Members of this youth team had never even heard the word “lacrosse” before
The shot flew by so fast that the goalkeeper didn’t see it. But the sound of the ball hitting the net came through clearly enough. Team Taiwan was blowing its lead.
It was Round 2 of this summer’s Under 19 World Lacrosse Championships, the biggest stage the young Taiwanese players had seen. The most seasoned of them had been playing only a matter of months, and none of Taiwan’s players had even heard the word “lacrosse” before 2014. That’s the year a bunch of donated equipment showed up at their rural high school. Now the kids were 6,000 miles from home, sprinting across a perfectly groomed grass field in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada, competing against the best up-and-coming players in the world. And they were blowing their lead.
On the sideline, team coach Travis Gillespie paced nervously. Everything in the former professional player’s experience told him the game’s momentum had shifted against his unseasoned team. Taiwan had bolted to an early three-goal advantage, but then things unraveled. Mexico scored three straight goals to tie, and now it looked like the game was heading to overtime.
Gillespie clapped as his players ran off the field for a breather. He didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, the first language of most of his players, and no one on the Taiwanese team spoke English. Over several months of practice they had worked out some basic hand signals to communicate. Now it would take some finesse to explain what “overtime” meant.
There is a contradiction at the heart of lacrosse. The sport was developed by indigenous groups in North America long before the arrival of Europeans, perhaps as early as 1,000 years ago. In its original conception, the “creator’s game,” as lacrosse was known in the language of the Choctaw, pitted teams of 100 or more against each other on fields that were several hundred meters long. Games lasted days on end and were meant to emulate warfare. Competition was spiritually rooted, and games were a stage for the best athletes to give thanks to the creator and win honor and glory for their families.
Now the sport is associated with elite East Coast prep schools and colleges. In the mid-1800s, lacrosse caught on in Canada and the Northeastern United States after a dentist named William George Beers founded a club team in Montreal and made a few logistical changes to the sport, including shortening the game to four quarters and reducing the number of players to 12 per side. Lacrosse debuted in the Olympics in the early 1900s, and in the last 50 years it has steadily advanced west to states like California and Texas. The sport also has begun to spread outside North America, as foreign students pick it up while studying in the U.S. and Canada; there now are well-established clubs in places like Japan and Hong Kong.
But in 2014, when lacrosse arrived in Taiwan by way of a couple high schoolers and some dedicated parents, few in the country had ever heard of it. Chris Wei and Sarah Lin were impressed with the discipline the game had instilled in their sons, Cosmo and Scott, who attended boarding school in the United States. When their sons came home to Taipei over breaks, all the boys could talk about was passing patterns and offensive strategy. They enlisted friends to practice to keep their skills sharp and, hoping to stir broader interest, made a Facebook page and put out an open call in Taipei.
“For a period of time, there was very little response,” says Chris Wei. “Gradually, some expats in Taiwan heard about it and the Facebook page became larger. They began having weekly practices. Word spread.”
The sight of a group of young men running around with funny-looking sticks in a riverside park in Taiwan’s capital stoked curiosity and plenty of quizzical stares, and locals began showing up to watch scrimmages. That’s when Wei and Lin had the idea to promote the sport more broadly among the youth of Taipei. Lin bought enough gear for a whole team, and she and Wei began speaking at local high schools to drum up interest in a team. But they didn’t get much encouragement.
“When we first started,” Wei says, “we were really assuming that lacrosse, which is a private school sport in the States, would appeal to kids with similar backgrounds in the capital of Taiwan. But it turned out that that’s totally not the case. For some reason, it isn’t easy to convince well-off kids in Asia, particularly in urban areas, to go outside.”
After a few months trying to get a regional lacrosse program started in Taipei, Wei and Lin were ready to give up. As an afterthought, Lin decided to present the sport to the headmaster of a high school in a rural part of the country, Taidun, where she had done some volunteer work. Many families in Taidun live in poverty, and many homes don’t have power. A large portion of Taidun’s residents are indigenous, and they lack the social and economic status of Taiwanese citizens of Chinese descent.
The school’s forward-thinking headmaster thought lacrosse’s First Nations roots would appeal to his students and decided to include the sport as part of the physical education curriculum; any students interested could attend practice for credit. Wei and Lin gave their presentation at an assembly, but after their disheartening attempts in Taipei, they didn’t expect much. To their surprise, 40 young men showed up to the first practice. Taiwan’s national lacrosse program was born.
Overtime didn’t start well. Gillespie watched from the sideline as Mexico struck first blood, taking the lead for the first time with a quick goal that capped a 4-0 scoring run. Back in Taipei, Wei was watching a live feed. It was the middle of the night, but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
He had traveled with the team to Canada, but his work schedule prevented him from staying through to the end of the tournament. Even as his boys fell behind for the first time in the match, he was in awe of how far they had come. “It’s very touching, to see them grow not only on the field, but off it as well,” Wei says. “Even small things like how to get on and off a bus were new to them. They are better prepared, better trained, and know what to do.”
