At the beginning of her sophomore year, University of Georgia soccer player Mariel Gutierrez sat the entire team down one day and began speaking in her native language of Spanish. After a few sentences she stopped and said to her teammates, “Look around and see your faces of confusion, that’s exactly how I feel every day.”
The room fell silent.
“I was so close to having tears,” Summer Burnett, teammate and close friend of Gutierrez, said. “I was sad, I was disappointed at myself for not even giving her that benefit of the doubt prior to that point.”
Leaving behind her family in Mexico, Gutierrez has only spent her college career in the United States. Her family has visited three times, once each season. They will make the trip one final time for Gutierrez’s senior game when Georgia faces Kentucky Oct. 26.
“I literally live two different lives,” Gutierrez said.
She lives on her own in Athens, Georgia, where life consists of school and soccer with little free time. In Mexico, life is centered around family. Sundays are spent with the family, eating and enjoying time together.
With only two games left in the regular season, Gutierrez’s collegiate career is almost over. Gutierrez has played 1175 minutes this season, with 16 starts and two goals.
Gutierrez played for Mexico’s national team on the Under-17 and Under-20 teams before beginning her career at Georgia.
“As a soccer player playing with the national team, you put yourself into really hard situations, like really important games against different nations, different countries,” Gutierrez said.
On the U-17 team she competed in the 2010 Women’s World Cup in Trinidad & Tobago, playing in a win over South Africa. She also participated in the 2014 World Cup, held in Canada, with the U-20 team. She and her teammates tied Nigeria and England and lost to South Korea.
Gutierrez kept her jerseys from the national team, bringing some to the U.S. and leaving others in Mexico. The jersey she wore against South Korea is tucked away in a drawer in Athens. While the jersey is a favorite, Gutierrez said it’s also a game she can’t seem to forget.
“It’s one game that we were winning and doing a better job than the other team,’’ Gutierrez said. “Like we were always there about to score. But we couldn’t score, like the goal doesn’t go in. They just got one opportunity, and they scored in like one chance.
“That’s what happens a lot to us here in Georgia, so that’s why it’s still in my head.”
Tanya Samarzich, who also played for Mexico before transitioning to U.S. college soccer at the University of Kentucky, said the 2014 game against South Korea ended with the players hugging one another. For many of Mexico’s players, their time on the U-20 team closed with that loss.
“It was really heartbreaking for us because it was our last moments together,” said Samarzich, who grew up in California and has dual American and Mexican citizenship.
Of Gutierrez, Samarzich said: “It was fun playing with her, because she spoke English and Spanish. So she would help me get through practices and (she was) someone to communicate with and help me learn Spanish.”
Gutierrez’s international experience was one of the reasons the previous coaching staff recruited her to play for Georgia, head coach Billy Lesesne said. It allowed the staff to view her in an international competition.
Gutierrez committed to Georgia in May 2014 before moving in August of the same year. Because she was playing in the World Cup, she did not have time to tour many other schools. But her experiences in training camps and World Cup games acted as an avenue and created a sense of confidence in her ability to play at a Division I school.
“With the national team you’re representing a whole country,” Gutierrez said. “You are like a professional soccer player, you are really focused in on doing your best. So that's maybe why it helped me to come here.”
The transition from the national team to Georgia wasn’t easy. Gutierrez developed a foundational basis of English before coming to the U.S. but struggled with understanding the coaches.
She then had to learn the language of soccer in English. Terms such as “dropping” or “pinching in” to describe the defensive shape were unfamiliar. She wrote the definitions on her arm to help her remember these phrases and what she was supposed to do.
Now, as the years have past and Gutierrez has grown with the team, Lesesne said her role as a senior with international experience is one of high importance.
A year after addressing her team to highlight the language barrier, Gutierrez sat the team down again, following a 3-0 loss against South Carolina. No coaches were present, Lesesne said, only the players. Gutierrez told her teammates “this isn’t good enough,” that they were better than their performance. In their next game, the Bulldogs ended a three-game losing streak.
The desire to hold her and her teammates accountable grew as her mentality shifted away from herself and towards the team over the years. Her two chats with the team primed her for the vocal position as a senior, her growing devotion to the team at the root of it all.
As the end of the season approaches, Gutierrez will see her two worlds collide for one last time. She will be able to celebrate her years on the team and her role as a senior with her family present.
“So when I put both together, my life in Mexico and my life here, when I put them together it’s pretty emotional, it’s pretty cool,” Gutierrez said.