She beat cancer, now footballer Natalia Gaitan takes on the fight for gender equality
Natalia Gaitan has always been a fighter.
At the age of five she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which led to a four year battle with cancer.
Gaitan went on to become the captain of Colombia's women's football team and has managed to deliver victories despite facing discrimination from many, while having little support from Colombia’s sporting institutions.
But how did this 28-year-old become so determined to restore glory to Colombia's squad and manage to get the support of star men's national team players Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez in her fight for gender equality?
The battle against leukemia
Unlike most five-year-olds in Colombia, who were out riding bicycles and running in the park, Gaitan spent most of her childhood days in hospital.
She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. A type of cancer that mainly hits children between three and five years of age.
That meant young Natalia had to endure eight days of hospitalisation every six weeks, for a period that stretched over four years.
Her parents passed the time in hospital by building card houses, watching movies, and playing puzzles with her.
In an interview with El Espectador, her parents, Guillermo and Norma, said that this probably gave her the strength to accept the process, and taught her how to deal with it in the best possible way, saying "It might have formed her as the fighter she became."
“Since I was very small, I have faced various challenges. That helped me to mature, to see things from another point of view. I had to go to the hospital, but also do my homework, and that generated a discipline inside me that later helped me balance training and studying at the same time.” Natalia Gaitan to as.com
The football player
No wonder Gaitan credits her success today to her father and her brother Guillermo.
They never stopped believing in her.
She pursued her passion for football and first wore the Colombian national kit in 2008, when she made the Under-17 team.
That year, they went on to win the South American Championship, tasting victory at an early age.
But the signs of a greater problem were already apparent.
“In the beginning, they gave us the uniforms that were leftover from the men’s team,” the player told El Espectador.
Graduating to the senior squad, Gaitan has represented her country in two World Cups.
Colombia were knocked out in the group stage in Germany 2011, but improved the following edition in Canada where they were defeated in the quarter-finals by eventual champions USA.
That achievement in 2015 led to her signing for Spanish side Valencia CF where she is the captain to date.
Putting the spotlight on inequality
Despite their progress on the pitch, the conditions within the national team have been far from what the women's team are willing to accept.
In March of 2019, senior players staged a press conference to list their complaints about how the Colombian Football Federation (FCF) has managed the national team in recent years.
They claimed there was a lack of support, and the neglect of women’s football in the South American country.
Allegations of sexual harassment also sparked a wave of players speaking out about the conditions in general, with the female footballers feeling that they were “treated as second-class citizens by the national federation”.
The players talked about the deterioration of the national squad, the alleged pocketing of money by officials, and how the federation stopped paying them a stipend and refused to fund their international flights to attend training camps.
They also highlighted the long gaps between training sessions.
Not ideal if you want a football team to succeed internationally. So the frustrated players took to the media to air their grievances.
The women’s team has since received support from Colombian star players from the men's side, including Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, who both used social media to show their solidarity.
Not just an issue for Colombia
Gaitan's efforts see her join a growing list of female players fighting for gender equality within sport.
The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup was won by a US national team in dispute with their federation about similar issues.
While the world's top female player, Ada Hegerberg, didn't feature in Norway's squad amid her ongoing fight for equality.
Time for redemption
Despite the issues off the pitch, Gaitan is on a mission.
She would like to win a title with Colombia before hanging up her boots.
At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, she came close to lifting her first title with the national team when they made the final.
Unfortunately for her, they fell short, losing 4-0 to Brazil.
Perhaps Gaitan's sentiment for success is best summed up by a tweet she posted referring to her success while with the Under-17 team when they won the South American Championship title...
"Today my #tbt is very special. The first and only international title that we have won with the Colombian national team. We have got far since then, but we are still far from there. I'm always proud of putting on this shirt."