Meeting A Dreamer

Meeting A Dreamer

Did you have big dreams growing up, but sort of forgot about them?
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“Every week I will be writing about my lifestyle as a professional athlete and how I became the man and athlete I am today. I want my writings to help people understand that uniqueness and willingness go a long way in making someone successful. But today let me tell how I got to where I am..."

When we are in our younger years of life we constantly hear the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Some of us want to be police officers. Other want to be doctors or veterinarians, and there are those select few who fall in love with a sport and fantasize about becoming a professional athlete.

I was one of those little boys growing up who loved a ball more than anything else. I, Vincenzo Marco Antonio Nicola Constantino Candela Lopez (yes that is my real name, thanks dad), dreamed of kicking a soccer ball in a “hooligan” packed stadium.

Born in Colombia, to a passionate Italian father and a competitive Colombian mother you could pretty much say that soccer was in my blood from the get go. At age 4, my family was forced out of Colombia because of violence in the country and we relocated in search of the American dream in Sunny Isles, Florida. We spent our first three months in America living in a Best Western, praying that things would get better. I started school, and my parents noticed I was a bit weird and hyper so they put me on a soccer team. And boom, it was there on those torn up soccer fields of Highland Oaks Park on Ives Dairy Road where a young kindergartener would kick and scream for the first time opening the gateway to a dream of becoming a Professional Athlete.

As the years zoomed by the world was changing but my mentality and will to be great never altered. Age 10, "Vincenzo what do you want to be when you grow up?" Age 12, “Vincenzo what do you want to be when you grow up?” Age 15, same question and with the same answer every single time. Teachers and older individuals tortured me to pick another profession. But I simply could not envision myself doing anything else when I was older. I wanted to be a professional soccer player .

I always kept at it and trained every day of the week. My angelic mom drove me to the end of earth and back so I could get the best trainings. I would rather go out for a jog or find an empty field to find solace rather than go with friends to pick up girls or a party. I always remembered my parents repeating over and over “if you are going to do something be the best at it." And before every training, even to this day, I repeat that phrase in my head to get myself going. It was not easy but I found happiness in sacrifices and working hard.

Fast forward a couple of years now, August 2009, my first day of high school. I did not go to the massive public school that I was zoned for, like all of my friends. Two of my close friends (who also played soccer) and I choose to attend a very small private preparatory school who contacted us to play soccer for them. A preparatory school gets you prepared for college, and the ironic thing is I never wanted to go to college. The school counselors laughed more than once at me for telling them that. I laughed back; I didn’t know what was so funny to them. They, like many others before, tried to change my mindset about my future. Of course, they failed in trying to change me. I do not care what people think about me or the decisions I choose to take. I will do what pleases my heart because there is only one person who can judge my actions: God.

Now, this new school we choose to attend was a culture shock for us. We were three foreign kids who were thrown into a completely new world. We had each other and no one else in the beginning. We were always together, which led us to getting the nickname "The Three Musketeers." Every day, we would pray for the school days to end so we could leave the confinement that was forced upon to find happiness in football after school. High school did end up getting better (even though we talked about leaving every day) and in our second year at the school, we helped the school win its first ever state title in any sport.

That taste of success was a gateway for me. I wanted more, I was hungry for success. I felt for the first time that I was ready to take a leap of faith.

After my sophomore year in high school, I decided (with my parents blessing) to leave school and finish my courses online so that I would have more time to focus on my craft. What I was doing was unheard of where I grew up. I had people judge me hard for leaving school, being called a bum, an idiot , and a loser for chasing what people considered an unrealistic dream. My decision was very simple. I had already figured out what I wanted to be in life and felt that I needed to get ready for my future, and no school could get me prepared to be a soccer player. So I left.

I thought life was going to be a walk in the park without having to attend school, but boy was I wrong. Every day I would wake up at 6:15 a.m., a quick shower, have breakfast and drive 45 minutes to train. We would train for about two hours every morning, two more hours at the gym at noon, and another two hours in the evening. I would get home around 9 p.m. every night and do my school courses. It was brutal to say the least, but I loved every minute of the suffering. I did not miss school. I was happy I broke away from the stereotype that was associated with being a high schooler in South Florida.

