From the moment she started playing soccer at 5 years old, Maitane Bravo knew she wanted to be a goalkeeper like her father, José Ramón.
At her first communion service, Bravo wore her soccer uniform — not a dress like the other girls.
Her parents gave her a doll for her 6th birthday, but she threw it away in anger. She wanted a soccer ball.
“I still remember being down on the floor, my dad tossing me a ball and learning how to dive,” Bravo said. “He knows how to push me more than anyone else, and he knows where I can get. He’s always the first one I go to for advice.”
Bravo played for her father’s boys’ team until she was 13. After that, she had to play club soccer with the girls. From there, Bravo spent a year playing on Spain’s third division team and her last four years in her home country on the second division team.
“[Bravo] has always been very competitive, even in training,” Ramón said. “If she thought she had not worked hard in training or that the training session had not been challenging enough, she would come home grumpy.”
Bravo also had the opportunity to practice with Athletic Club, otherwise known as Athletic Bilbao, a professional team in Spain. She also competed on the U16 and U19 Basque Country national teams but credits her experience with Athletic Club as the most beneficial to her game.
While in Spain, Bravo received an email from the Navarro Junior College coaching staff in Corsicana, Texas, offering her a full-ride scholarship. During Bravo’s visit, Navarro’s coaches told her how passionate they were about landing her commitment, and she quickly made the decision to play overseas.
When she arrived in the United States, Bravo dedicated much of her time to the weight room and getting stronger. She said the international game is geared more toward the technical style while the American game is predicated more on physicality and strength. Bravo made the necessary changes to her body and went on to compile a 30-3-1 record from 2017-19 as Navarro’s goalkeeper.
“It was an amazing two years,” Bravo said. “It really helped me not just grow as a player, but as a person. I was the captain of the team, and the coaches gave me so many responsibilities and trusted me with so much. It changed me for the better and is a big reason why I’m here right now.”
After announcing her plans to transfer from Navarro for her last two years of eligibility in spring 2019, Bravo’s phone flooded with calls from college coaches. Former Ball State head coach Craig Roberts set himself apart, she said, because of how much he valued her international background and unique style of play. Bravo committed to Ball State because she thought the program gave her the best opportunity to get better every day.
“I'm not here to play and just have fun,” Bravo said. “I have fun when I win. If I don't win, I don't have fun. I care so much because soccer has given me so many things that I can showcase.”
Bravo was not able to play in the fall 2019 season due to injury, and when COVID-19 struck the following spring, she had uncertainties of whether she would play at all in the 2020-21 season. It made Bravo question if she was meant to play for the Cardinals, but she got her chance this spring, starting all 10 games and compiling a 6-3-1 record with 26 saves.
“When someone works and trains like Mai does, there’s a dependability associated with them,” Rife said. “I think a goalkeeper who is confident and is composed with poise can have such a calming effect for the rest of the group, and Mai has that.”
Bravo said she understands that goalkeepers hold a different responsibility than the rest of their teammates, so she takes great pride in hard work, learning through trial and error and staying mentally tough.
“She knows her position in the field will always be examined with a magnifying glass,” Ramón said. “She has had to live with mistakes and know how to grow in adversity. Behind everything, Mai lets the rest of us see there is always more and more work.”
After a Mid-American Conference West Division Title and a MAC Championship game appearance, Bravo has an idea of her plans for the future. Ever since she can remember, Bravo said, she has had her sights set on playing at the highest level.
“I was 5 years old, and I was going to club practices and seeing them play,” Bravo said. “I always thought that I want to be here — I want to play here when I get older. Playing pro may happen, it may not. I always like to have that as something to look forward to.”
Contact Charleston Bowles with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cbowles01.