I know. It’s been a while since my last post. The more I have to say today, though. I’d like to spend a few moments on talking about “relationships.” Some of you might think: “What do relationships have to do with diabetes and sports?” Well, the answer is simple – everything! Of the three longest relationships I’ve had in my life, sports and diabetes finish second and third place, only topped by the relationship to my family. I’m incredibly thankful for my family, by the way. Without my family, I would have never become a somewhat successful soccer player, nor would I have ever been able to overcome my diabetes diagnosis. But I’m going to leave the “family-relationship” out of the equation for now. Let’s talk about my second longest relationship: soccer.
I began playing soccer at the age of six, almost 17 years ago. Not competitively, only for a small club near my house. I spent the next six years in lower divisions, playing just for fun, not for trophies. But just like most other little boys at my age, I always had the dream of becoming a professional soccer player. It’s not surprising, therefore, that I was super excited when transferring into the youth academy of 1. FC Union Berlin, a professional second-division soccer club in Berlin, Germany, in 2005. For many years, I had been a fan of Union Berlin, went to almost every single home game with my dad, later joined by my mum and my sister. Now, I finally found myself getting a little closer to my dream. I ended up spending nearly seven years with the club’s academy teams. Moreover, with my transfer to Union Berlin, I also changed schools and went from a regular high school to an elite school of sports. What separated us from regular schools were the additional practices during the week, before, during, or after school. Additionally, we had the privilege to be in very small classes. From 7th to 10th grade, I was one of only 13 people in my class. Over time, the amount of practice sessions increased. During my last two years – my junior and senior year of high school, I had up to 12 practices a week. Leaving my house around 7AM and not returning until 7PM was normal, and that for five days a week. Games were either Saturday or Sunday. If they were Saturday, we had a cool down session Sunday morning. If the game was Sunday, we had an early practice Saturday morning.
I can’t say these years went by without sacrifices: my social life was pretty much nonexistent; all my friends were either teammates or classmates. Time for anything other than school, homework, practice, and team meetings was basically not available. And yet, I loved every minute of it. The only time I questioned my abilities and my future was on June 15, 2009 – it was the day I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Up until then, soccer had helped me to overcome any obstacle that was put in my way. The field was the only place where I could get rid of all my stress, all my problems, and all my negative thoughts. On the day of my diagnosis, however, I wasn’t so sure whether I’d be able to move past it. When the doctors told me I would never be able to play competitive soccer again, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to accept the fact that all the thousands of hours that I had worked hard on the field, in the weight room, or during conditioning training suddenly became meaningless. I wasn’t ready to end my soccer career just two weeks after my 16th birthday. And I also didn’t want to bury my dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
Long story short, less than two weeks after the diagnosis I was back on the field, ready to give everything I had to continue playing the sport I loved so much. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it took me almost two years until I finally accepted my disease. Although I didn’t show anyone how much I suffered and how much I struggled, and although my performance didn’t seem to decline following the diagnosis, I did not handle the diabetes as I should have: Instead of talking about my fears and problems openly, I hid behind a wall of pretended happiness and faked confidence. When all the people around you expect you to overcome the challenge of dealing with a chronic disease, you don’t want to admit when you failed. You don’t want to disappoint them. Unfortunately, by not accepting the situation as it was, by not admitting to my struggles, the only person I failed was myself.
The only thing that kept me going against all odds were my relationships – the one with my family, and the one with soccer. And then, one day, I finally had the courage to contact Ulrike Thurm, one of Germany’s leading experts in the field of diabetes and sports. It turned out that she lived just a few houses down my street. I had passed her house every day on my way to school. The very first time I met her, she showed me that it wouldn’t be easy to live a complete life as type 1 diabetic, let alone becoming a professional soccer player. Even more importantly, though, she showed me that it was not impossible to fulfill my dreams. For giving me back the hope and inspiring me to turn my life around, to accept the disease and to prove those wrong who said it would not be possible to play competitive sports, I will always be thankful. Ulrike taught me so much and also gave me the chance to pass on my experiences in order to make the lives of other young type 1 diabetics more enjoyable. Her efforts benefit the entire diabetes community in Germany, and sometimes even beyond. She was and still is my role model, and over the next few years, she has turned me into someone who wants to influence the lives of many other type 1 diabetics and their families. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through the struggles and problems I had to go through. Since summer 2011, I have been a part of countless diabetes camps, service events, and projects. Whether it was giving a presentation to teenage diabetics or playing soccer with diabetic kids, I’ve always tried to teach them what Ulrike once taught me: everything is possible, even as a diabetic!
Although I never became a professional soccer player, I did have a very exciting competitive career, one that even brought me to the United States. Here in America, I played four seasons of NCAA Division 1 college soccer. I met other diabetic college players, on the soccer field as well as in other sports teams. I met Jordan Morris, a U.S. men’s national team player who won last year’s NCAA national championship with the Stanford University Cardinals and went on to become a professional soccer player only weeks later. And guess what?! Now I will become a Stanford University Cardinal; not on the field, because I have already used my four years of eligibility to play collegiate soccer – but in the classroom. I will attend Stanford University starting in September 2016 to obtain a master’s degree in journalism from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Without playing soccer, I most likely would have never come to America. Without accepting my disease and adapting to the necessary changes in my life after the diagnosis, I probably wouldn’t have continued to even play competitively, and hence would have never come to America. Without the support of my family, friends, and people like Ulrike Thurm, I would have never been able to overcome the diagnosis, and thus would definitely have never made it to America. I know how hard can sometimes be to suffer from a chronic disease. But I also know now that it’s worth trying to overcome the struggles and problems.
Eventually, relationships are like soccer games… Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get sent off with a red card and the game ends early for you. Sometimes you go to overtime, and sometimes to penalty shootouts. For me personally, my relationship to competitive soccer ended a few months ago, on November 12, 2015. It was the day we lost in the Western Athletic Conference Quarterfinals, 3:1, to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). My relationship to soccer, however, will go to overtime. At this point, I’m still a million miles away from trading my goalie gloves for a chess board or a PlayStation. And for my relationship with diabetes, well, I believe that will be a never ending game.
If you’d like to help making my dream of attending Stanford University reality, I’m happy for every Dollar or Euro on my way to coming up with $60,000 to cover all expenses.