By Rebecca Schmitz
Henley Middle School eighth-grader Erin Meier’s athletic skills have taken her from the soccer fields of Virginia to the stadiums of Vienna, Austria and Budapest, Hungary. Meier, one of only 18 girls from the state of Virginia chosen to be part of the international roster for the 2002 Girls Olympic Development Program (ODP), played six games against foreign teams on an 11-day trip at the end of March. Her team, made up of girls born in 2002, was one of four—two boys teams and two girls teams—to make the trip, which involved a 13-hour plane flight. They were accompanied by two coaches, a trainer, a sports psychologist, and a parent chaperone.
“It was a thousand times more than I thought it would be, not just in terms of the soccer experience, but the cultural experience,” Meier said. She said she and her teammates enjoyed exploring the cities they visited and soaking in local customs. “During our free time we were allowed to explore in groups of four. We went to the markets and bought souvenirs. We took tours, and we walked around.” They learned the exchange rates for the Euro and the Turkish lira. They also loved trying new foods and checking out the local grocery stores, and were especially fond of “Kinder eggs”—chocolate eggs with a small toy inside—that are banned in the United States (but nonetheless determined to be delicious by the team).
Though many of the people she encountered didn’t speak English, Erin found them to be friendly. “The people were all really nice. They really wanted to learn why we were there. It was so interesting meeting them!” Meier said they were warned about pickpockets at some of the Hungarian markets, but luckily did not experience any first-hand.
Another benefit of the trip was the bond she developed with her teammates, whom she usually sees only once a week at ODP practices held December through March. “We all got super close, which was really fun,” she said. The Virginia ODP Team also befriended some of the girls on the teams from other countries, particularly the girls from Niederösterreich Select, an Austrian team, with whom they still keep in touch over social media.
For the girls, one of the most thrilling parts of playing internationally was before their games, when they got to walk into “real” locker rooms and see their jerseys and soccer “kits” laid out for them, much the way professional soccer players do. They also enjoyed playing in actual stadiums with soaring bleachers and scoreboards. The girls won two games, tied one, and lost three. Meier said with a laugh that some of the teams they played “were much more aggressive, much more physical” than the teams they usually played in the United States. “They were tougher, bigger, and stronger.” In some of the settings the refs and players did not speak very much English, so the U.S. teams had to rely on hand gestures and the common language of the game played around the world.
Meier has soccer in her blood. Her father, Eric, played soccer for Virginia Tech and then played semi-pro. Her sister Kella, a freshman, is on Western’s JV soccer team. Erin started playing soccer at age 5 in SOCA’s Hot Shots program, and has continued playing for the past eight years for SOCA. This year, she tried out for the 2002 Virginia ODP team in November. Sixty girls make up the 2002 ODP roster, and Erin was one of 18 players selected for the international trip (According to their website, the ODP’s mission is to identify players of the highest caliber and prepare them to compete for U.S. national teams in the international arena.) The Virginia ODP takes teams on an international trip each year, but not all age groups get to go. The 2002 girls team will have another opportunity to go in two years, but the destination has not been decided yet.
Although Meier’s life is filled with soccer practices and games for both her club and ODP teams, she is also involved with the National Jr. Honor Society and model U.N. at Henley.