It was a journey months in the making, including tryouts in another state, and a trip across the Pacific Ocean, but Isa Whalen was finally there.
The 14-year-old Northwest Nationals player and freshman-to-be at Meadowdale High School stepped onto the pitch in China wearing the colors of her parents' native Guam, ready to take on the U-14 National Team of Japan, one of the world's top women's soccer powers. Just minutes later, she was being rushed to the hospital.
"The air in China is very thick," she explains. "I have asthma problems, and the first game that I was there, I didn't take my inhaler. As soon as you breathe in, it clogs your throat. They rushed me on a cart to the inside, where there was air conditioning, then put me in a steam shower, then took me to the ER."
Whalen recovered quickly, and improved air conditions over the rest of the week, plus remembering to keep her inhaler handy, kept her asthma from recurring.
Which was important, because Whalen wasn't just another member of the team, she was the captain. Despite being the only player from the United States named by Guam coach Gary White (a former Washington Youth Soccer Technical Director) to the U14 roster for June's international showcase in China, Whalen was made captain, a testament to her inspiring play and ability to lead both on and off the field.
Over the course of the week, Whalen and her Guam teammates played three games, one each against Japan, DPR Korea and Chinese Taipei, honing their skills against Asia's top young female players. For Whalen, who had never before traveled internationally for soccer, or traveled anywhere on her own, it was an eye-opening experience.
"The tournament was very competitive, very aggressive," she recalls. "Japan was a really good team. I admire their players; they're really skilled. To be honest, they creamed us. We were close to scoring against DPR Korea, and then we had a lot of breakaways against Chinese Taipei. The competition was fun."
In addition to the three games, Whalen trained with her Guam teammates for two weeks on the South Pacific island, a territory of the United States whose citizens all have full U.S. citizenship, before traveling to China, and spent hours in between games bonding with the girls from other countries. Communication was done mostly with hand signals and facial expressions, Whalen says, though there was one moment when suddenly every 14-year-old girl in the room found themselves speaking the same language.
"One time I heard one of the Japanese girls walking down the hall singing a song, and I realized I recognized the tune, it was 'Let It Go,' from 'Frozen,'" Whalen recalls.
Soon, Whalen had her entire team singing along, and a connection was made.
"I think the team bonding was the most fun for me," she says. "I loved bonding with Japan. Just communicating with them was fun, because you can't really understand them and they can't understand you. It's funny to watch. We taught them how to play human knot, and the Hong Kong team took us outside and showed us all of these flips that they could do. It was cool."
During the two weeks in Guam before leaving for the tournament, Whalen stayed with her uncle's family, and was made to feel like a true island native. Indeed, both Whalen's parents, Barbara and Anthony, were born on the island, where Barbara was once a soccer star in her own right.
"Everyone in Guam was very kindhearted and open," she says of her new teammates. "They want to get to know you a lot, and their parents do, too. They spend time with you and invite you into their homes. It's like you're already considered a part of their family."
Whalen says she grew significantly as a player and person on the trip, and can't wait for another chance to represent her parents' homeland.
"At that level, it's a one-touch game; it's really fast," she says. "Because I was captain, I was doing more than one job, and making sure that everyone on the field knew what to do. A lot of my quickness in how I am supposed to play the game improved, because I had to think so fast all the time. It was a great experience."