Going Places (Abroad!) with Women’s Soccer
Posted: October 29, 2013 at 5:02 am, Last Updated: October 30, 2013 at 7:18 am
By Steve Klein
Soccer takes you places, says Danielle O’Brien.
And, oh, the places the junior defender has gone this year with her George Mason University women’s soccer teammates.
“It’s hard to describe everything we saw because we saw so much,” O’Brien says. “I’ve always felt passionate about soccer, but now I have a greater appreciation for life and the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Soccer was the universal language of choice during a nine-day playing tour to Barcelona, Costa Brava and Gerona in Spain and Perpignan in France March 9 to 17. While their knowledge of Spanish, and especially Catalan, the language of northeastern Spain and the adjoining part of France they traveled, was limited, no barriers interfered with the understanding the players gained during the trip.
“We didn’t always have to speak to communicate,” says Paige Babel, a junior defender and one of 23 players to make the trip, along with Head Coach Diane Drake, two assistants and a trainer. “Even with the referees, you had no idea what they were saying — but you knew exactly what they meant.”
The team played three matches, or friendlies, during the trip, two on a par with their own conference competition. The most exciting was a 2-1 victory against RCD Espanyol in Barcelona on a late goal by sophomore midfielder Sydney Mitchell.
“The soccer is more cultured,” says Babel, explaining what the Patriots learned about how the game is played in Spain. “It’s a huge advantage for us to learn from these teams, and the experience gives us something we can apply that other teams won’t have.”
Senior keeper Lyndse Hokanson, who approaches the game like a coach on the field, appreciated the tactical awareness of playing the games and watching famed professional club RC Barcelona twice.
The stadium, which seats nearly 100,000 spectators, has been the Barcelona team’s home since 1957. Attending a game there is something akin to a religious experience for anyone who plays or follows soccer.
“All the seats were filled with passionate fans,” Babel says. “You couldn’t help but feed off their energy.”
In fact, the juxtaposition of soccer and religion did not escape Hokanson or Babel.
“We would drive by packed neighborhoods in Barcelona and see soccer fields anywhere there was open space,” Hokanson says. “Coming from America, you pay a lot of attention to visiting churches when you’re in Europe. But, you’d visit a church and there would be three fields right next to it. At souvenir stands, they sold crucifixes right next to jerseys. There was no separation. They’re intertwined.”
Babel agrees. “The Catholic religion is so embedded in Spanish culture,” she says, “but so is soccer. It’s almost like soccer is a second religion.”
The NCAA permits teams to travel overseas for competition once every four years. In this case, it had been five years since the team was abroad. This trip was the women’s soccer team’s first since 2008, when Drake took her players to Brazil. All Mason team members contributed to the expense (about $90,000) of the trip by officiating at team-sponsored, annual youth tournaments and participating in youth clinics every year. In addition, approximately $10,000 was raised through donations toward the trip.
The team’s experience in Spain was enhanced thanks to a chance connection with a Mason alumnus, Quel Esteve, BA Economics ’92, from Gerona. Esteve lives in Platja d’Aro and is the founder and director general of CardioSafe Global Services. He founded the company to help fight sudden death syndrome in Spain six years ago, when his daughter was born.
“The nine lives our [automated external defibrillators] have saved since we started the project is our biggest pride,” Esteve said in an e-mail interview about the device his company developed.
Esteve’s former roommate at Mason, Reid Shelton, ’93, and his wife, Jen, ’94, attended a silent auction at the Greene Turtle Restaurant in Fairfax to support the trip. At the fund raiser they met Coach Drake and helped create the connection with Esteve in Spain.
“The Sheltons and I are very close since our days back at Mason, and we have managed to stay this way regardless of the physical distance between us,” Esteve explained in the e-mail interview. “Last year, they came to visit and spend a few days with my family, and not long after they returned to the States, Jen met Coach Drake. Jen got us in touch, and we took it from there.”
Esteve arranged for the team to visit to the Salvador Dali Museum in Gerona and meet the famed city’s mayor. He also organized a departure dinner in Costa Brava. The most meaningful event, however, was a daylong visit to the Sanitas Residencial Gerunda, an assisted-living facility in Gerona, about 60 miles north of Barcelona.
“Quel was instrumental in making this happen,” Drake says. “The visit definitely added an important dimension to the trip. “That dimension perfectly fit the personality of what Drake and Hokanson constantly referred to as “this group of girls.”
“I particularly remember talking and dancing with 70- and 80-year-olds in the music room,” Hokanson says. “Some had dementia; some couldn’t speak at all. So we participated in musical rehabilitation, heard their stories and left as good friends.”
Esteve was impressed with the young women’s interaction at the center.
“My wife and I were really impressed by those young women—driven, dedicated team players both on and off the field,” he says. “Happy to embrace and enjoy the opportunity given to them but at the same time caring enough to generously give themselves to others in need, as they proved in Gerona.”
Drake and her assistant coaches also made a strong impression on Esteve.
“These were three outstanding individuals with the rare ability to be at the same time friends and [parent]-figures to this group of ladies,” he says, “displaying toward them love and care, not for their athletic abilities, but for their present and future well-being as individuals.”
As Drake hoped, the team grew even closer together as a result of the trip.
“This is such a giving-back team,” Babel says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more loving team, a family that will always be there for you. We share a passion for soccer, but we share the same passion for being together and helping each other out.”
Hokanson adds, “Every day, I was walking and talking with someone I had not spent as much time with before. It helps as a team to discover one another in a different way and a different place. It’s during a trip like this that you really learn about one another without the stress of matches and practices and school.”
“We’re building a team, building the program for the future,” Drake says. And building bridges of friendship — in Spain and ultimately at Mason.
Oh, the places you’ll go when you’re a Mason soccer player.
This article first appeared in Alliance, the magazine for Mason Athletics, in a slightly different format. Follow the Mason women’s soccer team this fall on GoMason.com.
Write to Robin Herron at email@example.com