Her spirit’s unbreakable
Sameshima lifted by World Cup win
The Breakers call Aya Sameshima “Samy,’’ which translates from Japanese to “The Shark.’’ Sameshima has been swimming in uncharted waters this year. In March, an earthquake and tsunami wiped out most of Sameshima’s city and, along with it, her place of employment and soccer team. Sameshima was tempted to quit soccer, but she stayed with it and not only found another team - the Breakers - but also won the Women’s World Cup with Japan.
Not many athletes experience such extreme highs and lows over such a short period of time. And Sameshima admits to feeling stress, but she said she is physically fresh enough to jump back into the action when the Breakers meet the Western New York Flash tonight at Harvard Stadium.
“It has not fully registered with me, yet,’’ Sameshima said of Japan’s championship. “It wasn’t so much that I got tired from playing in the World Cup but the travels and being busy in Japan got me tired that way. But I will adjust.’’
Sameshima was speaking through a translator after Breakers practice yesterday. The practice revealed Sameshima’s joyful nature and the interview session the pain she carries relating to the earthquake/tsunami.
Sameshima has impressed the Breakers with her on-field commitment and endurance since joining the team last month.
“First one to training and last one to leave, she’s a hard worker,’’ Breakers coach Tony DiCicco said.
Sameshima likely will not be on the game-day roster, but several World Cup participants, including England’s Alex Scott (Breakers) and Brazil’s Marta and Canada’s Christine Sinclair (Western New York) are expected to play.
“What works against the Breakers is all of our players got to the latter stages of the tournament,’’ DiCicco said. “All eight of them got at least to the quarterfinals, six were in the final, and one is a world champion.
“Lauren Cheney and Kelly Smith, two of our leading scorers, got hurt in the World Cup. But we can’t worry about that. This team has done well. It has shown a lot of resiliency and fight and can compete with any team. [Western New York] will have all their players except [Caroline] Seger, who got hurt in the World Cup, and I don’t know if Alex Morgan will play. But they will have pretty much their best team, so we’re going to have to be very good.’’
The Breakers’ ties to Japan can be traced to the arrival last year of Yuka Miyazaki, a former Tepco Mareeze player who joined the reserve team Boston Aztecs. In February, DiCicco sent Breakers Taryn Hemmings and Claire Zimmeck to train with Mareeze, sponsored by Tokyo Electric Power Company, in Fukushima. They returned to Boston while Sameshima and her Mareeze teammates concluded preseason workouts near Tokyo.
Then disaster struck. First the earthquake, then the tsunami. The Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, where Sameshima worked, was destroyed. The Northeast coast of Japan was devastated and there was the threat of nuclear meltdown.
There was no going back.
Sameshima no longer had a home to go to or a team to play on.
The Breakers hardly needed another defender - the team’s entire starting back line was on Women’s World Cup rosters - but DiCicco decided to add Sameshima. Since the transaction took place after the transfer deadline, the Breakers had to get a waiver from FIFA. Circumstances could not have been much more exceptional.
Sameshima has been running an emotional gauntlet, and that was evident as she was close to tears recalling the situation.
“When we were playing in the [World Cup], people from the disaster area gave us a lot of power and inspiration,’’ Sameshima said. “If I and my teammates can give back that inspiration by playing well, not only in the tournament but beyond, that is what I can hope.
“It is still a tough situation. I am praying that people’s lives will get back to normal soon and continue on with their normal day-to-day life as soon as possible.’’
Last Sunday, Japan defeated the US on penalty kicks in the World Cup final in Frankfurt. Both teams played six games in three weeks. Now, the Breakers are scheduled to play three times in 10 days. So Sameshima, Rachel Buehler, Stephanie Cox, Amy LePeilbet, and Kelley O’Hara are not expected to be rushed into action.
Women’s soccer gained the sporting world’s attention for a short time. Now, the athletes are back where they started, with a chance to capitalize. Attendance is expected to be about 6,000 for tonight’s game and, last week, 15,000-plus spectators attended a Western New York-magicJack match.
“Everyone has been unbelievable, the support has been amazing,’’ LePeilbet said. “I almost couldn’t believe how everyone was. I felt like [the US] won, almost, how proud everyone was of us. It was a warm welcome.
“We’re disappointed in the outcome of the game but proud of how we performed. We thought we had a great match and it was a great final for women’s soccer. I don’t think they surprised us at all, they were a great team, a talented team, a possession-oriented team. It was their heart, it was their drive, that really pushed them to do great things in this tournament.’’
Japan used a composed possession game to defeat two-time defending champion Germany (1-0) in the quarterfinals, then Sweden (3-1) in the semifinals, before rallying from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits against the US. England defeated the Japanese in the opener of group play, but then was eliminated by France in the quarterfinals.
“The nation just really rallied behind us, I felt so much love from everybody,’’ Buehler said. “We put together a great, wonderful game of soccer [in the final], and we should be proud of how we played. Japan kept fighting and they were a great side, as well.’’
Buehler had up-close experiences on two of the crucial plays of the tournament. She was red-carded following a clash with Marta in the US-Brazil quarterfinal and was marking Homare Sawa on the tying goal in extra time in the final.
“We were both battling for the ball evenly,’’ Buehler said of Marta. “I don’t feel she had a clear scoring opportunity, we were both arm in arm, just going for it, so I don’t think it was [a penalty kick].
“I was right there with Sawa but I think it was just a beautiful service off a set play. It was just one of those plays, you can defend as well as you can but it was just great offense.’’
Most of the Breakers’ World Cup performers returned to Boston Friday, and the players quickly reintegrated into the team. During practice, even the star players were kidded for mis-kicks. Everyone, including Sameshima, was laughing after she uncharacteristically sent a shot flying out of the stadium.
“Training has been good,’’ Smith said. “We are focused, knowing we have to get ready for the remaining games, and there’s a lot of games in a short amount of time.’’
Though only Sameshima returned to the WPS a champion, the other Breakers were gracious about being eliminated.
“Japan played probably the best football in the tournament,’’ Smith said. “They thoroughly deserved to win it. And Samy, she is a great person. She doesn’t speak much English but she is a great character to have around.’’
Said Buehler: “[Sameshima] had a wonderful tournament, I think she really blossomed. She is so good for them attacking and in possession, which is an important part of their game. She’s a key player for them.
“Mentally, the loss was kind of tough but it’s also good to get back here and get some games in and keep going and have a new focus. I’m excited to be back here and to end the season with the Breakers.
“The team has a great energy and it feels great to get back out here.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.