Unleashed: Gallimore Teaches, Inspires In Morocco
May 9, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Players ran across the pitch wearing white scarves and black headdresses. Others wore full leggings, to keep from revealing their bare legs beneath soccer shorts.
All wore quizzical looks. Their Arabic minds were wondering what this woman in a blue, U.S. Soccer uniform was trying to tell them while talking so quickly in foreign language.
Off the field, armed soldiers manned intersections. Royal palaces were more heavily guarded. Prayer calls echoed through the quiet streets each day at 4 a.m. They were soothing wakeup calls and reminders of religion's place in this Muslim society in North Africa.
Yet half a world away, Lesle Gallimore found one thread life in Morocco intimately familiar.
The Beautiful Game.
"It's funny how quickly you can communicate through soccer," the Huskies' women coach told me this week.
Gallimore, who finished her 18th season leading Washington last winter, was back in her office at UW's Graves Annex building on Monday, days after returning from a five-day mission as a trainer and ambassador representing U.S. Soccer in Morocco.
The State Department paid for Gallimore and two former U.S. national team members to go to the kingdom and train 30-plus coaches and players as part of our government's Empowering Women and Girls through Sports initiative. Since 2005, SportsUnited, the program from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' division within the State Department, has sent more than 200 American athletes to more than 50 countries to participate in its Sports Envoy programs.
To hear those in Morocco tell it, no one has been better received and appreciated than Gallimore.
The longest-tenured women's soccer leader in the Pac-12 and Soccer Buzz's 2000 national women's coach of the year was the only college coach among the 12 national team veterans U.S. Soccer sent as sports envoys to Malaysia, Algeria, Argentina, Venezuela, and Morocco this spring.
The Moroccans plus two coach-players each from nearby Libya and Tunisia learned what UW has known through 189 wins in two decades, through two appearances in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight. What players such as Hope Solo and Tina Ellertson (Frimpong) learned as Huskies en route to World Cup titles and Olympic gold medals.
Gallimore can coach. She can lead. She can inspire.
"In the four days that Coach Lesle Gallimore was with the Moroccan players and coaches (and two each from Tunisia and Libya), she connected with all of them on a very personal level," Sam Werberg, the deputy American cultural affairs officer in Morocco, wrote to me in an e-mail from the U.S. Embassy in Rabat.
"She gave an incredible amount of herself, physically and mentally, and the girls absolutely took notice and responded."
Yet to Werberg, a top assistant to Samuel Kaplan, the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, the most valuable gift Gallimore gave was a true sense of empowerment to young women that have been raised to be relative shadows within their society.
"The most important thing that she did, and what made the program a success, was that she respected the girls," he said.
"In a society that has not historically put a value on women's sports, and in a society where it is not expected that these young women will be able to reach the playing level they have and consider going on as coaches, Lesle respected them for their efforts. She treated them as fellow athletes and as colleagues.
"And she challenged them to do more. She gave them a respect that they have not really experienced before."
It's funny how quickly you can communicate through soccer.Interpreters were indispensible; as Gallimore joked she had to speak more slowly than she ever has.
No matter. To the Moroccans, she was soccer's Ronald Reagan of communicators.
"That she was able to do so in a foreign land, interacting with the girls through a mixture of translation and soccer-field body language, speaks highly of her, but it also speaks highly of U.S. athletes and coaches in general, and UW's outlook on sports in particular," Werberg said.
"It was obvious to all of us, from watching how Coach Gallimore interacted with the participants, that UW puts a real value on athletes, and respects them for their efforts. Lesle conveyed this respect through the entire program."
"WE JUST GOT OUR LIVES BACK"
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy on the western part of North Africa, bordering Algeria and Western Sahara across the Strait of Gilbraltar from Spain. Almost 34 million people live in a land slightly larger in size and slightly smaller in population than California. Arabic is the predominant language but French is the language of commerce in a Muslim society that is relatively conservative, according to the U.S. State Department.
As governments have teetered or toppled across the region recently, such as in Tunisia and Egypt, Morocco has stayed relatively stable as its people, its government and King Mohammed VI have worked through reforms. The United States' partnership with Morocco spans more than 230 years; Werberg says Morocco was the first country to formally recognize the U.S. after it declared independence from England.
"But it's not just the government-to-government relationship that allows us to accomplish a program like this. It's the people-to-people relationship," Werberg said of the soccer envoy program. "And Lesle contributed a great deal to that with her visit."
A veteran of soccer trips to China, Europe and beyond, Gallimore coached education rather than ran clinics for kids while in Africa. Former U.S. national team members Angela Hucles from Virginia and Marian Dalmy from Santa Clara worked more directly with Moroccan girls on soccer skills.
Gallimore had a larger scope.
Nigeria (ranked 27th in the world by FIFA, the sport's world governing body) and Ghana (51st) have been the tops in African women's soccer. Morocco was 73rd as of FIFA's last updated rankings in mid-March and wants to move up.
Gallimore showed a way.
In a society that has not historically put a value on women's sports... Lesle respected (these women) for their efforts.
