It’s been 5 days since I first got back from my once in a lifetime trip to Chicago, and I’m finally ready to write about what happened. Even though it was only 3 to 4 days, a lot of stuff happened and it felt like a lot longer by virtue of how much I did, how many new people I met and the overall experience. The memories aren’t as powerfully fresh in my mind, but I still remember all the events and emotion. Basically, the stuff that mattered.
When I wrote the above paragraph, it had indeed been only five days since I came back from my trip. I apologize for the long wait, but these kinds of emotion-based posts are difficult for me. I remember things factually: in events. Some people do the opposite, they’ll remember everything only through the feelings the attach to the event/person/thing, and view the subject through an emotional filter. I am the opposite: if I remember liking a movie, for instance, I also distinctly remember what scene or aspect the film had that made me like it.
That’s why I kept putting this post off, and continued to do so. I wrote an event-based retelling of the trip, but it was too long to fit into one post, and my mom kept saying it was too dry and missed the point. What she and other people don’t understand is that thinking and writing about feelings isn’t just really difficult, it’s uncomfortable. Writing this post, going inside my heart like this, is about as pleasant as scratching nails on a chalkboard, or eating an ice cream cone teeth first. It doesn’t matter if the emotions I am looking at are comprised of pure joy or incredible anguish, they both have the same uneasy effect.
Still, that’s no excuse, since I had to keep going past that ickiness for every other post I put on here. I’m sorry, and below is the post, in full, written in the fashion that it should be written in.
The All Star week, for those who don’t follow soccer, is an annual event that happens in various cities across the U.S., and during that time, Major League Soccer’s best players gather to play in the All Star Game against the Real Madrid. The MLS held Special Olympic Unified soccer teams for pretty much every Major League team in the U.S.A and Canada: representatives from each city’s Unified Team were chosen to meet for this special program that took place during the All Star Week. From each Unified team was a group of 3 people: a special Olympic athlete [me], a Special Olympic partner/volunteer, and all of us were to play against each other as east and west conference in a game on Tuesday.
Me and my partners from Special Olympics Toronto
It should be noted that I feel things differently than most people do. I was excited about everything, but my parents felt more anticipation during the months that preceded my trip. For me, it only became real the morning I woke up to do something, especially the last morning that I would wake up in Canada. For every day except the one before any of my “big dates”, it was just a fact in my head that I would be going to Chicago. Only when I was actually there, in the moment, could I emotionally appreciate everything.
This was my first trip to the United States since we left around 14 years ago, and my first real trip on an airplane. I was on a plane once as a three-year old, but I don’t remember that trip–or much else from that time–so it doesn’t really count. I went with both of my coaches–the partner and chauffeur–so I was with pleasant company and gently guided through the parts I didn’t understand.
In the back of my mind were all the complaints and horror stories that people have about airport security. It honestly wasn’t that bad, and most security guards were pretty friendly. Episodes of Border Security plagued the back of my mind, but I didn’t become overwhelmed with anxiety and cleared all the checkpoints. I was never freaked out by the prospect of flying. I do have of fear of heights, but it’s more about being able to fall off of something, like a bridge or rooftop. You can’t exactly fall off an airplane.
I looked out the window and managed to record my first takeoff. While I was totally fine with seeing the great height below me, I was unprepared for the feeling you get when taking off [hence I made a lot of silly noises]. The view one sees out their window is simply breathtaking, getting to see the clouds from above instead of below, the way sunlight dances off their tops, and how much like a miniature train-set the world looks from above.
Because of a plane delay, us and the people from San Joses and Salt Lake City were unable to make it to the hotel upon arrival. Instead, we went straight to practice. Even in the small time we had in the airport, one starts to notice that they are in a different country. After getting change back from buying a sandwich, the words “Pennies, how quaint” slipped past my surprised lips like I was some pretentious tourist. But seriously, why does the U.S. still have pennies? I get its the Land of Lincoln, but he’s on the five dollar bill as well. Anyways…
Pretty much anytime we all had to go somewhere, we went by shuttle bus. They got us some nice buses too, with cushioned seats, air conditioning, the VIP works. It was way easier than taking transit, which is stressful due to the crowds and confined space. I still could get tired on the bus trips, but they helped relieve the huge amounts of stress I [and no doubt many of the other athletes] would have felt taking the foreign public transit. But for this day, I had all the energy in the world, and on Monday, our bus was heading to practice.
