My name is Alexander Ryan, but most people call me Sasha. I was born when our family lived in Russia where my parents were serving as Salvation Army officers. I lived in Russia for the first four years of my life until we moved back to Canada.
When we returned from Russia our family moved to Toronto and into an inner-city neighbourhood which had a reputation as being one of the toughest communities in the country. I saw a lot of things growing up there and there were times when I couldn’t go outside because of shootings. Quite a few of the guys I grew up with have ended up in prison or on drugs, several have been shot and some even killed through gang violence.
<I have always loved sports. I have been on most of my school teams won medals for athletic, did gymnastics for a couple of years and for two years as a coach at a gymnastics club. I have been on the swimming team at a local community centre, did boxing one summer, and played (American) football one summer. I also enjoy basketball and was captain of my school basketball team in middle school, played on my high school team, and also like to play pick-up games on weekends with my friends. Most of all, though, I love playing soccer, or “real” football.
One day when I was 10 years old I was kicking a soccer ball around at the Salvation Army centre in Regent Park with a local kid and he invited me to a free, city-run soccer program at a local community centre, so I went. The guy who ran the program, Shane, became my first mentor.
After playing at the centre for a year or so, a staff member from a different community centre approached me about trying out for the soccer club he was coaching. He had grown up in the neighbourhood and had played in Germany for a couple of years. The team was a Rep team, the next step up from “house league”. I made the team and played with them for two seasons.
Adrian Johansson, who knew my parents and had just moved to Canada with his family from Sweden, took an interest in me and became my next mentor, attending my games with the Rep Team and doing one-on one training with me.
During the period I played Rep soccer I wasn’t really given much chance to play full-games. The focus was solely on winning games and not on player development. I constantly felt pressure to perform and score goals or I would be benched and though I had enough talent to perform well, no one took the time to correct my mistakes in a positive way or encourage me when I did well. I became anxious before every game, was often in tears by the end of the games and started to believe that I couldn’t really play well at all.
My self-esteem took hard hits, both on and off the soccer field. After making minor mistakes my coach would immediately replace me with another player. This pattern would continue every game. I would talk with Adrian and was even considering whether or not I should stop playing soccer altogether. Adrian and my Dad both talked with me and slowly helped rebuild my self-esteem as we came up with a plan how to succeed both as a soccer player and also as a person.
The plan was to start playing with an Academy. Although academies are very expensive and my family really couldn´t afford the fees, their focus is on individual player development as we felt this was essential for my future progress.
I tried out for an academy where Adrian was working as a coach at that time and was accepted into their program. I played with them for two years – training three times a week and playing games on the weekends.
Adrian promised me that if I would study hard, be consistent on the soccer field and stay true to my values and faith, I would achieve my dreams. I agreed to commit to FFA´s program and live by their four core areas.
Every step of this journey I can see God’s hand on me, guiding and directing: A chance conversation at The Salvation Army led me to Shane. Shane worked with me and then a chance meeting with my coach at the community centre led me to my first formalized soccer team. Then my family’s involvement, through The Salvation Army, with Adrian led to him taking a real interest in me and connecting me with the Academy. And then FFA. I don’t believe in coincidences and looking back I can see the hand of God each step of the way.
I am deeply aware of all the opportunities that have been created for me and know that most young people do not have such opportunities. I am grateful for all the people who have recognized some potential in me and who have gone out of their way to help me develop that.
My dream is to play soccer professionally but it is not a dream focused just on myself. While the love of the game and the chance to use my God-given gifts are my main motivation, I realize that my life has a bigger purpose and that through the game I can help create opportunities and release resources that will help other kids who don’t have the opportunities and positive influences that I was fortunate enough to have. I have a lot of friends who fall into this category.
The importance of having had mentors who recognized my talents and who were willing to invest in me, the support and encouragement I received from my church, a caring and interested family who has been really supportive in creating opportunities for me (even though I know this has not always been easy for them) has made all the difference. Staying close to God, listening to him and trying to understand his will and purposes for my life is the most important thing I can do.