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Saturday, September 15, 2012

It's all in the Celebration

Dear Nick and Ben,

Your mom is a World Champ. :)

Well, in a roundabout way.  I didn't shed one drop of sweat or have to apply on the field what was discussed.  I didn't have to make sure my hydration and nutrition and sleep and mentality and guts were all in check.  But I felt as if I was on that field with every touch of the ball, with every run and most definitely with every save.

To watch our team COMPETE in every sense of the word was inspiring.  To watch the skill and composure in an environment that is foreign to our players compared to our European foes: their WC Qualifications are 18 months long.  Many of the foreign players are professional playing in some of the best pro-leagues in the world. Our players are club players, playing in tournaments that last a weekend, or in college playing  a 20 - 26 game season with limited training hours mandated by the NCAA. However, when it comes to rolling up the sleeves, enjoying the challenge and competing, we seemed as if we were the veterans.  A team of veterans, watching each other's back, trusting each others decisions and simply going for it. That is "Sport" at its best.

Jaime Frias, Janet Rayfield, April Heinrichs, Amy Griffin, Steve Swanson
People have asked me if being on staff and winning a World Cup is even close to as exciting as winning as a player.  I thought the answer would be 'no'.  However, the commitment of the team, the growth, the love and respect that grew and was earned over time made this experience every bit as memorable as the 1991 World Championship that I also was fortunate to share with teammate, and now "coaching teammate", April Heinrichs.

A few of the many lessons the players and staff taught me.

1)  You don't ever have to be perfect or have your best game, but you can always be extraordinary.
2)  Sleep is overrated and coffee is like oxygen....that is for the staff!
3)  When every person does all they can all of the time success is attainable.
4)  Cohesiveness all of the time, is essential.
5)  There is comfort and confidence in being prepared.

The celebration.  A few months ago when the team qualified in Panama, the celebration was... kind of a dud.  Out on the field individuals wandered around staring at sad Canadians and feeling relieved they had won aimlessly wondering, "what do we do now?"  It wasn't until the ceremony was over, the trophy had been lifted and we finally straggled back to the locker room with our inner circle of people that a slight celebration broke out.   The looks on their faces seemed to say, "Is it okay if we shout?"
Slowly but surely the crescendo of happiness became apparent, but in my book... still very lame.

Many fitness tests, training logs, pressure moments, hydration tests, bus rides, foam rolling sessions, gut checks, trust issues, homesick bouts, lost hotel keys, passport checks, ice baths later, another trophy was hoisted.  This time the celebration much different: it was pure joy! Everyone was sprinting, hugging, crying, dancing.  The German team laid on the ground forever, right up until they had to step onto the silver platform, with Japan on the bronze. The USA group shouted and danced up to the top step, received their award and continued the celebration while most the fans left the stadium.  FIFA officials could tell we were not close to exiting and commented, "We are going to begin cleaning the stadium but you are welcome to stay as long as you like."  Stay we did.  The players made snow angels in the confetti and stuffed some in their bras for mementos.  They weren't looking for friends and family in the stands until well after the celebration.  They wanted this moment with their teammates, their US Soccer sisters!

The bonds, the trust, the teamwork the love that had formed and been worked at over the year stood out to me and was just as tangible as the World Cup Trophy. By the time the stretching and ice baths and post game rituals ended we did not arrive back into the hotel until close to 11:00 PM.  On the bus ride back, windows were rolled down for pedestrians to hear, "Hey Tokyo!!!!  We are World Champs!" An exhausted, drained, content team sat happily and ate their last dinner at the hotel.  No more mandatory chicken, salmon, rice, veggies, fruit, yogurt, or  peanut butter as the "go to" 2nd option.  Tomorrow we would pack, turn in uniforms check out and head to a karaoke place where we had rented a room to eat dinner and sing to our hearts content before boarding the plane. 

One of my most memorable moments happened at the Karaoke place.  Dinner was average as well as the singing, but a good time was had by all.  We had time for one more song and the request was "Don't Wake Me Up" which was a popular song in the locker room and the song that was played while the team was on the Gold Medal podium.  When they heard the first notes of the song they jumped out of their seats and it was as if they were right back at the stadium screaming their lungs and hearts out to the song!   But what happened next that was unplanned and surprised everyone was what I will always remember.

