Aug. 29, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
• UW Athletic Hall of Fame
MADISON, Wis. -- Growing up in the Camp Randall Stadium neighborhood, Karen Lunda was a self-described tomboy who played whatever sport was in season, and whatever sport she could. "I played on a boys' soccer team from sixth to ninth grade,'' she said, "because they didn't have girls' soccer.''
Hold that thought -- "because they didn't have girls' soccer'' -- and put it into context: the U.S. women's soccer team just won its third-consecutive gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics. "It's interesting to look back over the whole spectrum because it's changed drastically,'' Lunda said.
Perspective, historical or otherwise, is not lacking in Karen Lunda, the Badgers' first women's soccer All-American and a member of the 2012 induction class for the UW Athletic Hall of Fame. "It's very exciting and very humbling,'' she said.
The irony is that when Lunda first got to Wisconsin in the late `70s, she basically thought, "My athletic career was pretty much over. I wasn't good enough to play basketball or tennis. And they didn't have softball or soccer. But I wanted to try something.''
So she went out for the field hockey team. "I had never played the game before,'' said Lunda, who had competed in tennis and softball at Madison West High School. "The only thing that I really knew about it was there were 11 players, which is the same as soccer.''
One of her former softball coaches provided her with a stick and a ball and Lunda took it from there. "When I tried out, my goal was to make the traveling team,'' she said. "And I ended up being the leading scorer my freshman year and getting a scholarship.''
While she was honing her skills in one sport, she was helping organize another on the Madison campus. "We started a club soccer team my freshman year,'' she said, "and by my sophomore year we had enough (players) for two club teams.''
In retrospect, it was a good thing that she had a fallback.
"Field hockey was struggling to field a team because we really didn't have a feeder program; it wasn't played in high schools in the Midwest,'' she said. "My senior year was very bittersweet.''
That's because UW dropped field hockey and replaced it with soccer. "I was very excited to be able to play soccer at the college level,'' Lunda said. "But I also had this kind of lump in my heart for my teammates in field hockey ... for them ... their dreams were kind of dashed.''
Lunda still has some vivid memories from soccer's transition from a club sport. "We just wanted to play,'' she said. "We borrowed men's uniforms and sold chocolate bars to make money.''
There was also the time the team was scheduled to play at a tournament in Indianapolis. Except nobody knew how they were going to get there. Loren Seagrave, a former UW women's assistant track coach, was a family friend, so Lunda asked him if they could borrow his van for the trip.
"He said, `Sure, but there's just one problem -- it doesn't start,''' Lunda recalled. "My dad got his mechanic to put a new battery in the van but there was another problem: no front passenger seat. So we duct-taped a lawn chair to the front and we all packed in.''
Lunda embodied the slogan "Just Do it'' well before it was created in 1988. "We just did what it took because we wanted to play,'' she said, "and everybody was out there because of that.''
Maximizing her playing opportunity, Lunda led the UW team in goals (22), assists (18) and points (62) in her only season of competition (1981).
Those records still stand.
Despite earning All-American recognition, her soccer career had pretty much run its course. "People have said, `It's too bad you were ahead of your time,''' she said.
One of those people was Craig Webb, the former UW women's soccer coach.
During her formative years, Lunda actually played soccer with and against Webb.
"If Karen Lunda were playing today,'' he said, "she would be a combination of Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. I have absolutely no doubt she'd be wearing an Olympic gold medal around her neck.''
Lunda was flattered. "I would say definitely back then I would have had a shot (at the Olympic team),'' she said. "Being an All-American, I was one of the better players in the country and would have been invited to the national team. But it's hard to know how everything would have panned out.''
Fact is, Lunda almost did make it to the Olympics -- in speed skating. She was an alternate for the 1976 U.S. team in Innsbruck, Austria. Her older sister, Kay, was on the 1972 Olympic team.
Karen Lunda trained with the Heidens: Eric, who won five gold medals in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and his sister Beth, a bronze medalist. Lunda gave up speed skating in her mid-teens. "I couldn't earn a living doing that type of thing,'' she said, "and I wanted to be a physical therapist.''
Her appreciation for competition never waned.
Nor did she ever take competing for granted after dealing with Osgood-Schlatter disease. "It really made me appreciate my health,'' she said. "Having it in a sense taken away from me -- not being able to play sports for that year -- I feel very fortunate that I've had all the opportunities that I've had.''
Since 1984, Lunda has been living in Tucson, Ariz., and building Lunda & Associates, a work injury evaluation and prevention firm specializing in functional capacity and ergonomic evaluations. "Similar to rehabbing an athlete back to a sport,'' she said, "we rehab a worker back to their job.''
Lunda expects to be overcome by a flood of good memories when she returns to Madison for Friday night's hall of fame induction ceremonies in front of the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center. "I'll get to see almost my entire family and friends I haven't seen for years,'' she said.
When Webb was asked to detail Lunda's legacy, he called her "the foundation'' upon which the UW women's soccer program was built.
"Although many other great women made huge contribution to our success,'' he said, "without Karen it simply would not have happened.''
From her estimable perspective, Lunda believes her legacy would be tied to "being a hard worker and using the talent that I had'' to be successful in whatever endeavor or sport. She has never cursed her fate for coming along too soon or "ahead of her time'' or before Title IX really took root.
Nonetheless, what if ... what if she would have had the opportunity to play four years of college soccer for the Badgers, not just one? "To be honest,'' she said, "I don't know that I would trade those years of both playing field hockey and the soccer club experience.''
That's because her only goal was to just play, to just do it.