My journey with the Malditas began when I received an invitation letter to attend their US training camp in Los Angeles in mid-November. It is hard for me to describe what a big deal that was to me. I was so excited by the opportunity to represent the Philippines and meet girls who share the same heritage and love for the game as I do. I could not wait to go to LA for camp, especially since it was finally a trip my mom could take with me. My dad has traveled with me to most of the long distance tournaments in my soccer career, while my mom has always stayed home with my younger sister and brother. So, this was already a special trip for me before I ever stepped on the field with the other girls. Going into the camp, I was a little nervous, of course. But, this amazing opportunity was something I knew I would remember forever and there was no way I was going to miss it. So, I jumped in head first!
We flew in a couple days late for the camp because I couldn’t miss too much school before Thanksgiving break. I met Coach Ernie Nierras, and it made me feel part of the Malditas family right away when he said I could call him Tito Ernie. He reviewed his future plans for the Malditas with us, since we had missed the meeting at the start of camp when this was all discussed. My eyes immediately widened when he mentioned things like the 2015 World Cup in Canada - and he was serious! Right then, I knew this was the real deal and the start of something special. During those 4 days in LA before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to train with girls my age (16) as well as some of the current Malditas players who are college-age and older. It was such an awesome experience being on a field with 40+ talented Filipino girls. Normally, on my teams back at home, I am the only girl of Asian descent. Here, I was surrounded by girls who were Filipino and half Caucasian/half Filipino, just like I am! Immediately, I felt a connection that I had not expected with all of these girls. It is something that is difficult to put into words, but I realized right away that this was about more than just playing soccer. There were so many talented players in attendance and I felt very fortunate to play with all of them. The training camp went well for me, and Tito Ernie invited me back to play with the Senior Malditas in the LA Viking Cup in a few days. That caught my mom and me by surprise, since we went to LA thinking I was trying out for the Malditas U19 team. Suddenly, things had changed significantly. With the training camp concluded, I was leaving LA for home in Illinois, only to return for the tournament a few days later!
After a few short days at home, I packed my bags once again and was off to California for the LA Viking Cup. There was one huge difference now, though. This time, I would be traveling by myself! I fly a lot with my travel teams, but my dad and teammates always accompany me. This was the first time I would be traveling on my own. My mom took a picture of me outside the airport in Chicago, and I hugged both of my parents and said goodbye. I could tell this moment was a little bittersweet for them. They were watching their little girl go off to play soccer for a week, but they knew that this would also be a life changing experience for me. I was pretty proud of myself for getting through security, finding my gate, and getting on the right plane. During the long 4 hour flight from Chicago to LA, I had so much to get done. I had a week of homework to do and some sleeping to catch up on. I could not help but think about the exciting week ahead of me. I was going to play with the Women’s National Team of the Philippines! It took some time for that reality to sink in. I mean, I am only 16 years old, and a junior in high school! Even though I felt up to the challenge in front of me, this was the kind of opportunity that I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. I couldn’t help but be a little nervous and apprehensive.
I finally arrived in California and the girls were more than welcoming of me, which was a great relief. I was the little baby of the group, as everyone reminded me often. But, I never felt excluded or looked down upon by anyone and that really put me at ease. After celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with my new teammates, the first game of the tournament finally arrived. Putting on the Malditas jersey for the first time was a special moment for me. I felt intense pride for my Filipino heritage and wearing the flag of the Philippines was beyond amazing. I didn’t start the game, but I came in with about 10 minutes left in the first half. A teammate played a great service into the box and I was there to finish it for my first international goal! It ended up being the game winner in our 1-0 victory, and I felt on top of the world after the game. I could not stop smiling. It was especially neat that my grandma and uncle happened to be in California and were able to attend the game. We went on to win game after game, and took the LA Viking Cup championship in a shootout in the finals. This was the first international tournament the Malditas had won and we all felt a great deal of pride for the Philippines.
The girls taught me some Filipino phrases (including some bad words, but mostly good ones ;) and I finally tried some Filipino food! I’m not always the most open to trying new foods, but the girls helped me get past that very quickly with the delicious Chicken Adobo Tito Filbert made. I couldn’t wait to tell my Grandma that after all her efforts, I finally ate some Filipino food … and loved it! After the tournament ended, my time in sunny California was quickly coming to an end. It was a teary goodbye leaving all of my teammates who I had already grown to love. Even though I had been away from home on my own for a week, I really did not want to leave California and my new friends so soon. I knew there would be many future reunions, though.
Winning the LA Viking Cup was the cherry on top of an awesome, week-long experience that I will never forget. I formed so many friendships that I will hold in my heart forever. I now have the big sisters I’ve always wanted. I felt like I finally fit in with other Filipinos and had a deeper understanding of my mom’s culture. To me, this experience was about a great deal more than the soccer. Soccer may have brought us together, but it was our Filipino roots that gave us the strongest connection to one another. Sometimes, being only half Filipino and going to school with few other Filipinos, I forget about my culture and tend to take it for granted. This experience helped me remember where I come from, and I am so thankful for that. I had the opportunity to bond with girls from all over the US, Canada and half way around the globe! I left California with a huge sense of pride for the chance to represent my adopted country. I am so unbelievably proud to be Filipino and I cannot wait to see where the rest of this journey takes me. Thank you, Malditas, and Tito Ernie for giving me two weeks that I will never forget!