Grace McCatty: From Champions League to volunteering in Zambia

By Andrew AloiaBBC Sport
Grace McCatty
Grace McCatty says volunteering in Zambia for six weeks in 2010 opened her eyes

Build an orphanage and play football for a living - a young Grace McCatty was thinking big when she was setting goals in life.

Now, as a 25-year-old she is preparing to captain Bristol Academy in the Champions League, while helping fund the finishing touches for a school in Zambia where she will also spend four months volunteering as part of UK Sport's Ideals programme.

Returning to south-central Africa will mean temporarily hanging up her boots in the middle of the Women's Super League season, something that would be inconceivable for a male counterpart in the Premier League, but McCatty is not someone who would agree with the late Bill Shankly's view that football is much more important than life or death.

The former England youth international is more the "striving to live a life that makes a difference" kind of person.

"Football has given me an unbelievable platform to do that," she told BBC Sport.

Grace McCatty against Barcelona
Bristol Academy beat Barcelona 2-1 on aggregate in the last-16 of the Champions League in November

"As much as I love football, it is only only one part of what I do. That doesn't devalue it, it is part of me, but I have a heart for international development.

"What I do on the field is, to an extent, selfish - I do it for myself, for my own enjoyment. I love playing the game and do it because want to achieve.

"This is me going out, making a difference to someone else's life.

"Having played on the international stage, I've then seen the flip side of that and how you can go into a community where they have nothing - kids have no shoes, they wear the same clothes every day. You take one football to 40 kids and the joy on their faces when they see that, the joy that football brings them genuinely changes their life."

It has also changed the course of McCatty's life.

After Bristol Academy beat Barcelona in the last-16 of the Champions League to set-up a quarter-final meeting this month with European women's football giants Frankfurt, the Gloucester-born defender was offered the chance to return to Zambia to oversee the Ideals - International Development through Excellence and Leadership in Sport -external-link project.

UK Sport's Ideals programme
Started in 2006, Ideals is linked to 10 Universities and a number of National Governing Bodies (NGBs) of sport across the UK and is currently operational in five countries, working with local organisations, universities and sports overseas. Since 2006, more than 350 British students, 60 university staff members and 30 young professionals (those working in the sporting environment) have participated in the programme.
UK Sport websiteexternal-link

For the Vixens, it may mean losing one of their best players for half the season, but it did not stop manager Dave Edmondson from naming her skipper for the new WSL1 campaign, which begins next Wednesday.

"First thing I did was speak to the manager, I wanted to make sure that I not only had his approval, but that when I came back there was a club for me," McCatty said.

"I spoke to Dave and he was good about it. He said 'as your manager I want the best players here, but as your coach I have an emotional investment in you and I know how important it is'.

"That was refreshing to hear - his support made the decision easier."

In between juggling her football career and a day job as relationship manager for Rounders England,external-link as well as volunteering every Friday night at her local church and coaching three football teams, McCatty has also managed to complete a masters thesis on how to better improve the impact of charitable projects in Zambia.

Get to know Grace McCatty
Born: 28 September 1989Position: Defender
International honours: England Under-23 and Under-19Former clubs: Gloucester City LFC
Day job: Relationships manager for Rounder EnglandTwitter: @gracemccattyexternal-link

Since she first worked among the community in the Chawama district of Zambia's capital city Lusaka, where she taught in schools, coached local children and assisted in the delivery of HIV and Aids education, she has raised money with a 874-mile solo bike ride from John O'Groats to Lands End.

The funds from her journey will go towards equipping a school with essentials, such as electricity.

"Life is manic but I'm always looking for the next challenge, looking to stretch myself as much as possible," she said.

"You only have one life and I want to know that when I get to the end of it I can look back and be proud of everything I have done, that I've taken every opportunity and that I've really given all I have to offer to those that need it."

Grace McCatty in Zambia 2010
Coaching 80 youngsters with just two footballs at her disposal was a "humbling experience" for McCatty

While Zambia has "captured" McCatty, she also remains dedicated to Bristol's fortunes on the pitch.

If the Vixens do manage to get past three-time Champions League winners Frankfurt and go on to reach the final in Berlin on 14 May, the skipper will be there.

"Knowing I'm going away is difficult because I know I will miss part of the season, but my aim is to do the best I can in every game, so when I do leave, I leave the club in the best position it can be," she said.

"It's crazy, I leave in two and a half months and as excited as I am to go back, I've not thought about it because my focus is on football.

"The fact that we are just two rounds away from the final is a crazy thought. The fact Bristol Academy are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League is pretty special and that is my biggest motivation."

Champions League quarter-final - Bristol Academy v Frankfurt
First leg: Saturday, 21 March at Ashton Gate. Kick-off: 14:00 GMT.
Commentary: Live on BBC Radio Bristol from 13:00 GMT
Second leg: Sunday, March 29 at Am Brentano Bad, Frankfurt am Main