Champion

The World Cup Semifinal match had been exhilarating. The team had fought hard and executed well. Maintaining my balance while negotiating a crowded pub had become surprisingly. They key was just to concentrate on what I was doing with every step. Lift with your thigh; point your toes upward; strike with your heel. And though this had felt like it was overloading my brain before, the constant work on the stationary bike was helping me turn this into a rhythmic pattern. Every time I took a step, the motion was more fluid.

After a while, walking correctly didn’t have to monopolize my attention. Where before I had kept my head down so my eyes could scan the floor in front of me, I could now hold my head up and scan the room as I walked. I could also carry on conversations because my breath control was constantly improving. I hadn’t realized how closed off from the world I’d become until I felt how much more engaged I was in social situations. Being lively and talkative had always been my demeanor as an adult, so behaving like an extrovert was like becoming myself again.

So it was that I wanted the World Cup Final to be an even more special event. Although I wasn’t completely recovered, I had the mobility to interact and celebrate safely. I put a request on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to meet up. Someone suggested watching the match at the new Minnesota United stadium in Saint Paul. I was excited because I passed it about once a week on my way to the gym but I had never been inside. I was desperate to see it from the inside.

It’s always tricky to arrive when a place opens if your journey depends on scheduling a ride with Metro Mobility. They try to get you there before your scheduled time. But if you arrive before the business is open, the driver isn’t allowed to leave you there. But it was for a World Cup final, so I was afraid to arrive too late. I told them to drop me off half an hour after opening and hoped that there would be seating available.

When I have an early ride to the airport. I am seldom able to sleep through the night. The loss of control makes me too worried about missing rides to relax. The same thing happened the morning of the World Cup final. I got out of bed and took Mary out by 6:00. I took a long shower and dressed slowly. I finished breakfast before 7:00, so I went downstairs to get my morning meds from assisted living and then to the lobby to wait for my ride. After I made it downstairs, I decided to go outside and wait on a bench. The air was still cool and there was a gentle breeze. I was finally able to relax, knowing that I had done everything I needed to be on time for my ride.

The bus was on time. We took a short trip and made it to the stadium about twenty minutes before it opened. There were already several youth teams outside and tents set up, so I was confident that even if we couldn’t get indoors, it would be okay to let me wait on a bench next to the pub. When we got to the curb to unload, I asked the driver to check the pub doors. They were open, so I was able to go inside. With no one there but the staff, I was able to take any seat in the house. I sat at a picnic table with a gorgeous view of the field. Remembering how lonely I had been watching from a hospital bed four years earlier, today felt glorious already. And no one else was even there yet.

One effect the stroke had on my social life was that it made me start building relationships with different people other than just teammates and coworkers. I had come to know the guys I was meeting today better online, even though we played in the same soccer leagues. I really value the opportunity my second chance has given me to spend time getting to know them better. Soccer continues to be “the beautiful game” in how it never stops bringing new people into my world.

The first person to arrive was Jermal. One of the few African Americans in my soccer league, he had spoken with me about meeting up at a soul food restaurant but we had never actually hung out. A few minutes later, Conor joined us. Conor is from Ireland, and we have played with many of the same Irish guys over the years. The pub soon filled up around us. We ordered beers while we waited for the match to start in another hour.

One thing I love about the US women’s national team is that they always foster a family atmosphere. As with any sporting event, you have people who aren’t serious supporters of the sport who just want to crowd into a bar and chant “U! S! A! U! S! A!” But this seems like a much smaller percentage of the USWNT crowd. So many people bring their daughters and girls’ teams to the matches that it feels more well-behaved and innocent. This might just be my own prejudice. Nonetheless, I could be pretty drunk and rowdy at men’s matches back in the day.

The US seemed like the better team from the start of the match. They attacked more and got more shots on goal. Although none of their shots had found the back of the net by halftime, I just felt that they were clearly a superior team to the Netherlands. They finally scored on a penalty kick. As a former striker, I hate for a match to be decided this way, unless a player is obviously about to score and one of two things happens: (A) the player gets tripped, or (B) a defender swats the ball away from the goal with her hand. Unless the foul denies an obvious goal, it doesn’t feel as satisfying to me. So I was happy when the US scored a second goal – this time during the course of play.

Now the singing and chanting began in earnest, as there were only twenty minutes left, and no one expected the Netherlands to score two unanswered goals. The pub was jubilant as the squad played out the last few minutes, and the whole room erupted in joy after the referee blew the final whistle.

It was only noon when the match was over, so Jermal and I went out into the stadium to get pictures. The light was pouring in directly overhead from the open roof, so conditions were perfect even with my darker skin tone. After posing for a few pictures, we headed for the exit. Walking was unbelievably easy. As my left foot lifted and glided effortlessly over the pavement, I wished I could send the pictures back in time to the self lying alone in the hospital, just to show me that I would make it here.

The next day I was back in the gym. I knew that only constant years of intense work were what had gotten me from a hospital bed in Mississippi to Allianz Stadium in Minnesota. I was determined to push to get even more from my workout. I began by doing ten minutes on the upright stationary bike. This was the most I had ever done, but it was important. Five minutes was good for a warmup and to get my lower leg working, but pushing beyond that would be a true cardiovascular workout. Doing this regularly would be vital to increasing lung capacity, losing weight, and most importantly, maintaining healthy blood pressure to stay stroke-free.

Next I decided to do triceps exercises. To be honest, I had gotten away from doing triceps work because no matter how hard I fought, I didn’t see myself gaining much ability since I couldn’t straighten my arm. Before the stroke, I’d loved bench pressing, dips, shoulder exercise – anything that involved triceps. Not being able to do any of these was disheartening. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had regained a lot of triceps strength. I could sit at a table and prop myself up using just my arm. And as I did this, I could feel the muscles pulsating. So, with conviction, I walked over to the machine and just started performing pushdowns with light weight. I did them by just concentrating on letting my triceps feel the movement.

From there, I moved on to lunges. Lunges took so much out of my left quadriceps that it was difficult to finish three sets of eight reps. But as I grunted out each rep this time, I kept my mind on how wonderful yesterday had felt. I was no longer in a hospital bed. I was no longer in a wheelchair. I no longer dragged my left foot. With each painful push upward, I was walking more upright, like a champion.

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