Preston Zimmerman

his words.......his story

As a kid, I grew up playing many different sports. I played baseball and basketball. I hated baseball because it was too slow and basketball was not my thing. Who makes it big in basketball out of Pasco, Washington anyways? Then I played hockey and soccer from ages 9-11. I LOVED hockey, there was something about it that I couldn’t get enough of. I loved how physical it was and how I could go out and hit someone real hard and not get in trouble for it. It grew on me throughout those years. I tried to find a balance between soccer and hockey and thought I had a pretty good one. There was really no time to hang out with friends. Whenever I wasn’t playing hockey, I was playing soccer and vice versa. I would like to say that I was good at hockey and could have gone somewhere with it because my best friend played on the same team as me and now is drafted (he got drafted at age 15) and listed with a WHL (one step below the NHL) team. But when I turned 11, it was time to pick one sport and get serious. It took a really long time to decide, I loved everything about both sports. I had way more friends in hockey than in soccer. Almost everybody around the Tri-Cities hated that “Zimmerman kid” as far as soccer went. I heard things like “His dad is way too hard on him and he will quit eventually” and “Zimmerman is just a bad kid”. These things were going on when I was little. It never goes away. But to me, I didn’t play sports to make friends. I played sports to get out of the Tri-Cities and to go to something bigger and better and to be famous someday. I thought that I could go further in soccer than in hockey so at age 11, I quit hockey and dedicated myself to one sport. That was a big turning point. Soccer was now everything and my Dad and I were going to get serious about it. I started playing up as many ages as I could, I would go to every tournament on the west side that there was (tournaments in Western Washington were big time for me at that time). I was talked about more and more, more often in bad ways than in good ways. Then at age 12, I was offered to go to Tottenham (in England) for 6 months. The man that made the offer went to my parents obviously and they said no. They said that “Preston is too young and he will not leave home yet” and the usual things a mother would say of her young son who wasn’t ready for the world of professional soccer or anything like it. I knew nothing about this until about 2 years later when my parents decided to tell me figuring that I wouldn’t be upset now that it’s two years later. I was very upset at the time but what’s done is done. I was still playing soccer and when I was 13, I gave ODP a shot. I was trying out for the 87 team and made it to the first state pool session (about 60 players were there). All we did was scrimmage the whole time, I got maybe 20 minutes of playing time from like 3 hours. So after that day, when cuts were made, I was cut. I can remember my Dad saying “Look, that was your first real experience – and you did good. We are going to Europe this summer and you will play in some tournaments. So I suggest you start working now. Your time will come when you make that State Team - you will get to see how it feels.” I went to Europe, played 3 years up in two tournaments and had a blast. I was playing soccer in Europe. It was like living in a dream. I started too and got lots of playing time so it was great.

