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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Easter Island to Gainesville: Documenting Izzy Kadzban’s journey to international soccer

<p>Kadzban holds the Rapa Nui flag. The flag depicts a Reimiro, a moon-shaped ornament worn by Easter Island natives, and two heads at each end of it.</p>

Kadzban holds the Rapa Nui flag. The flag depicts a Reimiro, a moon-shaped ornament worn by Easter Island natives, and two heads at each end of it.

Sitting in her Seminole County home decorated with Moai statues and stocked with pareos, a Polynesian cloth garment, Izzy Kadzban received long-awaited news.

She became the first Rapa Nui player to represent the Chilean national soccer team. 

The UF striker’s path to international stardom wasn’t out of the ordinary for the American soccer player. At the age of 4, she signed up for recreational soccer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and joined the Kraze Krush club team in Oviedo after moving to Florida six years later. But Kadzban and her Indigenous roots forged an exceptional experience in the states. 

The Rapa Nui are a Polynesian ethnic group that settled Easter Island around the year 1200 and are most  remembered for building the giant, anthropomorphic statues covering the island. 

In 1888, Chile annexed Easter Island, home to a Rapa Nui population ravaged by climate change and European exploration. The population teetered on the brink of extinction, with just 111 surviving Rapa Nui a decade earlier. The Chilean government helped the Indigenous population rebound to 4,500 and allowed future generations of Rapa Nui to build a life on the island. Kadzban's grandmother is entirely Rapa Nui and came to the U.S. in the 1960s with her husband, who served in the U.S. Air Force.

Despite hailing from one of the most remote islands in the world, Kadzban said her grandmother made sure to keep the island’s culture close to her family. She noted the many Rapa Nui customs and traditions that she practiced growing up, 50 years after her grandmother left. 

“In my upbringing, I grew up listening to Rapa Nui songs,” Kadzban said. “I still listen to them to be honest, quite frequently. I took Rapa Nui dance classes when I was a kid when I was on the island, and when we sing happy birthday, we always sing it in Rapa Nui as well.”

It was likely that her Rapa Nui background led Kadzban to pursue soccer. The world’s game extended its roots to the distant pacific island more so than in America. 

“My husband was like, ‘Soccer isn’t even a sport over here,’” said Kadzban’s mother, Jannete Kadzban. “But when I was on the island for my graduation, on Sundays, we would watch the men play soccer on the field from after church until dusk, and it was something that brought our community together.”

Jannete was Izzy's first coach. She wanted to introduce the game as a physical activity that her daughters would enjoy. However, once Isabelle chose soccer over gymnastics at 9, the sport became a source of incredible passion and focus for her.

Amid frequent trips to Easter Island, the Kadzban family moved from Michigan to Maryland and finally to Lake Mary, Florida. The Chilean international initially struggled with these moves, especially to the Sunshine State. 

“The first few years, I didn't really like Florida much at all,” said Izzy.  “It was just too hot. But now I can't see myself leaving Florida because I love the climate so much.”

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With comfort off the pitch came success on it, as Izzy caught the eye of Lake Mary High School coach Bill Eissele.

“Izzy was determined, always on task and worked hard and everything she did,” Eissele said. “She was a really exceptional player.”

Izzy became a prolific striker in Class 7A soccer, scoring more than a goal a game her senior season and earning a United Soccer Coaches All-American selection. Around this time, she and her father uncovered she would be allowed to play for the Chilean national team.

FIFA’s eligibility rules allow players to declare for a nation if a player, parent or grandparent was born in the territory. As her grandmother was born on Easter Island, Isabelle received a call up to the under-17 Chilean national team.

When Kadzban made her first trip down to South America in La Roja’s famous red jerseys, her grandmother, whose initial 5,000-mile journey made Izzy’s success possible, cheered on from the stands. 

“Her grandmother has been there,” Janette said. “She saw Izzy’s first goal when none of us did. It’s a testament to who she is and our connection to the island “

After stints with the under-17 and under-20 sides, a 17-year-old Izzy earned the interest of coach Jose Letelier and joined the senior team in October 2019 for two friendlies against Uruguay.

“We had been talking with the coaches all summer about potentially getting a call up,” Izzy said. “I was very excited and had no remorse about leaving school to go play. I was super excited and I was hoping that I could perform well enough just to get called back up again.”

Leaping to senior level international soccer is difficult at such a young age, but Eissele believes Izzy’s success can be attributed to her unique skill set. 

“She is unique in the female game,” Eissele said. “There are very few players that want to take players on, one-on-one. It's very difficult to teach, and she has it.”

It takes exceptional maturity to play a game thousands of miles from home, a strength which Izzy’s mother can attest to. 

“I almost think Izzy has always been old,” Jannete said. “Just because of her focus, it’s always just been on soccer and school.” 

And while most high schoolers spend a Tuesday night in October studying or watching Netflix, Izzy spent it by floating a 92nd minute, left-footed effort over the Uruguayan keeper. Her strike clinched a 3-1 victory for her country and sent 18,000 Chileans at the Estadio El Teniente into a frenzy. 

“I was really excited, but I was also really surprised,” Izzy said. “I wasn't expecting to score a goal to be honest, but I was super excited once it happened. It was probably the best night of my entire life.”

Izzy was a fully fledged international before signing to play collegiate soccer. She committed to Florida in November 2019.

Izzy Kadzban

Kadzban dribbles the ball on a run during the Gators' COVID Cup scrimmage on Thursday, August 20, 2020 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.

“At UF, the culture is really tight-knit, and I really like that,” Kadzban said regarding her decision to commit to Florida. “I also really liked how Becky Burleigh is super involved, not only in soccer stuff but in players’ lives as well.”

Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh’s interest in the Rapa Nui starlet was fueled by Izzy’s character off the pitch as much as her ability on it.

“Becky is more concerned about the character of her players than how good they are on the pitch,” Eissele said. “Izzy is a great kid and a really hard worker. So most of my conversations with Becky were about her character. We already knew she was a great player.”

Kadzban’s grandmother has already returned to Easter Island, and the freshman attacker hopes to join her grandmother in living on the island at some point. 

For now, though, Izzy will traverse SEC country and travel between three continents. She hopes to join many of her international teammates in playing professional soccer in the National Women’s Soccer League or somewhere around the world after her career in Gainesville comes to an end. 

While she didn’t see much playing time with the Gators this season, recording a season-high 13 minutes against Tennessee, Izzy bonded with her teammates off the field. She participated in Black Lives Matter protests, including the Aug. 28 demonstration in Gainesville.

Wherever Izzy goes, her Rapa Nui pride, and her flag, will  always come along for the ride. 

“Honestly, being Rapa Nui is one of the things that I am most proud of,” Izzy said. “Mostly because of how proud I am to be my grandmother's granddaughter. I'm really proud of her, and I feel really close to her.”

Contact Declan Walsh at dwalsh@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @dawalsh_UF.

Kadzban holds the Rapa Nui flag. The flag depicts a Reimiro, a moon-shaped ornament worn by Easter Island natives, and two heads at each end of it.

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