It feels like almost everyone in America follows the same path growing up. Six years of elementary school, three of middle school, four of high school, go to college and get some job where you ultimately end up becoming an average Joe. I stepped off the basic assembly line and risked a comfortable life for a chance to be someone; for a chance to be heard. I hate mediocracy. I did not want to be an Average Joe with an average job. I was a dreamer and I would do anything to achieve it. I was told by many people that they had never seen such a determined young man who was so clear with what he wanted to do. “Forget girls and parties, sacrifice yourself for a couple years and when you get to the top they will be there waiting for you.” One of my coaches growing up told me that and it had a huge impact in my life because I truly believed every single word. And today I can confirm it is true.

After ten months of relentless three-a-days, I got the chance at age seventeen to go train with one of the best academies in Valencia, Spain. It was an opportunity and I grabbed it by the horns. I said goodbye to my friends, to my parents and just as a dreamed of doing, I set off to the Mecca of football. I was headed to Europe. I killed myself in trainings in Spain. I did not want to take anything for granted. I would always try to arrive early to training so that I could juggle a tennis ball to better my technique. And, I would stay after training to jog so that I could improve my fitness. There were days when I called home and just felt like saying that I wanted to come back and that it was too tough. But the support system I had with friends and family never let me even think about going back. I willed myself through, and it would pay off.

Just six months into my experience in Spain a huge sports agency contacted me and offered me to join a professional club in Portugal. I would play for their youth team and boy was I excited. I had cemented myself in European football. After playing one year of youth football in Portugal I was ready to make the jump to play with the big boys. I did not want any more youth soccer; I wanted to be on a professional roster.

In the summer of 2013, I had tryouts lined up to try to make a professional team. I was rejected by a team in Portugal and a first division and second division team in Italy. I was devastated. After being rejected the third time, I called my father and tears just started flowing. I thought it was the end. I thought I would have to go back to America, go to school and be what I feared the most, being average. I had one more tryout left with a team in Germany. It was Germany or bust. And that pressure brought out the best in me and was offered a one-year contract. I made it, I was a professional footballer. I had people tell me I would never make it. They told me I was too small, too weak. But, they never measured my heart. Everyone I see I tell them to risk what they have to follow a dream. If you believe in yourself and have the will and determination you can achieve anything. Your mind can move walls, so do not ever think you are too weak to accomplish greatness.

Cover Image Credit: Vincenzo Candela

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To The Coach Who Ruined The Game For Me

We can't blame you completely, but no one has ever stood up to you before.
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I know you never gave it a second thought, the idea that you're the reason I and many others, never went any farther in our athletic careers.

I know you didn’t sincerely care about our mental health, as long as we were physically healthy and our bodies were working enough to play. It’s obvious your calling wasn’t coaching and you weren’t meant to work with young adults, some who look to you as a parent figure or a confidant.

I also know that if we were to express our concerns about the empty feeling we began to feel when we stepped onto the court, you wouldn’t have taken the conversation seriously because it wasn’t your problem.

I know we can't blame you completely, no one has ever stood up to you before. No one said anything when girls would spend their time in the locker room crying because of something that was said or when half the team considered quitting because it was just too much.

We can't get mad at the obvious favoritism because that’s how sports are played.

Politics plays a huge role and if you want playing time, you have to know who to befriend. We CAN get mad at the obvious mistreatment, the empty threats, the verbal abuse, “it's not what you say, its how you say it.”

We can get mad because a sport that we loved so deeply and had such passion for, was taken away from us single-handedly by an adult who does not care. I know a paycheck meant more to you than our wellbeing, and I know in a few years you probably won’t even remember who we are, but we will always remember.

We will remember how excited we used to get on game days and how passionate we were when we played. How we wanted to continue on with our athletic careers to the next level when playing was actually fun. We will also always remember the sly remarks, the obvious dislike from the one person who was supposed to support and encourage us.

We will always remember the day things began to change and our love for the game started to fade.

I hope that one day, for the sake of the young athletes who still have a passion for what they do, you change.

I hope those same athletes walk into practice excited for the day, to get better and improve, instead of walking in with anxiety and worrying about how much trouble they would get into that day. I hope those athletes play their game and don’t hold back when doing it, instead of playing safe, too afraid to get pulled and benched the rest of the season.