"I more let the coaches I was teaching practice coaching the girls - which was the better way to do it, I think," Gallimore said of the four-day curriculum she based off U.S. Soccer's coaching philosophy plus her own experience leading the Huskies since 1994.
Gallimore did a block of instruction on sports psychology to 20- and 30-something women that were transitioning to coaching but still thinking like players. She also updated them on the state of women's and junior girls' soccer in the world and in the U.S.
After getting an early hello from the prayer calls each day at 4 a.m., she had four lesson blocks that began each morning in a classroom as she presented PowerPoint slides off her personal laptop at 8:30. The classes then moved to fields at the national football academy. Each of four consecutive days wrapped up back in the classroom past 5:30 p.m. The students included 35 African coaches aged from their early 20's to one that was in her 50s.
Some of the youth coaches are still national team players for Morocco.
"It was interesting. The Moroccan federation had really not done much for women's soccer, which is why the U.S. Embassy wanted to have us there. But they run this immaculate facility, which was created in an area near Rabat, to give girls a place to play competitive soccer beyond high school," Gallimore said.
The center was recently enlarged to include basketball and skateboarding, to, as the sponsoring Moroccan sports association writes "encourage women's sports inside and around Morocco and to give athletic opportunities to disadvantaged girls."
Their neighbors are more inherently disadvantaged.
A couple of times, Gallimore asked the Libyan or Tunisian women about soccer specifics. She used some French that she studied in high school and college.
"Anyway," they would tell Gallimore, alluding to the recent social and political turmoil in both nearby countries, "we just got our lives back."
A "SHARING FORUM"
Washington's coach found the quality of play to be good and the knowledge of the game to be great - so great she says they seem to have perfected the art of "flopping" in attempts to draw foul calls. Gallimore noticed a 14-year-old girl that was so skilled "she could be on my team tomorrow."
She also noticed the physicality of play there needs to improve, as does the psychology of the coaching in Morocco. Gallimore advised leaders of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation to develop a U-17 girls program first before striving for a full World Cup-level national team, to establish a feeder team to train and grow.
The Moroccans, Libyans and Tunisians didn't stray conversations from soccer. They never asked Gallimore about being a woman of authority and leadership in the U.S.
But the coach learned plenty from them - and helped them change a societal norm in North Africa.
"I felt through a lot of our lectures and getting to interact with them every day with the biggest cultural change for me," she said. "I didn't want to come in and look at this as some kind of charity or goodwill thing, that I was coming in to save Moroccan soccer or teach them the ways of the world because the American women were so good, we know everything. Because it's just not true. I told them it was more of a sharing forum. I think that was a good way to start a conversation for me.
It was more of a sharing forum. I think that was a good way to start a conversation.
"Moroccan women love to talk," Gallimore said, adding the players often interrupted her with ideas. They are very passionate when they speak. I had to ask the translator, `Are they mad?' She said, `No, that's just the way they talk.' Almost 100 percent of them have been coached by men. So it's a very - I don't want to say negative - but it's very old-school, the way they talk, and the way they've been talked to. It's extremely demanding and extremely after-the-fact and critical.
"We tried to get to the point where they understand how to take a little kid and instruct her, teach her, and how that critical feedback, and how you said it to them and how they received it was really important to their learning. That was some of the biggest headway we made."
Gallimore's expertise and personalized instruction were so well-received, Ambassador Kaplan and his wife hosted her and the two U.S. players at their residence in Rabat. Kaplan also attended the week's closing banquet, along with Morocco's director of sport and a top counselor to its prime minister.
"So it ended up being a pretty big to-do," Gallimore said.
Kaplan addressed the coaches, players and national dignitaries on Gallimore's final day in Morocco. He noted U.S. women's soccer is ranked first in the world "and that Coach Gallimore is among our best coaches.
"She represents the best of America," Kaplan said.
Her work was national news in Morocco all week. "Moroccan media know their audience, and they don't come out and film something just because the U.S. Embassy asks them to," Werberg said. "In this case, because of the dynamic program that Lesle designed for the participants, we had national TV news coverage from the two major Moroccan channels, and a quarter-hour documentary piece on the Moroccan sports TV channel.
"Along with robust print and online coverage, this is about the most publicized of any program we have done in Morocco over the past year."
During one of the two times she got off the pitch and into the city center that week, to shop one afternoon, Moroccans stopped her on the street with yells.
"Trainor!" they shouted. "Profesor! I saw you on TV. You are that soccer coach that was on TV. You are a movie star!"
Gallimore hopes women in Morocco capitalize on the momentum from the week and push for more from their national football federation.
"Look, you said you were going to do all this when the Americans were here. And you haven't done it," is how Gallimore puts it.
"It was great. It was for sure something I would do again, in a place that I would definitely go back to," the veteran coach said. "Between our ambassador, people from the State Department, all the Moroccan people we met, they were just lovely."
The feeling was mutual.
At the end one of the Libyan women, the one wearing a red bandana across her dark, pulled-back hair - Gallimore didn't catch her name - came up and offered an unsolicited assessment of the Husky's transformative week in North Africa.
"Choa-ch," the Libyan said in her broken English, "I love you."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of 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.