Right in the middle of the song while everyone was jumping and singing in a circle and looking into each others eyes,  the tears began to flow.  Happy tears? No not happy, but sad tears.  The unspoken words at the same instant were comprehended by everyone.  It was over.  This team, this dream was over.  The journey was what made these bonds, and how lucky and deserved they were for reaching their dream.  Not many people get to do that... be the best in the world.  The tears, for me, made me so happy that these wonderful young adults achieved their dream.  The lessons were not lost on them.  Forever, these players will seek each other out on the soccer field, in each others hometowns and whenever the chance arises.  Not because they have their gold medal in common, but because they got out of this experience exactly what they put into it: everything. Dont Wake Me Up (please click)

Going back home for me has been bittersweet.  I feel empty and sad leaving the people with whom I have been attached at the hip. Leaving Japan with an exhilaration that I  know I will never be able to fully explain to everyone. It has meant so much to me.   I am happy and excited to see my families... the ones I am related to and the Dawgs.
Remembering that sitting down at dinner with the family is a treat and sitting on the bench at a game is a great place to be and a privilege.  Thanks for helping me keep my sanity Ben and Nick.  Sitting and writing this has been my "deep breath" and helping me keep things in perspective.  You get out of life what you put into it and if you put everything into it... please, please celebrate!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Do Dreams Come True?

Before we talk about the last few days of events, let me post a few pics.  Another reason I love Japan is they have the technology beyond the 21st century, but their culture of respect of people and nature, health and happiness is engrained in them no matter how fast the technology. 
"I caught a fish!" 

Have you ever seen a smaller dishwasher?

Dry ice inside your grocery bag before you head home . 
Tokyo has about 13.2 million people and the architecture, waterways and highways are gorgeous.  The city seems to be on levels; there is one city underground that is functional, pristine and attached to the trains and subways.

Another city at street level and then a few more above the street where freeways go through hotel buildings and you can drive forever without getting stuck in traffic; the pedestrians are below.

The Nigerian team was a stark contrast from our previous foe.  The N. Koreans regimented on and off the field. You could feel the weight of their country they carried with them as they marched to the field.  That alone was intimidating.  On the other end of the spectrum, Nigeria danced and sang right up until the FIFA introduction came over the stadium’s speakers to drowned out the steel drum cadence the fans produced. 

I no longer cry just when I hear the Star Spangled Banner.  I get a little choked up when the FIFA anthem plays as well as our opponents’ anthems.  I have either been gone too long, getting my period, or simply am happy to have this experience.  I love the music, the colors, the flags, the game.

Nigeria does not support their women’s teams to the extent US Soccer supports ours.  With the US Soccer crest comes a fair amount of pressure, especially on the heels of the full team’s Olympic gold medal.  If one was counting, the 4 of the 6 Olympic medals have been placed around the necks of the Americans.  Whether it is talked about or not, the pressure is there.  A different kind of pressure than I believe Korea DPR feels, but pressure nonetheless. 

The Nigerians?  They were excited to have the opportunity to wear the uniform, get together and play. Some players come from bigger cities while others come from villages on the outskirts of town where tops are not a necessity, let alone a jersey.  The last U20 World Cup the USA lost to Nigeria in P.K.s.  The Nigerians may not have the training camps or the experience.... nor do they have the pressure.  What they do have is the passion, the speed, the athleticism and individual skills they can master on their own without the extraordinary history of success sitting on their conscience. 

While our team seemed tense (an understatement) in the locker room, the Falconettes smiled as if the victory was already theirs.  They were a tough opponent and gave us less than a breath to receive the ball and dish it off before the pressure surrounded each player.  However, after 90 minutes of a game and what seemed like 48 hours of built up stress; the smiles appeared.  To the finals: 

Once upon a time a group of young women and their staff sat in a meeting room.  The meeting room was sparse, the players disheveled, each with a notebook they were asked to bring.  In each notebook were a few blank pieces of paper.

