Is cycling as much a girls sport as a boy’s sport?
Pretty much everyone rides a bike in Italy. Most impressive to me are the 90 year old women in skirts on their way to church or to do grocery shopping. They’re not always too steady on their feet, but they can handle two wheels just fine! Moms with a kid on both the back and front of the bike are not uncommon either!
Oh yes, I would see group after group out riding all the time. It wasn’t until later on that I began to understand that within a town there may be several clubs and depending on what club you ride with labels you politically! Perhaps this was true only to the area I lived in, but nevertheless it’s worth knowing!
Now when I go back to visit I ride with a club where my friend’s father is a member. Every Saturday and Sunday I go along with them for a ‘Raduno’, which is a competition amongst all the clubs in a certain geographical area. The rides are about 130K or so and feature 3 or 4 climbs.
At the top of every climb there are checkpoints where you get your club’s membership card stamped. There is also tons of fruit, drinks, and amazing cookies to replenish one’s energy. At the end of the day, the club with the most stamps wins a prize such as an entire prosciutto. It’s a ton of fun and you can always find a group within a club that rides to your ability. While this is more of an organized ride than race, you also have the grand fondos that anyone at any level can participate in.
Certainly there are very few women out riding as compared to men, but they are present! One Italian guy once told me that it’s every Italian man’s worse nightmare to get passed by a woman on a hill! I met a lot of great guys riding, so I can’t confer the statement, but I know that attitude is out there.
Yes, both boys and girls ride and of particular interest to me were the ‘scuola di ciclismo’ or cycling schools for boys and girls. Most towns have them and they provide young kids with bikes, clothing, instruction and racing.
Did you see any of the big professional races?
I missed out on seeing the Giro d’Italia twice… Once because of soccer and the other time was this year because I was doing a gran fondo-the Nove Colli. Next year!
What sort of races exist for the serious recreational rider? Is there anything equivalent to Cat 3/4 racing in the states?
I’m really not sure about what races exist for the serious recreational rider other than grand fondos.
Did you find any interesting differences about sports in Italy and US? Either from spectator or athlete perspective.
I noticed that in group rides in Italy you would be considered not so sharp if you found yourself pulling the pack for any length of time, whereas here you might be considered a slacker if you never get on the front. Maybe this is only because the Italian guys like to save themselves and then go at it on the hills with one another.
In soccer I realized that Italian women use a lot of common sense and are very tactically astute, so that they don’t expend unnecessary energy in games, whereas many American soccer coaches pay more attention to physical strength and fitness.
Doping is a much bigger concern in all sports in Italy, not just cycling. We had random testing after every soccer game and I noticed testing being done in other competitions like triathlons and running races.
Finally I found in Italy that great attention to detail and wonderful care is given in rehabilitating injuries. Rather than pressuring players to ‘suck it up’, you are encouraged to seek proper treatment immediately.
Where did you find the best food and wine?
Many people will say the south, but I enjoyed the food and wine EVERYWHERE. Actually I hear you can get some great Italian food right here in NY on 60th between Lex and 3rd. I believe the place is called Mariella Pizza and they are friendly to cyclists ;-)