GOODBYE CANADA, HOLA ESPAÑA

Michael Thornton

Toronto born and raised, at only 12 years of age he had already travelled to Europe for try-outs with an Italian soccer club. The following year, in 2013, he travelled to France, England, Italy and Spain to play with some of the most elite soccer academies in the world, including A.S. Roma, A.C. Milan, Arsenal F.C., Manchester City, and Real Madrid.

Now, in 2014, the soccer prodigy is living his dream and aspiring to play with a top professional Spanish football club and hoping to be one of the first ever Canadians to do so

While living in Madrid hasn’t been without its challenges, the decision to move to Europe was an easy one. “We decided it was the right time for our family to experience a new culture, learn a new language, and pursue our boys’ interests in arts and sports,” explains Debbie Thornton, Michael’s mom.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”

Michael has approached his new life overseas with the same determination he has shown in all his pursuits. As a Canadian youth with diabetes, Michael now faces the dual challenge of having to prove every day that these are not obstacles and that he belongs with his new Spanish team. In Spain, soccer means business. “The level of professionalism is very high,” explains Michael’s mom Debbie. “There’s always someone waiting to take your place, and you can get cut at any time. He and the other kids are under a lot of pressure to perform, every day.”

On the field, however, Michael enjoys a camaraderie that transcends cultures and language – although initially, to his teammates, he was very much a curiosity. After all, soccer is to Spain what hockey is to Canada. “Many Spaniards think of Canadians as hockey players, and they were intrigued and surprised that I can play soccer,” says Michael.

“But my teammates and coaches have been very supportive and friendly, and are really interested in my story.” Michael also quickly had to learn how to say “I’m not wearing an iPod®” in Spanish in response to queries about his insulin pump!

One of his other challenges has been learning a new style of play and game sense. Says Michael, “The kids are really smart on the field, and they know how to read the plays. It’s making me a better player.” Not surprisingly, the coaches speak only Spanish.

Michael has been able to stay at the top of his game — and remains a strong offensive player — with hard study, extra training and by paying close attention to his diabetes management. “Sports and diabetes are alike: both take a lot of preparation. The last thing Michael wants is to have a chance ruined because he wasn’t prepared,” says Debbie. Outside of the club, he does strength and conditioning with his father Paul, and trains with Spain’s 800-meter track champion and a past Olympian.

Diabetes management in Spain also hasn’t been without a few surprises and hiccups. Although they had packed a suitcase of diabetes supplies when they first arrived in Spain, the Thorntons quickly discovered insulin vials weren’t readily available in pharmacies, and had to be special ordered. With the language barrier, they also quickly learned to bring a mobile device with a translation app to the pharmacy. The Thorntons have also had to decipher nutritional information—and deal with the lack thereof—for favourite local dishes like paella (a rice dish), jamón (ham) and tapas (savory appetizer-like dishes). Counting carbs has been trial and error, and Michael’s blood glucose unexpectedly spiked after trying these new dishes. Other cultural differences have also necessitated adjustments. For example, the Spaniards like to eat dinner as late as late as 10 p.m., and many stores shut down at certain times of the day—just when Michael might be needing a snack or drink.

The transition to life in Spain has been made easier by Michael’s Animas® Vibe® insulin pump and CGM system. While Michael admits to hesitating about switching because he was happy with how his current pump was performing, he decided to take a chance at trying something new—and he couldn’t be happier. “I love it! It’s much easier to prepare for matches and practice with it.” says Michael. The continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) gives him immediate feedback and helps Michael keep his blood sugars under better control. In seconds, Michael can check his glucose levels and see the direction they are going in crucial moments in soccer rather than having to leave the pitch for a blood glucose test.

Off the soccer pitch, Michael approaches his life with the same passion as he did in Canada. He attends an International Baccalaureate school with his brothers, which offers a challenging academic program with students from 56 other countries. As he did in Canada, Michael continues to advocate for diabetes awareness—despite language barriers—and recently met with the Honourable Jon Allen, Canada’s Ambassador to Spain to introduce himself and discuss diabetes. He has also been in the news as far away as Italy, where his diabetes advocacy and soccer skills have been featured in a local newspaper and a soccer magazine.

When asked if he misses home, Michael’s answer is what one would expect of any 14-year-old. “I miss my friends, and I miss not knowing my neighbourhood,” he says. He adds, however, “It feels amazing to be where I am, doing what I love to do. Sometimes it seems surreal. I train my hardest every day to continue living my dream in Spain, and sometimes living the dream means having to take a chance.”