FULL-TIME: D.C. UNITED’S CHRIS ODOI-ATSEM TALKS TO SPORTSEDTV - PART 1
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Chris Odoi-Atsem’s career was on the rise in 2017. He had just broken into the D.C. United team and was putting in eye-catching performances in the league. His agility, pace, and power in defense and attack won him international admiration. The Ghana National team was ready to call him up for his first international cap. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and that put his career on hold. At such a young age, his journey to recovery is nothing short of inspirational. In this two part blog series, Chris sat down with SportsEd TV to talk about his journey, recovery, family, and his future.
SportsEd TV: Chris, when did you believe that you had the ability and potential to become a professional soccer player?
Chris: For me, it was later on in my career when I actually had the real belief that I could turn pro. I had always wanted to be pro, like every kid growing up playing soccer, but for a long time, I didn't really think it was achievable. That probably hindered me a lot when I was younger. If I had really had the belief that I could make it as a professional, maybe I would have put a little more into it at a younger age than I actually did. It wasn't until my junior year of college when I started to realize I had a really good chance of making it. I started all four years in my time at The University of Maryland, but in my first two years, I was a center back. As a 5’8” center back, one of my big skills was my speed, so teams couldn't really get in behind me and things like that. Center back gave me the chance to play right away as a freshman, but of course as a 5'8" Centre Back, I knew I wasn't going to play professionally there, and I had to be real about that. But my coach had always planned for that to be temporary, and going into my junior year he switched me to right back. That is when I really took off, and I got on the radars of professional teams and things like that, and when I started to believe it myself.
SportsEd TV: How did you choose the University of Maryland? Were there other colleges you could have gone to?
Chris: The University of Maryland was the school I always wanted to go to. I was born and raised here in Maryland. I actually grew up going to their summer soccer camps, so I had always known about the program. I had known the coach since I was 12 years old. That was a crazy thing about him because that's when he really took notice of me as a kid going to his camp and kind of always kept tabs on me as I grew up and eventually got to high school. Then I had a really good year in my junior year of high school, and that's when they came to me and started talking to me, and they were the most aggressive school that started talking to me at an early stage, and I didn't really waste any time with it. I committed the summer of my junior year, which was early compared to most people. I knew if I wanted a chance to make it to the professional level, I had to put myself in the toughest environment possible, and I knew Marilyn had the pedigree of sending a lot of players professional. So I wanted to push myself and be in a situation where I would be constantly challenged.
SportsEd TV: In your first season in the MLS you were on the radar for the Ghana national team as well, right?
Chris: Yeah, I actually had a pretty successful first year with D.C. and the Ghana national team coach came to one of our training sessions while they had friendly here in the States. He told me that I was on their radar and all I needed to do the next season was to keep doing what I was doing, and just get regular, consistent time, and there'd be no reason why I shouldn't be called into a camp for the national team. That was great for my confidence, just the national team coach knowing who I was and keeping tabs on me because playing for Ghana would be a great experience for me. So that was great to meet him and know that I was on his radar.
SportsEd TV: Was it around the time you were diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma?
Chris: Yes, I wasn't actually diagnosed until September of 2018, but I was having problems that whole year. It was a host of things. At the end of 2017 after the season, I actually had ankle surgery. So I was out three months for that, and I couldn't really train or exercise. So when I recovered from that I jumped right into pre-season of 2018 with the team, and I was just really tired all the time, but I was thinking, ‘Okay, I'm just getting back from surgery, this is going to take me some time to really get back up to speed.’ But then there were other things that started coming. I had itching all over my body at random times. That was probably the worst thing I had. People thought I was crazy, but it was all over my body, just constantly itching. It was maddening. Sometimes it would be worse than others. I also wasn't breathing well when I was playing. And as the year went on, more things just started coming. I developed insomnia, I couldn’t fall asleep at night or even stay asleep. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with my bed just drenched in sweat. And there had never been a problem like any of that in my life before, so once that came I knew something was wrong.
SportsEd TV: What was your reaction when you heard the diagnosis?
Chris: My reaction was actually more of a relief when I got the news, For me, with that whole year, with all these things going wrong with me, I didn't know what it was. And I went to my team and I said, ‘Something is really wrong with me. I can't practice anymore. I’ve got to find out what's going on’. And they put me through a whole bunch of tests and things like that, and everything was coming back as normal. So that's when I got to a point where people thought that I might have been making things up, or that I was just being soft or something like that. And that was hard for me because I knew my body. I knew something was definitely wrong with me, but all these tests were coming back normal. So eventually when I did find out that I had a tumor in my chest and I had cancer, it was a little bit of a relief because I finally I knew what was wrong with me, and then there's a treatment process that I can take towards getting back to 100 percent.
SportsEd TV: Going through chemotherapy is never easy. What was the treatment like and were there any side effects?
Chris: There was lots of nausea, and numbness and tingling in the feet and hands that was bad. It was a kind of burning sensation, I couldn't even really feel them sometimes. Real fatigue and tiredness also, there'd be days where I'm was pretty much lying in bed all day sleeping. I didn't lose much of my hair, which a lot of people ask me. It wasn't noticeable. Sometimes when I brushed my hair some of it would fall out, but I didn't go completely bald or anything like that. My fingernails turned completely black, which was kind of crazy. Also as soon as I got my first chemotherapy treatment, that itching that I had for about a year went away, which was great. I did a treatment every other Monday for four months, eight total treatments. They had to surgically put in a port that attached to my jugular and is where they ran the chemo through. It wasn't too bad, some little things sticking out of my chest but it didn't bother me too much, or it wasn't really painful. It did hurt if it was hit or something like that. So that's why I couldn't really train. I had to do a lot of stuff training on my own or on the side of the field and things like that.
Part 2 of Chris Odoi-Atsem's interview will be posted soon.