Where aerospace engineering and NCAA soccer meet

Courtesy Alabama

First at a community college in Iowa and now at Alabama, Celia Jimenez Delgado has studied aerospace engineering while playing soccer.

The first flight was a short one. A plane bound for Madrid from Seville spends less than an hour in the air. But for Celia Jimenez Delgado, who was 14 years old and on her way to play soccer with a Spanish national team, it was her first flight. A mundane commute for others gave her a lasting memory.

The sensations of lifting off the ground, hurtling headlong yet smoothly through the air -- all of it was new. But the reasons such sensations are possible intrigued Jimenez Delgado long before that day.

"Since I was a kid, I knew that I loved engineering, machines, engines, everything related to that," Jimenez Delgado said. "The idea of creating something out of nowhere really excites me. And the idea of fighting the gravity law is pretty cool. Humans, we can go from Point A to Point B, but the idea of getting something, an object, fighting gravity for a long time is a cool idea."

If that flight was the first time soccer and aerodynamics, her two great passions, mingled in such proximity, it wasn't the last. The flights just grew longer.

Now in her final season of an American collegiate odyssey that took her from near the shores of the Mediterranean to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Jimenez Delgado plays soccer for the University of Alabama and the Spanish women's national team. She also studies aerospace engineering at Alabama.

That neither pursuit -- soccer for so long a cornerstone of Spanish machismo, and engineering beset by its own global gender divide -- was supposedly her domain never troubled her.

She felt the cultural gravity imposed on previous generations of women. She fought gravity.

Jimenez Delgado isn't entirely sure where she picked up a love of soccer. No one else in her family was consumed by it. Her fascination with how things work, on the other hand, is easy to trace. Her father, Antonio, runs an olive oil business near the family home in Jaén, several hours east of Seville in southern Spain. But if entrepreneurship is his profession, tinkering is his passion. Forever taking things apart and putting them back together, his interest in the mechanics of the world around him rubbed off on his daughters. Celia's older sister, Laura, studied aerospace engineering in Spain, where she now works for Airbus on its A400M military cargo plane.

Celia wanted to follow a similar professional path, but she also wanted to keep playing soccer. In a theme repeated frequently among the stories of even her generation in Spain, she grew up the only girl playing among boys. She heard all the muttered comments about the soccer field being no place for a girl, that there was no future in the sport for her and that she should focus on school. She conceded that even her dad, at first, wasn't sure about it, though she said it took only a matter of weeks and her mom's persuasion to win him over.

By the time she was a teenager, Jimenez Delgado moved away from her family so that she could attend high school and train in Seville, playing as an amateur for the still-new women's team associated with Spanish soccer heavyweight Sevilla FC. But maintaining twin passions beyond high school? She could conceivably do both -- rosters of all but a few fully professional women's teams in Europe are replete with players balancing soccer with full-time jobs or full-time studies elsewhere -- but it would require sacrificing the quality of one or perhaps both.

The coach at Iowa Western Community College at the time, Brad Silvey didn't exactly possess the budget that allowed for a vast international scouting operation. But when a friend who coached the men's team at nearby Marshalltown Community College, Rafael Martinez, asked him if Iowa Western would be interested in a player he learned about on a visit home to Spain, Silvey welcomed the good fortune, even late in the normal recruiting cycle.

"I remember getting her on the phone, and her just aura and charisma and personality, it just lit up over the telephone," Silvey said. "Somehow, some way, we convinced her to come over."

So it was that Jimenez Delgado made the much longer flight across the Atlantic Ocean. She had never been to the United States and had as much of a feel for Iowa as most Americans have for the Andalusia region in Spain.

"I looked it up, and I knew where it was, but I didn't think it would be that much different from New York or Las Vegas or places like that," Jimenez Delgado said. "If you've never been [to the U.S.], the idea of the States that you have is kind of what television shows or sells. That's New York, Miami, Las Vegas and California. So I thought I would be getting to a city like those.

"When I got to Iowa, I was like, 'Man, did I take the right plane?'"

The idea of fighting the gravity law is pretty cool.
Celia Jimenez Delgado

Jimenez Delgado said she spoke almost no English when she arrived. (Silvey countered that, even from those early recruiting Skypes, her command of the language was better than she thought.) But even if professors were initially difficult to decipher, she always had numbers. Like her dad tinkering with some object, she could work her way through the concepts she saw in the textbooks. In three semesters, she completed the work in the school's pre-engineering program. As with leaving home for Seville, albeit now more than a car ride away, she found the trade-off worth it, with some of her comfort zone swapped for opportunities.

"Even though [Iowa] didn't seem like my idea was, I liked it," Jimenez Delgado said. "Maybe the place wasn't super fun or gorgeous, but I have to say I found in Iowa really good people. And by really good people, I mean people I will keep by my side for the rest of my life."

With Jimenez Delgado, Iowa Western won a junior college national championship in 2013 and made it back to the title game in 2014. People noticed. Silvey said the amount of interest shown by Division I programs in the Spanish player far surpassed anything he had previously encountered. As he and people at the school tried to help her navigate that second recruiting process, they presented her with options for fitting her plan within a school's offerings.

"She would not budge," recalled Silvey, now the coach at Illinois State. "She would not consider any alternative route. She was dead set on aerospace engineering. She wasn't going to have it any other way. That's what she set out to do, and nothing was going to deter her from that path.

"There were multiple schools that contacted her that had engineering programs but did not have aerospace or aeronautical engineering. And as alluring and as attractive as some of those institutions were from a financial standpoint, a prestige standpoint, she quickly dismissed them and was on to the next that had what she wanted to study."

Courtesy Alabama

Senior midfielder Celia Jimenez Delgado ranks second in assists (5) and third in points (9) for Alabama.

She found the right fit at Alabama, one of several good aerospace programs in a state with a strong connection to the field through NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The university also, of course, offered SEC sports. Jimenez Delgado earned all-conference honors in her first season with the Crimson Tide, and after sitting out last season with a torn ACL, she is second on the team in assists this season. She returned from the injury in time to regain a place on the Spanish women's national team for this past summer's European Championship.

More choices loom. Jimenez Delgado would like to go to graduate school in the United States, perhaps turning her fascination with flight into work on the aerodynamics of cars. But she also hopes for opportunities to play soccer professionally. The next World Cup, after all, is less than two years away, and Spain is in an intriguing qualifying group alongside Euro surprise Austria.

The culture of soccer is changing in Spain. Women's teams were once afterthoughts compared to giants such as Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, but those clubs are now spending money and competing on a continental scale on the women's side. For Jimenez Delgado, there is always the voice in the back of her head that wonders what it would be like at home, to be present as the game grows and change comes to one more relic of machismo. But she didn't set out to be a trailblazer, to push at doors. She just loved soccer and the ideas of engineering.

"I would say that it's hard to find a girl who plays soccer and is into engineering," Jimenez Delgado said of a changing Spain. "But I think it is really common to find a girl who plays soccer or a girl who is into engineering."

That Jimenez Delgado fits both categories led her to Tuscaloosa. Like Council Bluffs before it. Like Seville before that.

Maybe she will one day be forced to choose. Or maybe she can fight the pull of the forces at play on her for a little while longer.

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