The driven goalkeeper is so much more than a rising star in the Pac-12. She’s a molecular biology major. She has a 3.96 GPA. And she is the first Husky student-athlete in 20 years – maybe ever – to win UW’s prestigious president’s medal as the university’s top student in her class.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Click here to sign-up and receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE – Megan Kufeld was training with her coach in the Dempsey Indoor facility last week when her mobile phone rang unexpectedly, interrupting the session.
Dr. Ed Taylor was calling -- but not at the appointed time that the University of Washington’s vice provost and dean for undergraduate academic affairs had his office set up with Kufeld via e-mail.
“I tried to call her 15 minutes early,” Taylor admitted Tuesday, still laughing days after he had talked to the Huskies’ remarkable goalkeeper. “I figured, ‘What the heck, she’s a college kid. She’s got time.’”
Not Kufeld. Not while she’s attaining a 3.96 grade-point average inside UW’s honors program. Not while majoring in molecular biology. Not while as the 2013 team Most Valuable Player and a All-Pac-12 honorable mention keeper for the Huskies, one with national-team experience.
Kufeld politely but firmly told the dean to wait his turn. Dr. Taylor was disrupting her previously scheduled soccer workout. And Kufeld is nothing if not scheduled.
“I just asked him if I could call him back at 11:15,” Kufeld told me. “Hey, I had training at 11 with Amy.”
A few days later, Huskies assistant coach Amy Griffin was shaking her head in admiration – and astonishment.
“She’s the coolest nerd I’ve ever met,” Griffin said. “I mean, who does that? What student tells a dean of her university, ‘Call back, I’m too busy’?!”
"Here you have one of the best students and leaders of our university being one of our student-athletes."
Kufeld eventually found time to hear Taylor tell her she is the first Husky student-athlete in at least 20 years to receive the University of Washington President’s Medal for High Scholarship.
Records on the award from the Huskies’ office of student-athletic academic services go back only two decades. SAAS staffers believe Kufeld may be the first Husky student-athlete to earn a president’s medal.
As in, ever.
Washington’s honors subcommittee of the faculty council on academic standards selected Kufeld, plus one freshman and one junior, for overall excellence among UW’s 37,792 undergraduate students. Kufeld, currently between her redshirt and junior soccer seasons, was honored for her sophomore academic year of 2012-13.
She’s only gotten better since. Last fall she allowed only 17 goals in 20 games with 88 saves in her first full season as UW’s starter. And her meteoric GPA actually went up more, from 3.95. She’s been women’s soccer’s delegate to the Washington Student-Athletic Advisory Council (WSAAC). In the summer she plays for the Seattle Sounders’ women’s team.
“This award not only recognizes your outstanding academic record, but serves as a wonderful testament to your personal talents and the rigor you have displayed in distinguishing yourself in the classroom,” Dr. Taylor wrote in a letter sent to Kufeld’s family home in California.
Taylor wasn’t put off by Kufeld putting him off on the phone last week. He loved it.
“I just had this image of a young woman meeting every challenge she’s ever seen and becoming THE top student in her class here at the University of Washington. And then after all that, being this dedicated soccer player practicing all the time,” Taylor said.
“I told her, ‘You must be so organized – and so tired.’ She said, ‘Well, this is what I do.’ And she said it with this tone where she didn’t think what she was doing was anything special.
“It absolutely made my day to talk to her. I thought, ‘This is why we universities should be supporting college athletics.’
“She was fabulous.”
Kufeld also wins $5,000 for future academic expenses.
Much of UW’s academic community -- including Robert Stacey, dean of UW’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Pete Dukes, a professor of accounting and Washington’s faculty athletic representative to the Pac-12 and the NCAA – have joined in praising Kufeld over the prestigious award.
They are learning what UW soccer has known since Kufeld arrived to redshirt in 2010, then waited first for starting keeper Jorde LaFontaine-Kussman and then Kari Davidson to graduate.
That Kufeld is meticulous and driven. That her focus is as sharp as her goalkeeping and her intellect.
She is a high-school class valedictorian and daughter of a NASA aeronautical engineer. A gal who fell in love with biology in seventh grade, about the same time she was in the first of five U.S. national soccer team camps.
“During this time when a lot of people are talking about scandals and issues within the NCAA, here you have one of the best students and leaders of our university being one of our student-athletes,” Taylor said. “Megan is the one.”