Getting them to this point hadn’t been easy. One of the biggest challenges of bringing lacrosse to Taiwan was finding the players some competition, which was impossible at home. Early on, the team relied on intra-squad scrimmages to hone the players’ skills. Then the squad began traveling to play regional clubs in nearby Hong Kong. Funding came from prominent Taiwanese businessmen, including Alibaba co-chairman Joe Tsai, who played lacrosse at Yale and supported the sport in the region.
Lin and Wei looked for a coach to give the players proper instruction. “We are just parents,” Wei says. “We are not enthusiasts and we certainly aren’t experts.” They eventually found Gillespie, a former professional who had played and spent time coaching in Hong Kong. Gillespie would commute to Taiwan from Canada several times per year, stay for a few days, and cram as much coaching as possible into the time he had.
The Under 19 championships marked the young team’s debut on the world stage. The players had never traveled outside the region. “We didn’t have any expectations,” Gillespie says. “We’re a new program, and we know we have to build before we’re going to be competitive. No one was expecting a Disney story.”
When the boys arrived in Canada, they were disoriented. Back home, the weather was muggy and subtropical, but in Canada it was drizzling and comparatively cold. No one on the team spoke English, so Wei and Lin had to translate. To lift their spirits, Gillespie arranged a surprise. A friend from his playing days ran Iroquois Lacrosse, a dominant club internationally and one of the favorites at the tournament.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]It’s very touching, to see them grow not only on the field, but off it as well. Even small things like how to get on and off a bus were new to them.[/quote]
Competitive Iroquois players are respected in lacrosse circles for their creativity and athleticism, and they hold a place of esteem as stewards of the sport’s spiritual origins. “They’re on a whole different level,” Gillespie says. “We have a lot of indigenous Taiwanese players, so I asked my friend if he would consider stopping by our field to throw the ball. I told him we wanted them to share their history and we wanted to tell them about our players.”
The Iroquois team showed up to practice. Though separated by culture and language, the two sides immediately felt at ease. Players threw the ball back and forth, ran through combined drills, and goofed off like teenagers. After practice, the teams circled up and the Iroquois players told stories about the sport, history, and culture. The Taiwanese side presented a traditional dance. When the players said their goodbyes, the Taiwanese players were glowing. They couldn’t match the Iroquois’ skill and experience—at least not yet—but they felt like they were a part of a very old legacy. The next morning, the Iroquois bus pulled up unexpectedly. The Iroquois players filed out and asked if they could share another practice.
“They were so accommodating to our players,” Gillespie says. “That’s what this sport is all about. It was so meaningful for our guys.”
During the second overtime, Yu-Hung Hu got free in front of Mexico’s net and zipped in an equalizer. When two overtime periods had expired, the game was still tied, forcing a sudden death overtime. “I’ve been involved in a lot of lacrosse,” Gillespie says. “It’s so rare to go into sudden death that you don’t even remember the overtime rules. Every possession is an opportunity to end it, and a seemingly harmless play could change the outcome. It was a really special experience for everyone.”
Taiwan lacked the stick skills of more seasoned teams, but the players are excellent athletes who train under arduous conditions in an intemperate climate. They kept the tempo of the game fast, even attempting some of the fancier backhand passing they’d seen the Iroquois team demonstrate. No matter what they tried, though, they couldn’t get the ball in the net. “All credit to Mexico,” Gillespie says. “They fought us so hard.”
The third overtime yielded to a fourth, then a fifth. Back home, Wei was on the edge of his seat. By the time the sixth overtime came and went, word had spread through the tournament and a large crowd had formed. Both sides were exhausted, but the fervor of the fans compelled them forward.
Less than two minutes into the seventh overtime, a bad pass by Team Mexico put the ball right in front of the Mexico net. Taiwan’s No. 12, Shu-Cheng Lin, scooped up the ball and ran toward the goal. He flung the head of his stick forward. When the ball hit the back of the net, jubilation broke out on the Taiwan bench. The upstart team from halfway around the world had won. The reaction on the sideline—and in Chris Wei’s living room back in Taipei—was as boisterous and celebratory as if the kids had taken the whole championship.
It wasn’t a Disney story, at least not exactly. During a rematch with Mexico a few days later, Taiwan lost 9-4. The multiple overtime game was the only win for the Taiwanese, who finished the weeklong tournament 1-5. But a win was more than anyone expected, and the dramatic finish was one for the books.
“It’s a priceless feeling,” reflects Wei. “The first thing I did was text back to all our players, and I thanked them for being persistent, for never having the idea to give up during this long process of forming a club from the ground up. I’m very touched, because that’s a priceless lesson in life.
“I hope they remember to never give up and to do their best. We won, but that doesn’t matter. You give your best, and you fight, and you never give up. That’s the lesson these kids are taking away.”