The game of soccer is the world’s game.
Men’s soccer that is. Women’s soccer, on the other hand, is much less of a global sport, especially in the third world and developing countries. That’s what makes it possible for a group of young American girls to use the sport to make a big impression in southeast Asia.
This past summer three local high school girls soccer players, Winter Wirkkala, Olivia Carter and Reimi Peters, traveled to Battambang, Cambodia for the fourth straight year to teach young Cambodian girls the beautiful game and share their faith. The trips, which are through the soccer nonprofit SALT Academy with the help of Youth With a Mission, works to help girls from orphanages and survivors of human trafficking to build life skills through the game of soccer.
“We have three main focuses: To educate girls in terms of English, global perspective; equip the girls and give them skills; and last to empower,” said Eddie Carter, who, along with his wife, Kari, organized all four of the trips to Cambodia.
On the first trip to Cambodia in 2009, Wirkkala, Peters and Olivia Carter, Eddie’s middle daughter, went with seven other girls soccer players selected from a number of Snohomish County premier soccer teams, including Washington Rush and Snohomish United. The past two years they went back and helped train some of those same Cambodian girls, the Mighty Girls they call them. But this summer they went as junior leaders of a group of 31 12- and 13-year-old girls on their first trip.
“It was a flashback to our first year,” said Wirkkala, who plays high school soccer for Granite Falls. “Watching them build relationships with the other girls.”
In addition to the daily soccer clinics and the numerous tournament games, the girls also visited children in a local orphanage and taught computer, English and other classes at a local school.
This year’s group of girls got to experience a different environment than even just four years ago because of the work the trio and others have put in. When the Carters first went to Cambodia in 2005, as they traveled around the country, they only saw one group of girls playing soccer.
Four years later, on the group’s first official trip the young girls they were training — now known as the Mighty Girls — played barefoot and had very little knowledge of the game. Now the Mighty Girls are not only better — they played the American girls in a tightly contested game — but look like real soccer players as well.
“When we went over the first time the girls didn’t have shin guards or shoes; just barefoot,” said Olivia Carter, who plays for Jackson. “Now they all have nice cleats and uniforms.”
“It was really cool playing against them and seeing them playing against the other teams. It was like ‘Oh my gosh,’” Peters added. “It was just a few years ago we were training them and now I feel like it’s an equal game.”
The Mighty Girls have grown so much in their soccer knowledge two of them, Nypha and Socheata, are coaches and now train the younger girls coming up through the program. The two are a prime example of the transformation many of the girls have undergone since soccer was introduced to them four years ago.
“They used to walk through town, head down, you know, really subdued and quiet,” Kari Carter said of the young women they’d see in Cambodia. “But now you can see (soccer) really empowers them to have that confidence to compete.”
Washington Rush coach Josten Garalde was invited on this year’s trip to act as a coach and chaperone. Garalde made a number of contacts with coaches in Cambodia and came away blown away by the work done by SALT Academy. He’s now pondering taking a similar concept to Kenya.
“It was really cool to bring a group of girls together from all different clubs and yet see them come together to have a common goal to learn about another culture and play in Cambodia,” Garalde said. “It was very impactful for the girls.”
Wirkkala, Carter and Peters, who plays for Edmonds-Woodway, all said they’d love to go back to Cambodia as leaders one day and Eddie said there are possibilities of taking a group of players to Vietnam.
Recently The Mighty Girls defeated Baksei Chamkrong from Siem Reap in the finals of National Women’s Football Championships to become the de facto best women’s soccer team in Cambodia. It was a special moment for the trio who had a hand in helping build women’s soccer in the country.
“We’ve talked about it and thought how cool would it be, years from now, to be sitting with our kids and see a Cambodian (women’s soccer) national team and be able to say, ‘We started that.’ It’s crazy to think,” Wirkkala said.