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United States soccer community helps Chinese coach battle cancer

By Li Yue and Gao Shan SAN DIEGO United States (Xinhua) -- Warming up for soccer practice, 15-year-old Mariposa Rodarte focused on some jogging, swinging of the arms, twists of the hips with more than a dozen other girls.

The girl passed the ball to her teammates over and over again according to her trainer’s instructions. But Rodarte hasn’t met her former coach, Zhang Ouying, also known as Coach O by her students, at the training ground for months.

In Rodarte’s words, as her first coach at San Diego Soccer Club (SDSC) five years ago, “Coach O” is always “caring,” “supportive” and “intelligent.”

Raffi Ruotolo, director of coaching at SDSC, received a message more than two months ago from Zhang, who is a coach of the older girls’ team in this club, which said, “Raffi, I do not think I am going to be back this year. Please take care of my things.”

SDSC is a non-profit, youth soccer organization that operates both recreational and competitive leagues.

“The first thing for Coach O is always the soccer team,” Ruotolo said. But coach O has to leave her beloved field at this moment. She was diagnosed a rare lung cancer this year.

“It was a Sunday night, and I pushed the button to kick the GoFundMe page live,” Ruotolo said. He created the fundraising page on behalf of Zhang on May 2.

“World class soccer Olympian Zhang Ouying - Coach O to thousand of San Diego children during the past decade needs our help as she faces her toughest opponent yet. But this time it’s off the soccer field...Her disease is very serious, but she is determined to fight it with the same willpower that saw her star for the Chinese National Team in three successive Women’s World Cups - 1999, 2003, and 2007 - and in 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympics,” read the page.

“The medical bills are mounting already and we all know that fighting this disease can be overwhelming. Husband Edde Iott and their two children Flynn and Elynn are bearing up well, but easing of the financial pain will go a long way in letting them focus solely on aiding mom in her battle,” the page added.

Ruotolo knew Zhang for around eight years.

“She is very humble, very professional. And she has been one of my outstanding coaches in our club,” he told Xinhua in a recent interview.

The 42-year-old Zhang was the former captain of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, playing for Chinese National Team in the 1999, 2003, and 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Also she played in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.

“It is not something that everybody can accomplish overnight,” Ruotolo said when it comes to Zhang’s professional experience.

As one of the largest soccer clubs in Southern California, SDSC includes 103 competitive teams and about 3,000 recreational kids.

Among the 53 soccer coaches in this club, Zhang is the only Chinese, but language and culture background never hampered her coaching.

Aaron Jaffe, one coach who can speak a little Chinese, thinks soccer itself can be served as a language for Zhang.

“There is no language barrier for her at all,” Jaffe said. “It is no problem for her passing her thoughts to her players.”

In the United States, soccer is not the sport many people grow up with, but it is becoming more and more popular among kids at a grassroots level, especially popular among girls. After school, groups of children play soccer on the playground every afternoon.

Besides, Zhang has been keeping the soccer conversation among different members. Over the past few years, she took some of her players to soccer games in China.

In the club, there is even a “Coach O” team that all the team players are Chinese and were brought to by Zhang.

However, playing soccer is not only about skills. It is about attitude, too. This could be seen from students who are sad to hear the news of their coach’s illness.

“Coach O gave me the confidence with the ball, and also taught me the best thing about life is to have your friends,” Rodarte told Xinhua.

The first year moving to SDSC, Ashley Molina, another former student of Zhang, had experienced a terrible season.

“She knew everything I have gone through. She was there, she was always there motivating me,” Molina said, adding Zhang’s dedication in coaching helped her gear up and make a difference on the team.

For many people, the devastating news from the coach stunned them, but they are taking actions to help her.

“It was like that everything was suddenly frozen,” Jaffe said, recalling the moment when he knew Zhang’s health issue.

On June 7, a friendly soccer game was held between San Diego SeaLions, which is one of the teams Zhang had played for, and So Cal Union. According to Ruotolo, all the fund raised for the game was given to Zhang.

On the GoFundMe page for Coach O, the fund has exceeded 150,000 dollars, raised by more than 1,130 people.

Volumes of comments such as “pray for Coach O,” “wish a speedy recovery” can be found at the bottom of the page.

“Possibly it is the toughest battle she had so far. We are here to wish nothing but the best, and hopefully she comes out here sometime soon,” Ruotolo said.



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