The next year came, my first actual year of ODP, I made the 88 State Team (which is my true birth year) and then went off to regional camp. I made the regional pool and then got selected to go to the Under-14 National Team Camp. Then, I had a life-changing experience. In order to go to National Camp, I had to pass their physical. So I went back home and got ready to go to Massachusetts for the camp. Procrastinators, like my Mom and I were, we didn’t go get the physical until two days before I was scheduled to leave. I didn’t pass the first one because my pulse rate was too high so he said to come back the next day. My pulse rate was still too high and the doctor refused to sign my physical. He ordered me to go get some testing done on my heart, so my Mom and I were sent to a Cardiologist within the hour and I was diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse as well as something else – something more was not right. I should tell you all, before I begin the real story, as a kid, I had experienced blurred vision, blackouts, heart palpitations, and excessive sleep for quite some time but I never told anyone. These were all symptoms of my problem. I came to find that I was born with this heart problem but I thought that I was a normal kid so I thought that whenever I would experience those “symptoms”, it meant nothing and was what all “normal” kids experienced. From the cardiologist’s office, I was sent to the Hospital Emergency Room. When I got there, I was immediately brought in and put on a heart monitor where they performed more tests on me. They said to me, “You have something wrong with your heart, but don’t worry, we will fix everything for you.” I felt fine but I hated the world for not letting me go to the National Team Camp. They just observed me for a while and were constantly on the phone with a cardiologist in Spokane, sending results to him periodically regarding my tests and so forth. Life was fine until about 6 nurses/doctors (my attention wasn’t really focused on them at the time) came into my room and said that they are going to have to stop my heart and start it back up again. By then I was thinking, this is my time to die. Why does it have to be now? I haven’t done anything bad? I started questioning God and asking him to please let me live. My Mom was beside my bed and my Dad left the room because he couldn’t watch. The doctor went on to stop my heart by injecting something into my “IV”. Once the injection started to take over, I had the most unexplainable feeling ever. My body felt as if it were empty. All I remember is trying to squeeze my Mom’s hand and I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. Only my brain was working at the time. Then the feeling began to go away and I was alive again. Everyone was happy. But it didn’t work. The purpose of stopping my heart and starting it again was to slow my heart rate but my heart rate didn’t slow at all once restarted. As a result, I had to go in an ambulance to Spokane where the best doctor in the world lives, Dr. Chris Anderson, the one who eventually saved my life. During the drive, a man was recording every little thing every machine would do that I was hooked up to. It was weird. I got to Spokane at about midnight and the Doctor came into ICU where I was located. He said that I have Ectopic Atrial Tachycardia. I was very lucky for it to even get detected because it is usually an intermittent problem and one that often goes undetected until it is too late. It is a problem in which an extra electrical impulse takes over and regulates the heart at a much, much higher rate than normal. My resting heart rate was 144 beats per minute. It’s supposed to be between 60 and 100. Because my heart was working so hard, my valves were beginning to close and when your valves fully close, you die. He explained to me and my parents my two options: I could take medication for the rest of my life which was not guaranteed to work and brought many side effects, including a feeling of being tired all of the time. Or, I could have surgery and have a 20% chance of my problem getting worse or, worse yet, suffering the consequence of possibly eliminating my normal heart beat all together. I asked him, “If the surgery works, will I be allowed to play soccer at the highest level possible?” He said, “Yes, and in fact, if the surgery is successful, you will grow because the heart problem is stunting your growth, and you will become bigger, stronger, and faster.” The choice was up to me. I quickly chose surgery. I was willing take a 20% chance of something going seriously wrong.

So they kept me in ICU for a week, closely monitoring me and every little thing I did. I proceeded to play every single video game on every system they had. I was afraid to go to sleep at night because I didn’t think that I was going to wake up so I barely slept the whole week. Then surgery came. I said goodbye to my parents, right before I entered this intimidating room with million dollar pieces of equipment. I was just praying I would come back out of the room. It was a 7 hour procedure. As God had planned, it was 100% successful. They always say that there is a 1% chance of it coming back. It never has and never will. My time in hell and insecurity was over. I stayed in the hospital just a few more days just so that the doctor could make sure that I was recovering properly and then I was set free. I went back in a week for a full-checkup and then the doctor said I didn’t have to come back for a year. I was cleared to play soccer. For those who are wondering, I didn’t have open-heart surgery, I went through a different procedure that kept me off the field for less time. I played soccer the next week at a tournament. My first game back I scored 5 goals. It was a great way to come back. After that experience, soccer was back in my life, I was getting better and better because of my surgery, just like the doctor said. I was surpassing stronger than I had ever been and never tired.

At this point, I felt that my chances of ever being noticed on a National level were gone. I felt that I would be forgotten or considered “damaged goods”. But, I began ODP again, this was my second year with the 88s. I made the State Team again and then took a starting spot on the Regional Team as well. I was selected to go to Costa Rica with the regional team in February 2004. Little did I know that this was the trip that was going to set me off to a new challenge. I went to Costa Rica where all of the four regional teams attended, plus Costa Rican youth professional teams and the Costa Rican Under-17 Men’s National Team. Everybody played 4 games. I was the leading scorer of the whole tournament and won the Golden Boot (5 goals in 4 games). The day I got home I got a call from Mr. John Hackworth, the Assistant Coach of the USA Under-17 Men’s National Team at the time. Coach Hackworth asked me to come with the National Team, at the end of March, to France for a tournament. I said yes, of course. About two days after that conversation, he called back and told me that Freddy Adu was graduating and leaving residency which means that he has a spot open in residency. He told me that the spot was for me. I accepted right away without even asking my parents! My Mom then got on the phone and began asking questions about it. Within four weeks, I left home, at age 15, to go down to residency. This time I passed the physical and all health examinations with colors!

I began my new life in residency. I made the roster to go to France and got my starting spot in the third game of the tournament and I have been fortunate to have had it ever since. I scored my first international goal in that tournament in a 3-1 loss to England. I then made the next roster to go to Northern Ireland for a tournament amongst 8 national teams. We took second place in the tournament and I was named the “Most Valuable Player” of the tournament. There, I got a whole lot of attention from top English clubs which I was just so happy about. Some were very interested but I later found out that I could not get a German Passport which was required at this point to stay for an extended time frame. Going to Europe then sounded way, way harder, if not impossible.