They sat in their chairs and listened to the new coach as he rambled on about team rules, expectations and what we needed to learn in order to have success on the world stage.  A few doodlers had scribbled a “USA” or a United confirmation number haphazardly here and there.  Steve Swanson mentioned that following this info was the route to get to play in the 7:20 PM game in Tokyo on Sept 8th

Now, the notebooks are full.  Training logs, fitness goals, game notes, quotes, individual tasks, daily schedules, systems of play, situational play, raps, notes from teammates reside underneath the US Soccer Logo that covers the notebook.  Players arrive early for the meetings and I can see them flip through the ream of notes.  “Hey Cari, remember when April said this…?” or “Remember when we didn’t know the principles of defense!” 
Sarah Killion: Enough rice. Time for a spaghetti sandwich

Morgan Brian and Vanessa DiBernardo try not to act like they are not sick of my camera
Many of the faces are the same, but the people behind the faces are different.  They know the answers before Steve asks. Solutions to “what if” situations are readily available.  And they will be playing at 7:20 PM in Tokyo on Sept 8th.   At different times since our last game, it has seeped into the players that their dream is within their reach. 

The one thing in our way is the German team; the same team that hammered us in group play 3-0.  When our staff walked off the field the only thing we mumbled under our breath was, “We want to shake their hand in the final.”  We will have that opportunity.

Aaron Heifitz, our press officer is currently checking with FIFA to see if the team will be allowed to walk out during the anthems with the red, white and blue leis made up of 100 paper cranes the students gave to the players in Hiroshima.   Their wish is that the cranes and the message of hope and world peace make it to the podium for the world to see.   Come on FIFA…. Let there be cranes!  When this journey began, never thought my mantra would be remotely close to "Let there be cranes!" Maybe I will just stick with the phone conversation I had with my soon to be 11 year old.

Swearing is not a common occurrence in our home, but I admit when I am coaching (and when I was playing) every now and then a curse word would slip out and I felt a bit better.   Nicholas was on the phone and he mentioned, "Mom, if you are going to be gone this long, just go win the damn thing."  

Can't wait to kick balls at the keepers, listen to the music boom throughout the stadium, check out the faces and watch our team lace up their cleats while they put their game faces on.  

If I am going to be away from home.. for this moment in time, there is no other place I'd rather be.


Monday, September 3, 2012

To Tokyo

Ben and Nick. You are always on my mind 

A few things that were at the forefront of my mind that I chose not to post PRE-Korea DPR match.

  • 13 players on their roster were on the Olympic Team
  • 8 of them were starters
  • 4 years ago US U17 Team lost to KoreaDPR in the last few minutes of the championship game. 
  • I hate putting my underwear in with the team laundry because then I have to get it... at the same time as the players. 
Our team behind the gigantic stadium reminded me of how daunting our task would be
A few other things that were weighing into the back of my mind were the days leading up to our match.  It was no coincidence that our dining hall that seated all 4 teams had one vacant quadrant; marked by the N.Korean flag.  We knew they were either on there way, or had just left by the trail of security guards and police.  Unlike any other hotel, our hotel in Saitama was surrounded with guards.  The floor their team stayed on had all televisions and computers removed.  Our coordinator, Matt Barton, filled me in on the stat of 400 extra security guards at our game. 

None of these thoughts left my brain.  While on the inside, I was anticipating a war at 7:30 PM, on the outside I was attempting my cool, calm collective nature by marveling at the spaghetti patties we were served pre-game.  Just a quick dunk in hot water and they are ready to be scarfed.

The game was as tough as I thought it would be.  The Koreans had a portion of the stadium chanting and beating their noise makers in unison. They did not stop.  In rhythm with their fans, their team kept marching down the field.  The pace and accuracy of long balls and receptions on a dime reminded me, "I am at a frickin' World Cup!"  

Mandy Laddish and Chi Obogagu
 Against another opponent, it would have been deadly, but against the USA defense the constant attack became manageable.  So proud of our team to not only thwart off basically their Olympic Team, but to pull off a victory in overtime.  
Worthy of a Dawg pile, (Yes a "dawg"pile as the Huskies are still on a victorious 5-0 roll) I couldn't  help but look up at the big screen when the winning goal was scored.   What I saw I will remember.  Not a head held in hands, not a stomp of a foot.  Just a bench of sad young women.  They all slowly blinked in unison and did not move until the cacophony of the match completely ended and they were escorted of the field. Once again, I am reminded by the place I get to return to, and am thankful.

I have been on the losing side of an important match many times, but it never had the feel or the look that this loss had to our opponent. 

So today... we take on Nigeria.  And once again, my thoughts will stay with me as I hop on the bus.  My thoughts about the game, that is.   As always, Nicholas and Benjamin... Am thinking of you on an hourly basis!  Miss and Love you!  Time to get on the bus to see Nigeria via Tokyo.  Life is good.