I hope they form an incredible bond with you, the kind of bond they tell their future children about, “That’s the coach who made a difference for me when I was growing up, she’s the reason I continued to play.”

I don’t blame you for everything that happened, we all made choices. I just hope that one day, you realize that what you're doing isn’t working. I hope you realize that before any more athletes get to the point of hating the game they once loved.

To the coach that ruined the game for me, I hope you change.

Cover Image Credit: Author's photo

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Drum Corps And Overcoming Myself

Sometimes, you truly are your own worst enemy.

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Late afternoons in Millbrook, Alabama were terrible. I learned that very quickly. The heat, the bugs, and the humidity were such a terrible mix. Dense grass and burnt, blistered hands made for grueling rehearsals. Surely through all this suffering I would be able to conquer anything, it seemed.

I was wrong. The biggest obstacle I'd ever face turned out, as cliché as it sounds, to be me.

My biggest obstacle - myself.Photo by Ruth Marek

I joined Southwind Drum and Bugle Corps for the 2017 season, and my rookie year would definitely showcase the impact of these negative thoughts. We were not even a week into tour when I first "broke." I had survived all-days, but once we hit the road, it seemed that I couldn't continue. That day, the pressures were particularly immense. I had been newly promoted to the marimba line, been given only nine days to learn the full show, and now we were on tour. Competition would start that very day. Needless to say, the odds were stacked against me. The grass on the field was extremely, almost unnaturally thick, making for a hellish and painful push. I'm already a small person, and of course only being a week or so into my rookie season, I didn't have the muscles for it yet. The sun was beating down on us; the temperature came close to 100 degrees. The marimba itself - yeah, the big thing I have to push around a field all day - was actually at least twice if not three times my size. On top of it all, we were under a time limit which, if violated, resulted in a penalty for the whole corps.

I could continue on for ages about all the external factors that made my experience difficult, but I would be completely ignoring the point. Those external factors made my experience difficult, not impossible. The factors weren't the problem itself. I was the problem. I didn't believe in myself. Negative thoughts thrive in negative environments. As such, the aforementioned circumstances resulted in a copious quantity of self-doubt, self-loathing, regret, and other wonderful feelings. My own negative thinking patterns created the problem.

How does one overcome oneself? It's almost paradoxical. In retrospect, I've struggled with myself for far longer than just in drum corps, and I still struggle today. But that sweltering day, in the middle of Millbrook, Alabama, I was given something that has helped me tremendously in my fight to extinguish my negative thinking patterns. That day, in the middle of my push onto the field, my legs locked up. My thighs were screaming, and I was pretty close to doing the same if I hadn't been biting down on my lip. I was leading the whole line of front ensemble onto the field, so I had to keep going. I tried to. But I couldn't.

I couldn't do it.

I couldn't do it.

I heard my section called out from the press box: "That's two minutes already! Front ensemble has thirty seconds to get set!"

I couldn't do it.

I couldn't do it.

The pain of pushing the board mixed with the pain of the humiliation I'd caused myself and my section. I began to cry. My technician, Kirstyn (whom you may remember from my previous article), ran to my side. Tears were streaming down my face, probably leaving streaks of sunscreen washed away. I thought she'd help me push. She didn't.

All she did was stare at me. I still remember her eyes, icy blue and filled with confidence, like she was willing it with everything she had to transfer to me. I remember sobbing. At this point, I'm still pushing, but barely. She said two words to me, and those two words changed my entire life: "Keep pushing."

I'd love to say that something clicked into place. I'd love to say that those two words filled me with strength and my speed skyrocketed, bringing me and my section to our place in time. It didn't happen like that, of course, but the fact that it didn't have some magical effect on me speaks to me. It shows that overcoming oneself has always been and will always be a long process, filled with successes and failures just like any other.

More than anything, those words fill me with hope. Hope that I can get through whatever obstacle I'm facing. Those words have become a sort of mantra for me, and I am immensely glad to have received that advice. I've taken on so much more in my life than ever before thanks to the hope it brings me.

If you're ever facing an obstacle, be it yourself or otherwise, keep pushing. You'll thank yourself after the fact.

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