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Where are they now? Success has continued to follow Stonington's Gwen McGugan

Gwen McGugan isn’t the type to sit around and go on about her athletic glory days. 

She's too humble and too busy to live in the past. 

But she’d have plenty to talk about if she did.

Start with the fact that McGugan played in three state championship games in three different sports, including boys’ soccer, at Stonington High School. She belongs to the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

She was a member of the UConn women’s soccer team in 1990 when the Huskies pulled off a stunning upset of North Carolina that ended a historic winning streak. 

She also spent a season as a walk-on for the UConn women’s basketball team.

Quite a remarkable and unique list of athletic accomplishments for the 1989 Stonington graduate. 

Now she's succeeding in life. She has two rewarding full-time jobs — raising a family that includes Max, 14, Gwendolyn, 12, and 10-year-old Everett and running two restaurants. She’s doing both with Sarina, her wife and business partner, at her side. 

She recently took time out from her hectic life to look back on her journey.

*** 

Thirty years ago in September, McGugan was part of women’s soccer history on a rainy day in Storrs. 

National powerhouse North Carolina came in riding a 103-game winning streak, the longest in any collegiate sport at that time. The Tar Heels were loaded, featuring Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, two future United States National Team stars.

The Huskies shocked the women’s soccer world with a 3-2 overtime victory. It’s one of if not the greatest win in program history. 

The fact that the Tar Heels avenged that defeat a few months later by soundly beating the Huskies 6-0 in the national title game on their home field in Chapel Hill didn’t take away from the accomplishment. 

“It was a monumental moment in UConn women’s soccer history and one I’m very proud to have been able to say I was a part of making that happen,” McGugan said. “Our team did something very special that day. We made history for all women’s collegiate soccer. As did North Carolina with their streak, we made it with the defeat of that streak.

“And then going on to the finals was a tremendous experience. As an athlete it’s what you dream of and something not a lot of people can say they have experienced. … It was a big deal and I’m so proud to have been there and experienced it with all my fantastic teammates and coaches.”

*** 

McGugan developed her passion and love for sports in the backyards, playing fields and basketball courts of Stonington. 

The youngest of eight in an active family, McGugan grew up playing outside with her siblings and neighborhood friends.

“We were always outside doing something,” McGugan said. “That’s what you did back then. You went in the woods and you climbed trees and you rode your bike and played baseball and football. Whatever sport anybody was playing, it didn’t matter what it was; kill the guy with the ball. It didn’t matter. 

“That’s kind of the way it started. I ditched my dolls when I was about four and started playing basketball.” 

Soccer became her favorite sport but her best sport was softball. 

At the youth level, McGugan played on an all-star team that advanced to the softball regionals. She also earned all-state honors at Stonington. 

She competed and excelled in three sports in high school, reaching the state finals in softball (1987), boys’ soccer (1988) and basketball (1989), a feat that no other Stonington athlete has ever accomplished.

McGugan played on the boys’ soccer team because there was no girls’ program. She quickly fit right in. Many of her teammates played with her on the youth level.

“They were great friends with her,” said Fran McSweeny, McGugan’s former soccer coach at Stonington. “They were a very close knit bunch. ... She was just part of the group and she was one of them. It was not a big deal, as far as we were concerned. 

“She was a phenomenal (athlete). Up to her junior year, she was one of the best. And then the boys got bigger and stronger and faster than she did. But she was still one of my best. She was an excellent passer. She just understood the game. So I never had any hesitation using her even though she didn’t have the speed and the strength. But she held her own. She did not back down.” 

To fulfill her goal of playing Division I college soccer, McGugan sought out ways to get some exposure. She attended soccer camp at UConn and played on a state girls’ team. 

UConn women’s coach Len Tsantiris noticed her. She ended up playing three seasons for the Huskies. 

McGugan also spent the 1991-92 season as a walk-on with the UConn women’s basketball team. 

Her competitive athletic career basically ended after graduating from UConn. She played a few sports on the recreation level over the years.

Looking back, she wishes professional opportunities were there for women like they are now.

“I wish I could still do it,” McGugan said. “I wish my body would allow me to play a sport and not worry about getting hurt. I just liked competing and performing at a top level. I can look back in my past and say I was that athlete that could have maybe played (at the next level). It was a different time back then. There were no professional women’s soccer and no professional women’s basketball teams.

“Your choices were coach or do nothing with a sport that I spent my last how many years of my life trying to be the best at. There was nothing to strive for after college. There was nothing to play. … At that time I was that athlete that could have probably gone farther. But because there was no further to go, you had to worry about what you were going to do when you got out of college.”

*** 

McGugan gets her sports fix now by watching her kids play, coaching her daughter Gwendolyn’s youth soccer team and watching professional soccer on television. 

Her career path eventually led her to the restaurant business, as she worked her way up the ladder from kitchen worker to the management level before becoming an owner. 

She has two successful restaurants, running Somewhere in Time in Mystic for the last 20 years and When Pigs Fly in Waterford for the last 13 years. 

Operating a restaurant during a pandemic has its challenges. But McGugan, like she did during her athletic career, has found a way to thrive. 

“We do pretty good,” McGugan said. “It pays the bills. We have a lot of fun. If you’re not having fun at your job, you shouldn’t be doing it. If you can find something that fits you and you can make money at it, then go for it. 

“Right now, we have two well-oiled machines. My staff has been with me for awhile. There’s not a lot of turnover. We have fun and we tend to like each other and like to hang around with each other. So it’s a good atmosphere.” 

McSweeny will be rooting for her continued success. 

“It’s fun to talk about her,” McSweeny said. “She’s deserving of it. She’s a good person, too. That’s the most important thing.” 

g.keefe@theday.com

 

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