Kufeld met me Monday afternoon in a first-floor study area of UW’s Mary Gates Hall. She had gotten out of bed before sunrise for an offseason soccer workout at 6:45 a.m. She ran, literally, down the Burke-Gilman trail to make it to her 8:30 class, Bio 302, Laboratory Techniques in Cell and Molecular Biology. Then she had Biol 355, Foundations in Molecular Cell Biology. She is also taking an honor’s course this quarter in leadership.
She took two tests Monday -- “They were hard,” she said.
Something tells me she passed.
After that it was back to refining her goalkeeping. Presumably she shoe-horned breathing and eating in before she studied more that night, went to sleep – then got up to do it all over again in the gym, in the lab and on the field Tuesday, and Wednesday, and ....
She says her hardest challenge as a now-veteran player is becoming a more vocal leader on a team that uncharacteristically missed the NCAA tournament last fall with a rare, 7-9-4 record. Kufeld, who turns 21 next month, says she doesn’t know her teammates socially as much as other Huskies because she is often studying instead of hanging out.
Last weekend, for instance, she knew she had the two tests Monday and a paper due this week.
“So I basically stayed in all weekend,” she said of the apartment she shares off campus with fellow Bay Area native Amanda Perez and another teammate.
“It’s good and bad. Some people say I am too calculated because I have to plan out everything. I don’t just do things. I have to plan it, and make sure it all works out.”
I teasingly asked her for the last time she did something spontaneously.
“See, I do spontaneous things all the time!” she responded, playfully.
“It’s just ... See, like this weekend, I planned my schedule; OK, I’m going to make sure I had time to go to dinner. To me, that’s smart planning. I have to balance my social life, my academic life, my soccer life. I have to make sure I have time to go and work on my goal kicks, so I plan that into my schedule.”
Her father Bob, a Stanford graduate and aeronautical engineer working on helicopters for NASA, laughed at that.
“Her dedication to her goals is just unbelievable,” he said Tuesday from his Bay Area office. “She’ll work for hours to get better. She does that on the field and in class.
“During finals she’ll put a sign up on her door that says ‘DO NOT DISTURB!’ She turns off her phone, because she says it is a distraction. I’ve said, ‘Hey, whatever your methods are, they are working.’”
She now has a rare, UW president’s medal to prove it.
"I have to balance my social life, my academic life, my soccer life. I have to make sure I have time to go and work on my goal kicks, so I plan that into my schedule.”
“I was really shocked to find out that I’ve gotten this award,” she said. “It’s a huge honor, because U-Dub is such a huge school and a very prestigious school. To be acknowledged as the top person in my class is really crazy.
“I have so many classes with so many smart people that it’s just ... yeah ... it’s really amazing to me.”
GALLIMORE’S IMPRESSIVE TEAMS
Kufeld is the latest among impressive scholars in the program of veteran coach Lesle Gallimore, who just finished her 20th season leading Huskies women’s soccer. Her team’s combined grade-point average during last season was a remarkable 3.46. That’s through all the practices and games and travel and tutors and test-taking on the road.
Gallimore’s teams have made the program’s first and only 12 NCAA tournaments during her two decades as coach. It is common for each of her squads to also have multiple players in UW’s honors program.
"Megan mentioned to me how much she values having Lesle as a coach, one who values academics to such a high degree and is so involved with getting many of her players in our university's honors program," Taylor, the dean, said.
Taylor recently finished writing a letter of recommendation for Faustine Dufka, part of the former Huskies defender’s application to medical school at her hometown University of California, San Francisco. Dufka graduated in 2013 with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. Not surprisingly, she just got accepted to UCSF's med school.
“Megan comes from a long line of great students that have been playing for Coach Gallimore,” Taylor said. “Her players have been so impressive for many years.”
Particularly the goalkeepers.
Kufeld was graduating from Washington High School in Fremont the spring LaFontaine-Kussman led UW into the Elite Eight of the 2010 NCAA tournament. LaFontaine-Kussman’s life story as a cancer survivor is astounding. Now graduated, she lives in Seattle and recently got married.
“Her story is beyond ridiculous,” Kufeld said. “And Jorde is still the best goalkeeper I’ve ever seen play. Training behind Jorde (when Kufeld redshirted at UW in 2011) was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
Davidson took over for LaFontaine-Kussman as the starter in 2012. Oh, she also did this: as an undergraduate Davidson co-founded a non-profit organization, HaitiBabi. Then she landed a job on a design team at Microsoft. She left Wednesday for Amsterdam to talk software design there.
“Kari’s not even a normal human being,” Kufeld said.
