“We will be watching you. You should not go pee on your own.”
A tale told by Patrick Baylis
In the weeks leading up to Worlds, I did a lot of visualizing. I imagined tough games in pool play (see: Australia), surprise upsets (see: Japan vs. Sweden), nail-biting runs by the other team (see: Canada), and, of course, sharing the immense joy of a World Championship with my teammates. What I did not visualize, however, was the life-changing three hours that I would experience following the finals and that began with the sentence above.
I’m told this by one of two very nice Japanese men who find me within minutes after the game and are holding a clipboard with my name on it. I have been randomly selected to be drug tested. A bit of backstory: well before the tournament, all teams were informed that drug testing would occur at some point during the week, with one or more members of each team randomly selected to verify the absence of any and all performance-enhancing drugs in their system. In practice, only members of the semi-finals teams were selected. I was one of the lucky ones.
Leaving my team behind to smile and take pictures with our newly-earned gold medals, I spent the next hour filling out forms, chatting amicably with the very professional drug testing staff, and, of course, peeing into a little cup with some VERY close supervision. I found out later that I was one of the lucky ones with my hour-long adventure; a player on another semi-finals team had to be there for five hours – first he was too concentrated, then too dilute, then too out of pee. Since I found myself in the Goldilocks zone of hydration, I was sent on my way with relatively little hassle. Once I got back to the fields, I realized that, in an impressive display of unity, Team USA has already packed up and left for the hotel without so much of a thought for their forgotten comrade. Thanks guys. Fortunately I still had my backpack, money, and clothes, but my street shoes were nowhere to be found.
Thus began my quest. The field site is huge, and we warmed up in a couple of different places that day, so I started the search at the finals field. Nothing. Next, I returned to our second warmup site and started poking around the sidelines of some very confused Japanese soccer players. Deploying my full arsenal of elaborate foreigner hand gestures, I managed to convey that I was looking for my running shoes. There is a brief flurry of activity as the game literally stops so that people can help me look for them. Again, though, we find nothing. Apologies then ensue: I apologize for interrupting their game, they apologize for not finding my shoes, I apologize for making them think they need to apologize for not finding my shoes, they apologize for my apology. We narrowly escape the infinite loop of apologies when one of the spectators pulls me aside.
His name is Yama-uchi, and his English is pretty good. He manages to tell me that there’s a lost and found area, and where it is. I thank him and start walking, only to realize that Yama-uchi is with me: he’s going to take me there. If you’ve ever traveled in Japan, you know that this is pretty normal (and totally awesome). It’s a 15 minute walk to the lost and found, so Yama-uchi and I have some time to chat. He’s a family man, lives in Osaka, and plays pick-up soccer at the complex occasionally.
We get to the lost and found and come up empty, but they tell us there’s ANOTHER lost and found. I say, “Hey, great, thank you for the help, I can just go there on my own, you go back to your game,” and he smiles and nods. And then keeps walking with me. So it goes for about half an hour – we walk around to various lost and founds (there are apparently four on site), Yama-uchi walks with me and we engage in fantastic broken conversation. We joke is that we agree that I traded a gold medal for my shoes. Worth it.
Eventually I’m overcome with guilt over him hanging out with me for nearly an hour, so I make the necessary hand motions and English phrases to indicate thank you very much but I’m just going to go home. He stops smiling and gets really distressed.
“No shoes on train!”
“Hm, okay, I guess I’ll just wear my cleats?”
“Spike-u! No wear spike-u on train!”
“Well, I don’t think they’ll so I’ll just give it a shot.”
There’s a pause, and he kind of looks at me. I start to thank him one final time for his help, and then he looks down, looks at me, and takes off his shoes.
“Take my shoes.”
“Take my shoes.”
“No no no no, I can’t take your shoes, that’s crazy.”
“Take my shoes.”
The above is the beginning of a 10 minute argument about whether or not I should take his shoes. At first, it’s unthinkable: I literally try and walk away twice while smiling and thanking him (without the shoes) and he grabs me both times. I also try to offer him money, a jersey, whatever, and he won’t take it. Think a few rounds of this – me saying I can’t take the shoes, offering something, him smiling and refusing, me looking down at his shoes, him pushing his shoes closer to me, me looking back up at him in disbelief, me saying I can’t take the shoes again, and so on. In the end, I can no longer refuse. With tears in my eyes, I leave. With his shoes. Barefoot, he waves goodbye and goes back to his field, but not until after he apologizes for his shoes not smelling good.
It was the most generous act from a complete stranger that I’ve ever experienced. And not the only one of its kind: multiple members of our team, lost and confused in Japan, were helped by kind strangers to get out of jams and where we were going. In telling this story to a Japanese friend later on, I was told that offering to repay Yama-uchi for the shoes was an immense faux pas; these gifts to guests are meant to be given for free.
So here’s to you, Yama-uchi, and your shoes. I’m wearing them right now. They feel like kindness.