Eye on the mark

July 13th, 2015

World Cup Soccer - Alina Garciamendez-RowoldStriking a winning balance between World Cup soccer and the challenges of dental school

The plane can make for a suitable study spot. That is, until the drowsiness sets in. On weekend flights to Mexico, Alina Garciamendez-Rowold finds any time she can to cram, a testament to her skill at prioritizing.

To juggle her coursework as a second-year dental student — the equivalent of a full-time job — and excel as a world-class athlete, Garciamendez recognizes it’s kind of a necessity. This May and June, that discipline amped up to an entirely new level. Garciamendez, a defender for Mexico’s national soccer team, competed in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

On May 17, after her last exam, she boarded a plane bound for Mexico, where she met her teammates before flying to Moncton, Canada, the tournament location. This time, since she would be gone for several weeks, she had a bit more with her than her customary carry-on roller bag filled with just two days’ worth of essentials.

A few weeks later, on a Tuesday afternoon in early June, a dozen dental students huddled around one of the TVs at the Sandbar Cantina and Grill in Dallas, their eyes trained on Garciamendez’s No. 4 jersey. When the students mentioned they were there to watch a friend in the World Cup, a “Beach Ellum” server turned up the volume and relinquished control of the remote, a rarity.

“We were intense,” says Tosin Seriki, a second-year-dental student. When the TV wasn’t paused so that they could count their friend’s assists, cheers filled the space.

It was the first time Seriki watched a friend play a sport on TV.

“I don’t think I realized the caliber of athlete Alina is until the end of our fall semester,” Seriki says. “She used to help me with our gross anatomy lab. We both would get up really early and go to the lab, and she would quiz me, and I would quiz her. It wasn’t until she was going to Mexico a few weekends in a row that it hit me: ‘You’re able to travel, come back, and still wake up early and quiz me?’

“Alina is so disciplined, and it’s trickled down to all of us. We call her a unicorn. She’s just one of a kind.”

Even though Garciamendez’s team was edged out of the tournament due to a June 17 loss to France, training continues. There’s a possible tournament in Brazil in December, and the team’s Olympic qualifiers are in February 2016.

Garciamendez didn’t start playing soccer as soon as she could walk, but it wasn’t long after that.

“I think you can sign up kids when they are 4,” she says, which is exactly when she took up the sport. By age 11, she was playing on a competitive team, and by 19, had flown to Germany for her first Women’s World Cup, that time in the under-20 age division.

Garciamendez and her two brothers were born in California, but the family moved to Fairview, Texas, when she was three. Her father and mother — who maintains a pediatric dentistry practice in Allen — were born in Mexico City, so when Garciamendez had the chance to attend the country’s national camp at age 17 as a dual citizen, she took it.

Alina Garciamendez-Rowold and family in Moncton, Canada, in June.

Alina Garciamendez-Rowold and family in Moncton, Canada, in June

“I tried out for a week, and they kept calling me back,” Garciamendez explains. “Ever since then, I’ve been on the team.”

When she isn’t practicing with her team on select weekends and breaks, Garciamendez plays on two indoor coed teams in Dallas, sometimes with one of her brothers, a teammate.

This spring, grueling running workouts were the domain of boyfriend and classmate Marcus Montalvo. Toward the end of the hour-long regimen, as they alternated sprints and hard strides, she’d ask him how much more time was left on the clock, but he never told her.

“Don’t worry about it; just keep running,” he’d say.

“The running was really hard — and even harder to keep pace with her!” Montalvo recalls. “I am very proud to have helped her prepare for the World Cup.

“People talk to me about Alina and how they are impressed with her playing for Mexico,” Montalvo says. “But what impresses me the most is that she is performing at the highest level of soccer and still managing to perform extremely well in dental school.”

Alina Garciamendez-Rowold and Marcus Montalvo run at the June 27 Miles for Smiles Runathon.

Garciamendez and Marcus Montalvo at the June 27 Miles for Smiles Runathon

With an end goal of practicing dentistry, she knows at some point soccer will come in a close second.

“I know there is going to be a point when I can’t do both,” Garciamendez says in reference to future patient care. “When we are dealing with another person, it’s about their needs instead of my needs.”

Until then, she’ll likely have a few more in-flight, coffee-fueled study sessions in her future.

“It gets trying at times and keeps you busy,” Garciamendez says. “But if you’re super motivated, nothing can stop you.”

— Jennifer Fuentes