Local soccer has changed my life, and I haven’t spent any (significant) time “on the pitch.” Let me explain: I’ve had anxiety for a long time, its manifestations so much a part of my daily life that I can’t even tell you when it started. Panic attacks have happened when I’m by myself at home, in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, and surrounded by people at church. I’ve made many accommodations, left many parties and classes and games (eventually not going at all), avoided talking to people or trying new things, all in the hopes of eluding that feeling: the tightness in my chest, the sudden uptick in my heart rate and breathing, the tunnel vision from the walls closing in on me as time slows to a halt. All that to say: going to a crowded, adrenaline-packed stadium I’ve never been to has the potential to be a personal nightmare. So how did I end up involved with two hometown soccer clubs? I was not an athletic kid by any stretch of the imagination. Growing up in the South, football was the first sport I loved. The first time I really played sports was at a summer camp in 1999 where you could learn two sports-I picked volleyball and soccer. It just so happened that the US women won the World Cup the week before I left for camp. Pictures of Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm were all over the papers that week; my first real glimpse at female athletes being celebrated. I was hooked.
Again, not being athletic, I never played outside of those camps, but I followed soccer as best I could, mostly World Cups and televised matches. I went to my first game in person while in college at Furman. MLS came in my life by way of seeing the Portland Timbers and their chainsaw on ESPN in 2012. Joining the Timbers Army, even from afar, was the first time I followed a club consistently. I fell hard into the fandom: designing patches, following players, organizing local meetups, and staying up entirely too late watching West Coast games. None of that is the same as a gameday experience, though. When not one but two teams came to Greenville, I couldn’t believe my luck.
I spent the first GVLFC season on the sidelines, thanks to an uncharacteristically bold email to the club asking if I could use them to try out sports photography. It was a bit of a personal stretch for me, meeting new people, but the team played at my college’s soccer stadium, so it was a familiar environment. It was not without incident though. I white-knuckled my way through the season and left at least one game due to a panic attack I couldn’t get under control. The players, leadership, and the fans were all very kind though, and the connections I’ve made are still truly special to me. That season cemented my love for local sports, learning the stories of how each person on and around the pitch ended up there.
Then this year, the Triumph came to town. The season started at a weird time for me. I made my second attempt at medication the week of that first scrimmage against App State. I should state the usual here: I’m not a doctor, meds aren’t for everyone, etc. But I needed help: as you may have guessed, the all-encompassing anxiety I described as my normal was not okay. I was not okay, and I knew that deep down. My first attempt at taking anxiety medication went very poorly, and it took me a year and a half to brave trying again. I told my husband half-jokingly that Triumph games would provide the ultimate test of how this new attempt was going. I wanted to be there, though, so buying season tickets was both an act of defiance against this cloud that ruled my life and hope that things could be different.
I knew a magic pill didn’t exist, that medication was to help take the edge off these sharp feelings I knew too well, but I didn’t know what to expect. The first home game of the season found me starting to settle into a bit of a rhythm with my meds: learning how they made me feel, how best to space them, and testing some long-held boundaries around things I “couldn’t do.” So with trepidation, I got ready for the game. I got my photo equipment together, packed some sunscreen, and we headed out to Legacy. I wasn’t ready to brave the Riot tailgate yet, so I picked up my press pass, we went through security, and entered the stadium.
Just as I gained some confidence that maybe things were okay, disaster struck. In my nervous packing, I left my camera battery at home. The options felt limited: re-entry is prohibited, but I was very much looking forward to taking pictures of the inaugural game. Thankfully, the club president knew us from our burgeoning avid fandom, and 30 minutes before kickoff, my husband got permission to run home, leaving me at the stadium. This was a huge moment for us, as I previously insisted on having an exit strategy at all times due to my anxiety. I wouldn’t even ride with my in-laws to dinner when they’d visit, on the off chance we needed to leave. Yet here I was, choosing to be alone amidst the thousands of people spilling in and filling the stadium. It was not easy, but he made it back and I did not fall apart. It was the first time I really believed that things could be different. Honestly, it felt a little like magic.
The magic continued that night, with the Triumph’s first win. The winning goal happened right in front of my camera, the first in a string of fortuitous moments this season when I happened to be in the right place just as the men did something amazing. We won, the Riot cheered, and I was in the middle of all of it. And I was okay. In fact, it was better than okay: I felt alive. Every game gave me that feeling again, sometimes even more so, and sometimes even away from the games themselves. The first Riot tailgate I went to, I felt a little sheepish; I didn’t really know anyone. That familiar dread sat heavy in my body, but bolstered, I went anyway. I was welcomed, and people knew my name. They asked me to take their picture, and they thanked me for ones I had taken previously. I got lightheartedly teased for being a Timbers fan by some Atlanta fans who had been to the MLS Cup last year. I was offered beer and food, and when I mentioned thinking about interviewing some of the Triumph players, people were encouraging about my ideas.
I ended up doing a few of those interviews, thanks to the social media age and the kindness of players who took the time to let me record them at my local watering hole. That’s not to say they went off without a hitch: I cancelled my first interview appointment because I was so nervous, I made myself sick. Friends encouraged me, and Dallas was nice enough to reschedule. I did not do as many as I had hoped, but the fact that multiple players sat down with me and told me their stories of how they made it to Greenville – that’s something truly special, and something that would have been completely out of the question even a year ago for me.
Every game was extraordinary, whether we won, lost, or drew, because every game was a reminder of growth and progress on and off the field, for the team, for the fans, and for me personally. From winning our first US Open Cup match, to handing a loss to the league leader in their home stadium, playing in snow and rain and insane heat, and watching the men of the team stay after gutting losses to sign autographs and take selfies with fans who still loved them, every bit of the season was exceptional.
Heading into the last week of the season, I don’t know what the playoffs hold. I hope the team brings home some hardware. Whether they do or not, though, I want to thank the soccer community for giving me something better, though less tangible. They’ve given me hope that things can get better. They’ve given me community that is accepting and loving and honestly a Riot to be around at all times. I am in constant awe, and just hope I can give a little back to them too.