On the morning of his 14th birthday, Nicholas Kent landed in Oslo, Norway, never imagining the week ahead of him.
"I had the best time of my life there," said Nicholas, who will start the eighth grade at Cooper Middle School next week.
Kent was one of 36 boys from McLean that headed to Oslo for the Norway Cup, a week-long international soccer tournament that brought 1,500 boys and girls teams from around the world, representing a total of 15,000 players and 45 nations.
"It's the biggest youth soccer tournament in the world," said Jon Gundersen, whose son played for the McLean United 14-year-old team. "It's like a little mini-Olympics – the kids march into the stadium and they stay in all the local schools on cots. We were next to a Chinese team, a German team and an Iranian team and the kids communicate in very basic ways and kick the ball around… it's a great international experience for them."
SIX YEARS AGO, Gundersen was the Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, and it was his Foreign Service ties to Norway that helped to make the trip possible for the McLean team. When Gundersen lived in Norway, his sons Jan and Kai played for a Norwegian team and participated in the Norway Cup which at that time was only a national tournament.
"This year, when they put together an international tournament, we put together a good team and we just went for it," said Gundersen.
In addition to the McLean United (U-14) team, the McLean MPS 90 16-years-old boys team also traveled to Norway for the tournament which took place on July 30 through Aug. 4. The 36 boys were joined by their coaches and parents. Both teams played well, making it into the quarter-finals, but both teams ultimately lost to two African teams, with the MPS 90 team losing to Kenya, and the McLean United team losing to Gambia.
"We lost, but it was a great experience because we got to play with them, and then we went over and talked with them – they were really nice," said Nicholas Kent. "Their coach came up and said we were the best competition they had had."
The students also had the chance to play friendly soccer matches in the courtyard of their sleeping quarters.
"We would play in the courtyard at night and it was a lot of fun," said Nicholas. "We met a lot of people… sometimes it was hard to talk because of the language barrier, but everyone was really nice."
Gundersen's sons also got the chance to be reunited with some old friends.
"We got to meet my old soccer team and we played them," said 14-year-old Jan Gundersen, who will be a freshman at Langley High School this year.
The McLean United team also met a U-14 girls team from Maine and showed some patriotic solidarity at the tournament.
"It was just so cute to see these boys get so excited – they showed up at their game and cheered them on," said Nicholas' mom Judy Kent. "It was really a fun, fun excursion for all of them."
Gundersen said everyone is hoping to send McLean teams to the tournament next year, although organizing such a major expedition takes quite a bit of work.
"When you have two teams of 36 kids and 40 adults, in terms of hotels and flight tickets, it can be a lot," said Gundersen.
HOWEVER, the Norway trip was more than just soccer for the McLean boys and their families. The group went on several sight-seeing excursions and also attended a special reception organized for them by the American Embassy in Oslo.
"As a father it's sort of fun because at this age they're really exploring and learning, and when we went there they were all on their own," said Jon Gundersen. "The public transportation is free because it's part of the package, so they learned how to take the buses and the trams and the trolleys… it's a real cultural experience."
Nicholas Kent said that he appreciated having the opportunity to venture out into other parts of Norway.
"We went up to a ski slope that was used in the Olympics," said Nicholas. "It is one of the highest peaks in Norway so we got to see all of the Norwegian countryside."
But above all, the McLean boys enjoyed meeting other soccer players from all around the world.
"It was just really cool meeting all the different kids from all the different countries," said Jan Gundersen.