Our Chicago coach ( wish I could remember his name)
There were about two hours for a lot of people to be coached in preparation for the next day’s game. We had a coach who was working out of the city of Chicago, and we were training out of a multi-use field known as the Private Bank Fire Pitch. It was official. I was both excited and relaxed at the same time. Warmup was used as time to exchange names with everybody in a short amount of time; it was tough, but we did it. These were the people who got to know each other over the next three days. It may have not been a long amount of time, but as I said, we did so much it felt longer. I got to know my roommate, meet people from all over America–from Montreal to Dallas–and before long we were teammates, even friends.
While everyone else did passing drills, me and a partner from Washington D.C. practiced goal keeping. I was and still am ridiculously new to goaltending for someone playing at this level, so I learned a lot of new things during this practice. It helps that the person coaching us goal keepers is my chauffeur from Toronto, so we already knew each other. At this stage, I was trying my best to retain all the goalie knowledge I had learned within a month. It wasn’t easy, but my motto of “just try really hard” got me too far to start worrying about being out-classed. At least, I didn’t start worrying yet.
After the two hours of practice was done–which sounds long but was actually really short, all things considered–we got to head back to our hotel. All of us Unified athletes and volunteers stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown, a swanky four star hotel within spitting distance of Chicago’s tourist attractions, lake Michigan beach, the highways and Chicago’s main soccer/football field: Soldier Field. This also happened to be where the All Star players were staying at, so you would regularly see TFC and other city’s best players hanging out in the lobby, passing through the elevator and such. It was a pretty nice place to stay.
I think this guy is an NBA player (again, bad with names)
[I sarcastically under-exaggerated that last sentence there, staying in the hotel where all the players were was pretty awesome. To boot, it was a really comfy place, and my room was on the sixteenth floor with an awesome view of downtown]
That night, we got to have dinner at the Lou Malnati’s Italian restaurant, home of the famous Chicago deep dish. I could see why the city is famous for such a meal, it was amazing, and one of the few things rich enough to have me saying no to seconds [although, I was watching myself for the game ahead, after all]. This meal was also one of the first times in Chicago that I had to micro-manage myself.
There are a lot of things that can utterly sap my energy, and keep sapping it until I’m like a flashlight that someone forgot to turn off after using. By that I mean, I end up completely depleted of power. Perpetually loud dining halls and a long hour-to-two-hour dinner are among those things, no matter how pleasant or well-organized. There are a lot of little, invisible yet tangible tricks that my family will do to make sure I am okay in social situations, but they weren’t here now. This isn’t meant to at all disparage my coaches, they were amazing, and what I’m talking about are things that can only be learned about me after years of co-habitation. So, I wouldn’t expect anyone but myself to know.
Basically, what I did was I took a break to the bathroom, and stood outside the in the hall next to the bathroom entrance for about five minutes, quietly fiddling with my fidget spinner and enjoying the silence. I took little breaks like this towards the end of the meal so I could enjoy the rest of it. It may not sound like much, but figuring out how to take care of myself like this has taken years of my family slowly revealing their tricks to me, and a long friendship with a very close Aspie friend of mine which intimated me on their numerous methods of quiet micro management.
I did other little things every now and then, knowing when to return to the hotel, taking a breather occasionally, and texting my sister, to make the most of my awesome trip. It helped a great deal, knowing how to minimize my stressors in a new, exciting and busy event. I enjoyed the end of our dinner, returned to the hotel, got to know my pretty cool roommate, and went to bed ready for the adventures next day would bring.
I got good rest sleep, because the next day was game day. I spent the first half of the day exploring downtown Chicago with my coaches [beautiful city], and later all of us went to watch the Real Madrid practice in Soldier Field. I got some good pictures, but I appreciated the fans as much as the players, they had such a passionate, celebratory energy to them. It reminded me of one of the things I love about soccer games: the excitement. It’s just… somehow more pronounced in soccer compared to most other sports [although I’m still a big fan of basketball: who says I can’t love both?].
Copper & I watching Real Madrid practice
It was hard to get excited on the bus trip to our game. Don’t get me wrong, the team was pumped, it’s just that an hour in traffic while worrying that the intense thunder and lightning is going to ruin the game kinda slowed me down. I just sorta planned it out that as soon as we arrived at Toyota Park Stadium, I would get excited again. The plan worked.
