Turning the biggest disappointment into a life-changing experience
After seeing the doors to the Euro Winners Cup cruelly closed when she was already thousands of miles away from home, the US International decided to turn it into an adventure of a lifetime and drove back home all across the entire country all by herself.
Playing the Euro Winners Cup was US forward Lauren Leslie’s dream, and 2020 seemed like the year in which it would finally come true. A winner of the US Open in Virginia with Shoreline and also with international experience with 2018 Serie A champion Lady Terracina, Lauren was ready and willing for a bigger challenge: competing on the sand of Europe’s most prestigious club event.
She had secured a place in New Team BS Brussels, where she was supposed to join her friend and compatriot Luisa Meza, and she had managed to negotiate enough time off work (she is a full-time football coach at SC Blues, where she coaches three teams, and also founder of a beach soccer camp) and Lauren had her plane ticket – San Diego to Lisbon via Boston – secured. She had even been tested for COVID-19. Everything seemed to be on the right track.
But destiny and the COVID -19 protocols had another plans for her…
Although she was supposed to get the results before boarding to Boston, some unexplained delay in the labs had her flying without them. When she landed in Logan International Airport where, at a safe distance, she had planned to meet up with Luiza, only to be given the worst news: she had tested positive, and therefore could not take the flight to Portugal.
First thing she did was text Luiza to tell her to go without her. “I told her I would not be boarding the plane, but also told her not to worry about me and no matter what kick butt and represent us out there”.
Changing the plan
The next thing she did was to book a hotel, and tried to think straight. “I tried to keep my hopes alive, and thought what was the best way to make that happen. But don’t get me wrong, I did a lot of crying too…” she admits with a slightly embarrassed but wide smile.
That was on a Friday, still four days to go until the beginning of the competition, so she would not give up. Having a suspicion that her test results may not have been reliable, she started the quest for a lab in Massachusetts to take another. “I would have done anything to go to Nazaré. I could not miss that opportunity. So I started calling labs one after another”.
The following day, as soon as the labs reopened, she rushed to get her tests done, with the promise she would get her results in the day so that she could hop on the next possible flight. But luck, yet again, was not on her side, as the bank holiday in Boston caused the results to be extremely delayed. They did not come that day, nor the day after… But Lauren never lost faith, and even kept training twice a day, to get to the Euro Winners Cup in the best possible shape, despite the circumstances.
After three days, on Tuesday, she decided it made no sense to keep trying, spending money and waiting around for the results. “Catching a flight one day later would have got me to Portugal on Saturday. It was nonsense. We were not even playing on Sunday…”, she recalls. “I was sure there had been a mistake in my first tests… but there was nothing else I could do. I was so disappointed, so frustrated, feeling so powerless…”
It was this very moment when her inner fighter came out once more and told her to make the most of this opportunity and seize the moment: She was determined to grow as a person following this experience, and to do something she could be proud of. “I had two options, staying in Boston all tears and flying back to California feeling miserable and upset, or trying to make the bad experience count. So I took that second option, and decided to begin one trip I had always wanted to do: driving all across the United States, also because I did not want to put anyone in danger by catching a flight”.
Actually, the thought that pushed her to take on this adventure was something that can undoubtedly be considered one of the pillars of her mindset, and also one of her guiding life mottos. “It is a matter of trying to find beauty in everything, a matter of trying to find the positive aspect in any negative situation. This is what I was determined to do.”
“A quote I love is ‘You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you’, by Mary Tyler Moore. Hardships and challenges shape me into the person I want to become, so I knew something good was come out of this. I had to be brave and look for it, which is one of the lessons I always try to pass on to my players”, she explains.
Of course, one of the first things that crosses one’s mind when hearing about such an idea is wondering what her family would think about it. But she found nothing but support from them, too. “My brothers were actually super thrilled, and kind of jealous, and told me, ‘Wow, Lauren, that’s supercool!’. My mum was, of course, a bit more concerned, but supported me too, and my father just said ‘Ok. Good luck! [laughs]”
Although she didn’t feel scared at any point during the long trip, travelling on your own across a vast country like the US with some undeniably dangerous places on the route is quite an intimidating task, and there were some moments in which she did not feel entirely comfortable…
“On the first night, I was having a walk in Syracuse and I ended up in a neighbourhood in which I did not feel completely safe… I cannot say I was scared, but that got me thinking ‘Are you sure this is a good idea, Lauren?’. But that was just one moment…”
On the following day, the results finally came in: negative. But, painfully, it was already too late…
Beach Soccer all the way
Being alone for so long, travelling so many miles, was something exciting, but scary at the same time. So she incorporated pitstops to see some familiar faces in her cross-country route, one of them being the US Women’s National Team captain, Megan Wharton, who she met in Columbus (Ohio).
The Stars and Stripes teammates went for some drinks, had some laughs, deep conversation and – what else? – beach soccer training. “It was great to see Megan at that moment. It was a life saver. It really did me a lot of good. To know I have friends across the country willing to be there for me and support me meant a lot. In a way she helped give me more strength to keep going.”, Lauren explains.
In fact, beach soccer was pretty present all the way through her journey, as she continued to find opportunities to train in most of the places she passed through and she did never lose contact with the team.
“I watched all their games, and I kept talking to them continuously. They kept me in the team’s group chat, and I was constantly cheering them on, telling them what I saw in the games, and supporting them from anywhere I was”, she explains.
From New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Saint Louis… etc. she had the opportunity to think a lot, visit places that she had never visited before, read, watch beach soccer and do a lot of hiking, one of her biggest passions.
Well, actually she was not completely alone, as all the SC Blues Soccer players she coaches down in Orange County, as well as their families supported her from a distance the whole way. “My soccer families were behind me 100%. They helped me along my journey by always checking up on me, and offering to pay for hotel, gas, and food”
In the last part of the trip, she had a friend meeting her in Nebraska and doing the last miles with her. “He wanted to do some hikes, as well, so I was very lucky to have someone finish the trip with me”, she admits.
In the last stages before getting home, she had the chance to tick a couple of points off her bucket list… First, visiting Zion National Park, in Utah, a place she had always wanted to visit. And her expectations were not dampened. By far not “It was absolutely breathtaking”.
And second, spending a night in Vegas. “I had not been to Las Vegas lately, although it is pretty close from home, and I decided to spend my last night there. I never gamble, but I thought that was also a milestone of such a trip across America, so I gave it a go – and it was fun!”
Nine days after having to swallow the bitter pill of disappointment, being told that she would not be traveling to Nazaré, and 3,100 miles later, Lauren arrived home, in Dana Point, (South Orange County, California), ending a trip that began on such a low but ended on such a high.
A setback which Lauren ultimately turned on its head and made into an opportunity for growth, an experience that made her grow both as a person an as an athlete.
Such an achievement is something to be very proud of, just as the beach soccer family is proud, and lucky, to have people so passionate for the sport as Lauren is. People who are capable of making huge sacrifices for the chance to play the sport she loves. A sport that, without a doubt, she helped to grow this past September even though she couldn’t compete on the sand.