Neither is Kufeld.
Bob and Melinda Kufeld’s daughter grew up in the East Bay between Oakland and San Jose.
Melinda is a category development manager for Safeway. She designs store layouts and finds optimal product and aisle displays, continuing a family legacy in the food industry.
She works mainly from home. That allowed her to taxi Megan and her brother, now 24 and working for a Christian-based outdoor school in Southern California, to school and all their practices.
Megan, her brother and her parents were huge fans of the Oakland Athletics. They attended many A’s baseball games at the nearby Oakland Coliseum. So it seemed natural to the Kufelds that Megan played first base, shortstop, second base and catcher for the Pirates in the Niles-Centerville Little League until she was 13.
She also began playing soccer at age eight. On her early club teams she was primarily a center back. When she was 12 her club team’s goalkeeper quit. For a while her coach rotated the field players into the position no one wanted. Quick, cerebral Megan proved to be best at directing teammates, commanding the field -- and stopping shots.
Two years later, Kufeld accepted an invitation to try out at a national-team regional camp in Northern California. She was good enough to make the player pools for the U.S. national U-14, U-15, U-17, U-18 and U-20 programs. Griffin was her first national-team goalkeeper coach.
I asked Kufeld if Griffin is why she chose Washington.
“I had this whole process,” she said.
She wanted to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Pac-12, the two best college soccer conferences. She researched all the schools in both leagues for their soccer and for their biology programs.
“Washington and its campus had the perfect balance.”
She would have loved to attend her father’s alma mater, just across the Dumbarton Bridge and San Francisco Bay from home. But she knew Stanford already had a goalkeeper from the national-team program, Emily Oliver, who was only a year older. Oliver was the nation’s leader in goals against average as a sophomore in 2011 before having to retire last season following a series of concussions.
Kufeld took visit to each California school in the Pac-12, plus North Carolina, Duke and Virginia in the ACC. She ultimately chose between Virginia, UCLA and Washington.
UCLA was too urban for her. She loved Virginia but thought it was too far from home, “and my parents have seen every game I’ve played my whole life,” Kufeld said.
“Washington and its campus had the perfect balance,” she said. “And the people here are my type of people.”
Her decision in November of her junior high-school year and then signing were coups for the Huskies. Griffin compares Kufeld to LaFontaine-Kussman – and both favorably to the most famous of Griffin’s former protégés: Hope Solo, the one-time UW star keeper and eventual World Cup champion.
“Hope is athletic. That's what makes her special. Megan and Jorde think the game more than Hope did at this stage,” Griffin said. “Hope relied on her ability to stop shots. Jorde and Megan can organize their defense and position themselves to shut down an attack before the shot is taken.”
“SHE’S AN AWESOME DAUGHTER”
Kufeld has known since she was dissecting squid in Mr. David LeCount’s seventh-grade biology class at Centerville Junior High that she wanted to be a biologist. She dissected pigs in AP bio class at Fremont’s Washington High School.
After she signed with UW she took Gallimore’s suggestion and applied for university’s honors program. Kufeld aced her pre-requisite classes then chose molecular and cellular biology as her concentration. This winter, the second quarter of her third academic year at UW, she is taking elective courses in the biology of molecules and cells. She’s spent recent mornings in lab class extracting cells from papayas and “amplifying” their DNA through gel and other reaction mixtures. She is using pathogens such as lice to break down cell membranes.
“Then you put in salt, which helps the DNA aggregate,” she says. “And you get papaya DNA.”
We’ll take her word for it.
While staying in peak physical fitness and working with Griffin to refine her techniques on the field, the goalkeeper is learning the basis for polymerase chain reaction and isothermal amplification off it. She is learning the basis for the diagnoses of hereditary and infectious diseases plus the identification of genetic fingerprints -- the stuff of television’s CSI.
She wants to perhaps play soccer in Europe professionally before starting a career in the biotech industry, to work with products in the marketplace rather than in academic research.
UW President Michael Young will formally present Kufeld plus the freshman and junior medalists with their Medals for High Scholarship in a reception March 6. Kufeld’s parents are making yet another Seattle visit for it.
This trip is their proudest yet.
“It was an amazing day when we found out she won that award,” Bob Kufeld said. “The honors students she’s with, to accomplish what she has while playing the sport she loves, we are so proud. Just to win that award ... wow, it’s just unbelievable.”
See, Megan is more than an awesome student and soccer player at Washington.
“For a father,” her dad says, “she’s an awesome daughter.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.