It’s nothing short of awesome being in a professional field like that. You appreciate everything the big players go through: the excitement of coming out of the tunnel, seeing the hugeness of the field and stadium around you, and you just feel so ready and now, if that makes any sense. First half of the game I go to play midfielder, and the second half I subbed for goalie.
Toyota Park Stadium, where we played
Playing on that kind of field is different, its humongous, for starters, and there’s more players too. In this kind of game, you start to take pride in the little achievements: every time you were in the right spot in relation to everyone else, or got to touch the ball for a brief moment as a defender, or running alongside our team’s star forward to cover him as he makes the shot. The second half, however, was different.
Me, on the right, first half of game as midfielder
Like I said, I’m new to goal keeping. So when we had a 1/0 lead that turned into a 2/1 trail, and both those shots went right past me, it was hard not to feel really shitty. The goal I had to defend was huge–literally the same ones used in professional games–and I had practiced maybe one game with my home non-unified team. The first goal hurt a bit, but I shook it off best I could. Then when I catch the second shot–but in that brief second I didn’t jump up, or tighten my fingers, or I should have punched the ball instead of trying to grab it–it slipped out of my fingers into our net.
Goal for the other team with me at the net
We’re winning, and then when I replace the original goalie and single-handedly put us in a losing spot, it felt really bad. I tried getting my stupid body to warm up so I wouldn’t freeze the next time the ball came my way, while consoling myself that at least two more athletes had the awesome memory of scoring in such a high calibre game. Then, the same guy who got us our first goal, scored again. We tied, 2/2.
I did the best I could to enjoy the rest of the day. It was actually better that the game ended in a tie, because that meant there were no “winners” or “losers”, and everyone was talking about how great our comeback was. I enjoyed the delicious food we were offered for dinner, met some nice Chicago Fire players on the way to [but not in] the bathroom, and hung around my teammates. I had fun again.
There was a high-school league game going on in the field below, and we had the option to stay and watch it to the end, or leave earlier to take a shuttle bus back to the hotel. I chose to leave, because I was getting to that stage of dazed and tired like I did last night. More likely than not, I would have felt the same way even if I played better, my energy was drained regardless.
I later found out that the game tied anyways, just like ours.
Next day, there isn’t as much to talk about, more fun stuff. We helped clean up a local park–not that difficult with -50 odd people, and it felt good to give back to a city that did so much for us. I hung out with my roommate and some of the other coaches, enjoying the company of people from all over the country, and the beaches of Lake Michigan, which is just like Lake Ontario.
That evening, we got to watch the MLS All Star vs Real Madrid game. Even better, we got to walk on the field at halftime. It was a bit of a hassle lining up to go down to the field, but very much well worth it. Then I truly got to appreciate what it feels like to be in a soccer field, the wall of people all around you, the cameras everywhere, and just walking on grass that we played on the night before. Being introduced as the Unified Team was really cool. Once in a lifetime cool.
After all that, I completely relaxed myself for the first time in a while, and watched the game. Nothing much to say really, other than it was better and more intense than a lot of soccer games. I was rooting for MLS [obviously], but they tied with Real Madrid [notice a pattern here?] and lost in the penalty shoot out. Still, it was the perfect was to end my All Star experience.
On Thursday, I returned to Toronto feeling weird, like I just left an exciting new world and came back home after a long time. In one morning, I left behind my roommate and all the other friends I made in Chicago, and the city itself, and now I was home with a huge amount of memories, people’s names, events and places bouncing around my head. I missed the people I met, and Chicago, but I didn’t quite miss the All Star week solely because I knew my Unified game in Montreal was coming up, and the All Star trip let me know just how awesome that was going to be.
At the airport, back from Chicago
I was still a little worried about my goaltending, that I would let my Unified team down, especially since I was our only goalie [!]. But I didn’t mope or pity or hate myself, I cherished the awesome adventure that I had, fondly remembered all the great parts, and trained myself for the game in Montreal.
[Writer’s note]. I will be uploading my post for the Montreal game very shortly, I won’t let the stupidly big gap form again. This and next week are pretty busy, I’ve got a big weekend and Special Olympics wants me to do some public speaking for a big fundraiser event. But I will try, and the Montreal post will hopefully be a little shorter than this one, but no more shy of pictures.