Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Carla Swensen's story starts out much like that of most teenage girls who have grown up playing soccer since they were little kids.
They're probably hoping that someday they'll get a chance to play high school soccer, and perhaps play at the collegiate level, too. Maybe they even dream big, hoping they might have an opportunity to play on the national team with a chance to go up against international competition someday.
Well, that's where Swensen's story takes a unique, interesting turn, one that most teenage girls would never experience.
And the way the Bingham High School senior sees it, it's the opportunity of a lifetime and a dream come true.
Her mother, Josefina, is a native of Colombia, so 18-year-old Carla has dual citizenship, which makes her eligible to represent that South American country in international soccer competition. That rarity has presented her with a unique and tremendous opportunity — she is one of 36 players who has been invited to participate in the U-20 Colombia National Camp in October at Cali, Colombia.
From that camp, 22 players will be selected to the team's final roster which will play in the U-20 South American Championships early next year at Uruguay. The top two teams from the South American tournament will qualify for the U-20 World Cup scheduled next summer in Canada.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me," Swensen said. "I've dreamed of this ever since I was a little girl, and it's somewhat surreal to have this opportunity presented to me now.
"Ever since I started playing competitive soccer, I'd go to practice every day and work hard and run and sweat and hope that someday I'd get a chance to play on the international level. So when that opportunity does present itself, you've got to go for it."
She admits though, that it was difficult for her not to be able to play on her Bingham High School team this season. And, since the Colombian trip will require her to be gone for several weeks, she essentially took a leave of absence from her normal class schedule and enrolled in several online courses to keep up on her schoolwork.
After all, soccer isn't the only thing in this young lady's life.
Carla carries a GPA of 4.00 at Bingham High, where she is a two-time 5A state debate champion. And she has verbally committed to play collegiate soccer at BYU in 2014, so she needs to make sure her academic standing doesn't suffer and she stays on track toward graduation in order to keep her NCAA compliant after high school.
"I would like to have played high school soccer this year because I absolutely love it," said Swensen, who starred for the Miners in the past and played in the preseason for them this fall. "It made me sad that I couldn't play this year, so I had to make that sacrifice.
"The thing with playing high school soccer is you know all the girls so well, and that makes it special. You've grown up with them and you go to school with them and you live in their neighorhood. You go to lunch with them and you sit in math class with them every day. That's what makes high school sports different is that you're playing with people you grew up with, your next-door neighbors, the kids you spent your childhood with.
"And it's neat to represent your high school and your community," she said. "There's a certain relationship you develop with the community, the fans and the girls on your high school team. There's something memorable and magical about being able to represent your school. You have your friends who would never go to a soccer game, but they come to the games and support you. And you get to wear your jersey to school on game days and get to know all the girls and the coaches so well. I definitely miss that.
"But this is that one opportunity I've been waiting for and working toward for my whole life, so it takes priority over playing high school soccer. Now I'm just focusing on that national camp and doing what I need to do to give me an opportunity to make the team."
With that lofty goal in mind, Swensen has been busy working out, running and lifting weights to stay in optimum shape. And she's been training regularly with a U-18 boys premier league team and playing in adult co-ed Latino leagues to help her keep her timing and skill level as high as possible as she prepares for her first-ever trip to Colombia.
That makes this opportunity all the more special for her.
"That's where my mother's family is from, so that's my culture and my heritage," said Swensen, who speaks fluent Spanish. "My grandparents on my mom's side only speak Spanish, and my mother's cousins and aunts and uncles live there. I'll be in the same town where my mother grew up, where she was born and raised, and where my extended family lives — my aunts, uncles and cousins — so I'll be able to see the farm where my mother was raised. I have all these different family members who live there, some who I've never seen or had a chance to spend any time with. So now everything's coming together for us. It's a very special opportunity for me."
Swensen said that the type of soccer they play in Colombia differs somewhat from how they play the game in the United States, and the Colombian brand of soccer actually plays more to her strengths.
"It's just a different cultural thing," she said. "They play very differently there than we do here in the states. Here, players are very athletic, and all the focus is on power, speed and athleticism. You see it with the U.S. Women's National Team, which has a bunch of big, strong, athletic women.
"In Colombia, the game is not based as much on power and speed. It's based more on technical skill and the creative aspect of the game. I'm not a big, strong girl myself (5-foot-3 and well under 100 pounds), so it's almost like I favor that creative, more technical side of soccer.
"I don't know what their skill level is," she said of the other camp members and national team hopefuls. "I haven't seen any of those girls play, and that's what I'm most nervous about — the unknown. Once I get into it a week, I'll be more comfortable. But right now I have no clue how good the other players are and I have no clue what the coaches are looking for. I'm doing everything I can to be the most prepared for it."
Swensen leaves for Colombia next Monday, and after a month-long camp, the team will be trimmed to 22 players at the end of October. If she makes the cut, she'll come home for a week or two and then go back to Colombia in November to train with the team. The South American Championships will then be played in late-December and January.
"I bought a soccer journal and set some goals for myself, and if I can accomplish those things, then I'll have no regrets no matter what happens," she said. "Even if I don't make the team, it'll be a great experience for me. I get to learn about my mother's culture and heritage and train with some other high-level international players.
"In order to be seen by their national team, they have created a selective group of girls. These 36 girls all come from various backgrounds, different cities, different economic situations. Some are coming from poverty, and these are girls who are different than I am in many different ways. Everything about this is so different for me — the food, the language — but when it comes to playing soccer, it's all the same.
"And to me that's kind of amazing," Swensen said. "It's not just that we're playing soccer; there are so many other things that make people equal and make us all as one.
"What I want to take out of this the most is all the people I get a chance to meet. It's still soccer, it's still a round ball, you can't use your hands, and whoever scores the most goals wins. But getting an opportunity to meet so many new people and do it in the birthplace of my mother makes this all the more special for me."
She admits that all the hard work is exactly that — a lot of hard work — and that there are times she'd like to take a break. But her commitment to this golden opportunity won't allow her to do so.
"It's that thing that motivates you in the morning," Swensen said. "Some mornings I'm so sore I don't want to get out of bed. I mean, the last thing I want to do at 5 in the morning is get up and run. But my father (Jason) reminds me, 'Remember, you want to make this team, you want to play at the international level.' So you're constantly reminding yourself of what you want to do.
"It's been a dream of mine to play on the national team and to play international soccer. Maybe I can play in a World Cup someday. If I can make the team and stay on the team, maybe I can play in the Olympics in 2016. But, obviously, I have to make the team first. And even if this doesn't work out, I'll be playing for the Cougars next year."