Enjoy every moment.
Those were the last words Penn State’s women’s soccer coach spoke to her two forwards before they left to compete with the US national soccer team in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup last month in Japan.
All-American juniors Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram set out to do just that.
“Coach [Erica Walsh] told us right before we left to just enjoy every moment because it will fly by,” Schram said. “We were there for so long, but looking back it feels like we were only there for a day. It’s hard to take it all in.”
The United States defeated the defending champion Germany, 1-0, to win gold, in front of an energized Japanese crowd.
“I thought I was dreaming. The energy walking into the stadium was amazing; people were cheering and fans were singing,” Schram said. “I can’t even put it into words.”
For a college athlete, a large crowd is around 5,000 people, but in each venue the team would face three times that number.
“There were so many people there, but once I get into game I don’t see anything other than what is on the field,” Hayes said. “I’m sure it was very loud in there, but I didn’t hear anything until I came off the field and the last whistle blew and everybody went crazy.”
According to U-20 National Team coach Steve Swanson, who is also the women’s soccer coach at the University of Virginia, this team has been in the works for two years. Swanson was named head coach in August 2011 and the team had their first official training camp in Chula Vista, Calif., in January 2012.
When the team opened up camp, Schram was not initially on the roster due to a concussion she suffered during her collegiate season.
Swanson wanted Schram to attend, but because of the injury, he said she wasn’t cleared to take the field.
“I give Taylor so much credit because she was contacting me every three weeks updating me on her status,” Swanson said.
Swanson was not sure if he would be able to get Schram on the roster in time for the team to leave on Aug. 10. She suffered another concussion before the teams’ next training camp, but was cleared to play in July and was invited again to train with the team just two weeks before they were due to leave.
“We felt Taylor was versatile enough and fit into the style of play our team had really well, so we were able to offer her a spot,” Swanson said.
Schram and Hayes each played vital roles for the team, although very different from each other. Hayes was a starter and a scoring threat for team USA while Schram would not see as many minutes, but would push the team in practice.
“Taylor’s role was quite big, it just wasn’t so much on the field. Her spirit and enthusiasm were instrumental to our teams success,” Swanson said. “When she trained, it was like she was playing in a World Cup final and she made the players around her better. Had she been with the team the whole time her role would have been different.”
Hayes had 10 total goals for the squad and she also played on the U-20 national team in 2010.
“Maya’s experience was vital. She is one of the most improved players on this team and her athleticism caused other teams problems,” Swanson said. “To see her grow as a player is incredible, her technical ability has greatly improved overtime in the program.”
The team was not only a cohesive unit on the field, but shared a bond that Hayes said she had never experienced on a national team before.
“The little things that we would do like watching videos from friends and family and even full team players allowed for us to bond,” Hayes said. “Winning obviously made this experience different than the last, but the closeness we had on the team, staff included is something I have never experienced on a national team before.”
In the four weeks the team spent in Japan they were able to experience the Japanese culture and sightsee as they went.
“Visiting Hiroshima where the atomic bomb hit was something that stuck with me. We saw how it still affected the people living there today and how they just wanted peace,” Schram said.
Swanson echoes the magnitude of the experience the team had by visiting Hiroshima and said it was eye opening for all of them.
“They could have taken a class on peace and devastation, but I think nothing compares to actually being there to see it,” Swanson said.
The team also visited Miyagi, where the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit just a year earlier.
“It was awesome to go visit, but it was an extremely humbling experience,” Hayes said. “It was definitely cool to get to see the other side of Japan other than just the soccer world.”
Hayes and Schram both cite their favorite experience with the local people of Japan when they visited the US ambassador’s house in Tokyo.
Hayes said that at the ambassador’s house, they had an international school come to play soccer and games with the team. She says some of the kids showed up to the team’s next game and she enjoyed interacting with children from different backgrounds.
“The Japanese people are the nicest in the entire world, they are always smiling and were so welcoming all along,” Schram said.
Hayes and Schram both embraced the Japanese culture, and to their surprise the Japanese embraced them back.
“The welcoming nature of the culture was amazing, everybody is very gracious, very polite to you. They obviously know you are American right away and every time somebody saw our bus and saw ‘USA’ on the front we got waves from everybody from three-year-old kids to older people,” Hayes said. “Being an American team and having a Japanese crowd cheer for us was amazing, it just goes along with how they treated us the entire time. They were kind of a 12th man for us throughout that [gold medal] match, they were definitely rooting for us.”
While embracing the Japanese culture, Hayes was determined to get a taste of the US in each city the team visited saying that the team would look out the windows of the bus while traveling to different hotels to spy a McDonald’s that they could eat at. Schram notes that while the Japanese food was good she could not wait to eat cheese pizza and wings when she got back in the states.