Loras College women’s soccer senior Kiki Cabrera (’21) is driven by passion, spontaneity, and dancing to her own beat. The Waterloo, Iowa native and two-time American Rivers Conference (A-R-C) All-Conference honoree did not know what to expect from a college experience as a first-generation student, but with the help of her high school teammates and coaches, she was able to find herself at home at Loras, providing her the opportunity to strengthen her Catholic faith, connect to her Hispanic heritage, and grow her love for soccer.
Cabrera had been exposed to the game of soccer at a young age with her dad’s Hispanic heritage and his own experience playing the sport. She tried other sports growing up as well–basketball to this day is still one of her favorites and she is always looking to shoot hoops on campus–but she did not know where soccer would take her in the future. She moved up through recreational soccer to playing at the club level and with her high school team at Columbus Catholic, but she had not considered playing in college until her teammate and now fellow Duhawk, Grace Surma (’21), had shared information about Loras with her. No one in Cabrera’s family had gone to college so the process was new to her. She did much of the research herself and asked her friends and their families about what they were doing along the way. She was fortunate to have a support group of friends and their families as well as her high school coach, former Duhawk soccer player Julie (Sapko) Girsh (’05), to offer advice.
“My three years at Columbus helped me grow so much as a person, as a soccer player and in my faith and I knew I wanted to continue that,” said Cabrera. “That experience definitely influenced my college decision. I knew I wanted a smaller, intimate college; I wanted the chance to strengthen my faith; I wanted to play soccer. Loras had all of that, so it was an easy decision!”
Cabrera had started her high school career at public school but was not having the experience she had hoped for. She felt something was missing and it was not until her teammates on her club team suggested she transfer to Columbus and go to Catholic school. She had been wanting to reconnect with her Catholic faith and this was the moment she had been looking for.
“I am a very spontaneous person—if someone puts an idea in my head, my thought is, ‘sure, why not,’” said Cabrera. “My mom is very spontaneous, too, so she supported me in it and we filled out the paperwork a week before classes started my sophomore year!”
The first part of that year at Columbus was challenging for Cabrera as she was now at school with kids who had been going through the Catholic school system for years and she realized she had some catching up to do. The adjustment took time and effort for her, including spending time after school to work towards her first communion and confirmation as a junior and senior. It was traditionally later than most people experience but the importance to Cabrera was not a matter of what point in life it happened but to put in the work to see it through.
With no surprise, Cabrera’s work ethic has continued to shape her experience at Loras as a double major in criminal justice and Spanish with minors in Catholic studies and sociology. She is always on the go as a Breitbach Catholic Thinkers and Leaders student, Community Advisor in Byrne Oaks, and the Senior Year Experience Coordinator in the Office of Student Life. As a student-athlete, she has helped lead the Duhawks to three A-R-C regular season titles and two NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer Tournament appearances.
But that same dedication has also been put to the test. At the end of her sophomore season, Cabrera and the Duhawks were battling cross-town rival the University of Dubuque in the conference tournament semifinal when she tore her ACL.
“I remember exactly how it happened and the feeling,” said Cabrera. “I was devastated. But even with that pain, I remember being on the sidelines still so invested in the game—we had made a comeback and the team was playing so well! I was jumping off the table in excitement but forgot I was injured and I think I hurt myself again in that moment! I was so proud of my team regardless of if I was playing or not. It had been such an amazing season for us and whether or not I had torn my ACL I think I would have always remembered that one.”
Cabrera battled through a grueling and lengthy recovery both physically and emotionally. For someone with her level of energy and love for the sport, being sidelined posed its own challenges outside of rehabbing her knee. The work paid off and she returned to the pitch for her junior season in 2019 where she scored three goals and one assist to help the Duhawks capture another regular season title and her second All-Conference honor.
The team had been envisioning a new season in 2020 and preparing to make a run back to the NCAA Division III Tournament like the 2018 season, but everything came to a halt when the conference announced in August there would be no fall competition for soccer due to COVID-19.
“Things changed so much,” said Cabrera, reflecting back to when the team found out there would be no fall season. “It was a blessing to be able to practice and have something soccer related with each other. But there was that extra element where not only do you have to protect yourself but you have to protect your teammates. We learned how to be selfless and we had a really good run between August and October– we were proud of ourselves for that! I’m thankful Coach [Matt] Pucci and Jill [Leibforth] worked very hard to give us something we were able to have in this moment.”
Cabrera had already gone through COVID-19 setbacks when the pandemic first started in March while she was studying broad in Italy during J-Term through the Breitbach Catholic Thinkers and Leaders program and was headed to Spain afterwards for a semester abroad. One of the reasons she chose Loras was to develop a greater understanding of her Hispanic heritage and the chance to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country was exciting. She was having what she described the “most amazing experience” of her life and had even found a group to play soccer with while she was in Spain. She and her classmates knew their time was coming to have to head back to Dubuque, but where they were located, the virus had not spread and life seemed almost normal.
“We were fortunate there was only one day where everything shut down before we left and that day, the only places open were pharmacies and bread shops. The providence we lived in was one of the last to record a COVID-19 case, but we saw on the news it was spreading and that was when we started to get afraid. We were out buying souvenirs for our friends and families because we knew we were probably going to get sent home soon and we actually got the email saying it was time to come back while we were shopping.”
Though her trip was cut short, Cabrera has embraced the opportunity to deepen her connection with her Hispanic heritage and better communicate with her Spanish speaking family members by pursuing a major in Spanish. Her dad’s side of the family lives in Mexico and California and although she does not see them often, the time she does spend with them is previous and she wanted to make the most of it. Before she left for her J-Term trip, she had traveled to Mexico for her uncle’s wedding, marking the first time she would meet most of her family and, even more special, be able to have full conversations in their native language.
“Seeing my family last December was something that truly touched my heart because I have always wanted to be able to communicate with my family and I finally could! It was also the second time in my life I’ve seen my grandmother – the first time I had been in kindergarten. It was amazing to have her see me grow up from a child to a young woman and speak Spanish to her.”
Cabrera plans to use her Spanish degree as well as her sociology minor to help others find their passions. She has always been a people person and had first thought she wanted to work in the criminal justice field when she started college. It was not until after she had an internship at a correctional facility as a sophomore that she realized the criminal justice path may not be for her.
“After that experience, I was so scared about what I was going to do moving forward,” said Cabrera. “I talked to my favorite professor and pretty much my second mom on campus, Dr. Kate McCarthy Gilmore, and she helped me realize I am a people person—I have a lot of energy and I like to use that energy to help people! And that’s when I thought I might want to try a career in admissions and helping others see what I see in Loras. When I am passionate about something, I want others to feel the same way.”
Cabrera will return to Loras next fall for her ninth semester where she looks forward to playing another season with the soccer team and gaining more experience in admissions. For now, she is busy getting ready for the soccer season in the spring and preparing for her finals in a few weeks, but she still makes sure to take time to attend mass and bible studies as well as keep up with her favorite hobby: music.
“I love music,” said Cabrera. “I am not musically inclined and cannot sing or play an instrument but I love finding new tracks and learning about the artists. When I am listening to music, I cannot help but dance! I am not the best dancer but I will jam out all by myself!”
This is the first in a series of profiles of Loras College student athletes that takes a deeper dive into who they are beyond the sports they play. Each week, Emily Adlfinger, director of athletic communications, shines a spotlight on a different Duhawk as they share their experiences both on and off the playing field. For more I Am a Duhawk features, visit Duhawks.com.