I continued to train with the National team and play in games and tournaments regularly. My team went to Peru in August 2004 and we played the Peruvian National Team in front of 11,000 people and national television. We won 2-1! I scored the first goal to put us up 1-0 and got the privilege to experience my first press conference with Coach Ellinger after the game. It was a lot of fun.

September came and Coach Ellinger left to take the expansion MLS team, Real Salt Lake. That was really hard for me. I really liked Coach Ellinger and had this need to give him everything I had every single day because he just had something about him that made everybody play their hearts out. He is a great coach and it was a privilege to play for him. Coach Hackworth was eventually selected as head coach and that was nice because we all had established a relationship with him already.

November rolled around and something real unexpected happen. I got called up to play for Sigi Schmid on the Under-20 Men’s National Team in a four-team tournament down in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. It was an experience of a lifetime. I loved every second of it. I even got to start as a lone forward in my very first game with the 20s and to top everything off, I scored in my debut against Honduras and my goal held up to be the game-winner as I scored the first goal in a 2-0 victory. It was an awesome camp for me. Our second and final game at camp with the 20s was against Mexico in which the winner was awarded $20,000. Coach Schmid talked to me the day before the match and said that I played very well (against Honduras) and deserved to start against Mexico but he had to look at another U-20 team prospect up front. So, I started on the bench against Mexico. I came in against Mexico at about the 65th minute and played the rest of the game. It was a great atmosphere and I loved being out there. I didn’t score this time but I felt that I had an impact on the game so I wasn’t too disappointed. I would have loved to score though as the game was on my 16th birthday. But, playing against Mexico on my birthday was a present in itself, the best present anyone could have given. We won 2-1 and went home the champions. Overall, my experience with the 20s was unbelievable and I hope that I can play for Coach Schmid again as well. He is a very good coach and person.

Time went on and life began to get real serious. The MLS approached me to sign a contract. I was getting calls from agents. It was a point in my life where I had to decide whether I was going to turn professional or wait. No 15 year old kid ever wants to wait for anything. I have no patience for it. I seriously thought about it. I thought about every little outcome for the pros and for college over and over. I had days where I was going to sign a contract no matter what and days where I wasn’t ready to go pro yet and knew I should go to college. It’s a very serious life-altering decision. I decided to sit out the 2005 MLS draft. My dream has always been to become a professional and I told myself so many times while growing up as a kid that college wasn’t for me and the first chance I get to go pro, I am going to take it. Well, I chose to turn down my first chance to go pro. I wasn’t ready to take such a big risk and to try to make a living as a soccer player. Maybe next year will be different. But who knows. I am happy right now and I no longer have to deal with calls from agents and what to say. Now, my head is clear and I can play soccer with no distractions. After all, nobody would be interested in talking to me unless I was playing well.

More of a dream to me than even becoming a professional soccer player is to be a role model for little kids and to be someone that everybody looks up to. I feel that I have a story to tell and God only kept me alive for me to tell it. God is going to lead me to the right decision, whatever it may be. Because right now, it is beyond me. I know that I will be a professional because I feel that that is what He made me for. The only thing to figure out now is when. God is going to put me in a position to tell my story and to be His example. Too bad He hasn’t told me when yet……..

The main reason I wanted to write this piece is so that people could see my life and so that I could send a message to other athletes around Washington and hopefully the country. I want all young kids who are aspiring to become professionals to know that it is a long and very hard road, one that I am still on. But, don’t get discouraged. You will be talked about, good and bad, and you will know that you are being noticed – you are making an impact on the sport. You will stand alone at times but, if you stay focused, and patient, your time will come. Not everyone will be your supporter but many will want to see you succeed. Remember, as you go down the road in pursuit of success, to take your humility and appreciation for what others have given you with you. Hold your head high, believe in yourself (even when some who you thought were your friends do not), and work hard. Stay close to those you trust and stop, every once in a while, to make sure that you are still grounded. Then, keep moving – prove those that doubt you wrong and make those that support you proud. But, most of all, be true to yourself and have the last laugh…..

It’s funny that most of the people that contact me and ask me what my plans are for the future hear the same answer. “I don’t know. You’ll see when I see.” I should end this piece by saying, I will have the last laugh, and I will make you proud, and I will be thankful for all those that have helped me along the way…………

WPS did not edit or change one word of this story

Amazing is all we can say and Thank You