Florida national champs embracing life after championships
The University of Florida is home to 40 national championship teams. That doesn't include individual national championships, conference championships and Olympic success, which makes it easy to see why Florida's athletics program is highly regarded.
Winning it all is a dream come true for the athletes, but what's life like after winning a national championship championship?
“Winning a national championship at Florida is life changing," said Danielle Fotopoulos, former Gator soccer player and U.S. National Team member. "When you accomplish a goal that you’ve had your whole life it’s amazing and you do have confidence throughout life.”
Former Gator women's tennis player Stephanie Nickitas added, “You learn so much about time management and discipline, and work ethic and things that carry over into the business world and the rest of your life. So much is layered off of that foundation of being at UF.”
In 1998 Danielle Fotopoulos scored the lone goal in Florida soccer's first national championship victory in program history. She holds the NCAA's record for career goals and points, and went on to play on the 1999 World Cup Championship Team.
"'Till this day I still have people coming up to me talking about both instances, like, 'I was there at the ’98 National Championship. I remember what I was doing in 1999 when that girl took off her shirt.' Everybody just remembers those moments," said Fotopoulos. "It’s nice to share that.”
She's now using the tools she developed as a player at UF to inspire and coach a new generation of athletes.
“I love being a coach her at Eckerd College," Fotopoulos said. "Getting to be a player in all different roles and being able to empathize with the players themselves in each role because I’ve been a super star on a team and then I’ve been a bench player on a team, and (knowing) what goes into your purpose in each of those roles to win National Championship.”
Like Fotopoulos, Nickitas also went pro after college and coached at the college level. During her time at UF she was a NCAA doubles champion in 1996 and 1997, and since retiring from coaching tennis, she now inspires a different type of athlete.
“I could relate to players pretty well, but I think it carries over into what I’m doing here at CrossFit," said Nickitas, who is an owner/coach at CrossFit Winter Park. "It’s still mentoring and helping shape people’s lives. I think that’s what drew me to coaching on the tennis court, and now just in a different format. Health and wellness in general has always been a big part of my life.”
In 2001, it was the men's golf team that brought home the championship hardware. Nick Gilliam took home the individual title that year after not winning a single tournament during his tenure at Florida.
“It was my last collegiate event, so for me I was able to turn professional right after," said Gilliam. "Already graduated and I got some exemptions into PGA Tour tournaments that I wouldn’t have got otherwise. It kind of was a spring board for my professional career.”
Despite the joy and excitement that comes with winning a National Championship, returning players then face the expectation of a repeat. Gator baseball won its first title in program history last summer, and must win two games against Arkansas in this years College World series to advance to the Finals.
“I didn’t really feel pressure on the team in any of the years I’ve been here. If anything I feel there’s more pressure this year,” senior catcher JJ Schwarz said heading into the 2018 season.
When you look at all the success Gators athletics has had, you can't help but wonder what the university has that other school's lack.
“I grew up in Green Bay Wisconsin. There’s a championship tradition that’s behind the Green Bay Packers organization and you can sense that here at the University of Florida,” said Gilliam.
Fotopoulos added, “The traditions alone are amazing. That’s expected when you go there is to win a national championship. That’s the goal. Nothing else.”