By contributor Farida El Sheshingy.
Last year, I turned 21 and it was a huge deal for me. Where I come from it meant that I had become a fully-grown adult, with major roles and responsibilities in the eyes of society. It meant I could make my own decisions and take the path I thought suited me best, regardless of what others thought. It also meant that I’d be a fresh college graduate, but I had other plans; I’m not just a student, I am also a soccer player. When my teachers in high school asked, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” I would answer, “I want to be a soccer player.” I have always dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player, and I still do.
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt, that dream had been slowly drifting away as the years went on. There, soccer is the national sport, but only for men. It was a struggle to keep both my education and soccer intact. I have been pursuing my soccer dream since I started playing at the age of eleven, when I moved from the school I had been going to since first grade to a completely new school in a new part of town. All the boys would tease me and say I wasn’t as good, as fast, or as strong as them. Some of them would tackle me to the ground, or kick me out of the game because I “ruined it” and some simply didn’t respect me because I was a girl. Others loved the challenge and actually helped me improve my game. It was fun for them, but it meant the world to me. I was the only girl in my age group who played the beautiful game every day during lunchtime. I eventually became known at school as the seventh grader with a ball under her arm.
I watched movies like Gracie, Bend it Like Beckham, and She’s The Man! They inspired me to be the best player I could be. I dreamed of going to a university where I could be part of a soccer team and be loved for who I was and what I do. I had always wanted to walk around campus and have people look at me and say, “That’s the soccer player that plays on the school team.” I wanted to feel like I belonged to something bigger than myself, because that little girl with the ball didn’t really know any better. If someone had told me, “You will end up playing for a varsity team at a Canadian university and study what you love,” I would have laughed in their face.
I joined the VIU Mariners on August 7, 2014. Fresh from a blistering hot climate where the average temperature is 28 to 50 degrees Celsius, it was a very pleasant surprise to be able to breathe. I arrived at midnight, and the first training session was at 4 p.m. I tried to get some sleep, but the excitement kept me up all night—that and the time difference from Egypt.
The hours flew by and I found myself marching towards the Mariner field to meet my coach, who I had been chatting with all summer.
“Welcome to Canada!” he said, and a rush of happiness raced through me. We walked over to my teammates and it felt like my first day of school again, being greeted by the principal with my parents, except this time I was all alone. They were all sitting down in a semi-circle on the grass, waiting for our first team meeting. I sat at the far right side and looked up to my coach. My hands were ice cold and my heart was racing already. I wouldn’t dare to look at my teammates, even though I was so eager to meet them, but I could sense their curiousness: Who is this new Egyptian girl, and what’s her story?
“Ladies, let’s make this a good session today. It has been a long break, but I can tell within the first 10 minutes who put in the effort over the summer. So if you have worked hard, it will pay off. That being said, I expect all of you to give 100 per cent today and every day for the rest of pre-season and season.”
I stepped on the field and into the warm-up. Everybody was chatting while we jogged a couple of laps around that freshly cut grass field, but I could barely hear anything other than my own heartbeat. We moved on to touches, passing the ball around, and I could tell my touch was way off. I couldn’t, for the life of me, make a good pass with my left foot. It seemed so natural to my teammates though. I had a lot to work on, and I could see the difference in the level already. We moved on to dribbling the ball around in a circle, alternating feet, side stepping, and doing short bursts of sprints, and by that time I could barely keep my legs going. I was physically and mentally drained, not to mention distracted by all the beauty around me. I had never seen so many trees before, that much variety in colour, and was constantly whispering irrelevant things to myself like, “You should have known better than to wear navy blue in August,” and, “I hope the assistant coach likes me. She seems like an amazing player who I could learn a lot from.” I was just about ready to give up. That’s when I first heard my new friends call my name. It sounded so foreign, and reminded me for the millionth time that I had left home.
“Keep going, Farida! You can do this, come on, don’t stop now!” Then all of a sudden, I could run again. And the rest is history.
Today, continuing to be a part of this team is a real blessing. Here I am, a 22-year-old Egyptian soccer player, battling for a spot on the team with all that I am. My journey with the Mariners is a culmination of everything I have worked for in my life. I thank God every day, and I look forward to the rest of our season this year. It truly is an honour to wear that jersey, and represent VIU— Go Mariners!