It's been a year since Sian Bah packed her bags and started her new life on a football scholarship at William Penn University in Iowa, USA. Sian makes it abundantly clear in the opening seconds of our conversations that she still calls the game football rather than soccer. "Ha, ha, ha. People here don't mind me calling it football. They can tell when I say I'm a footballer that I don't mean American football." Whatever you want to call it, it's obvious Sian has been having a ball during her first season - well, except for having her arm broken by her team captain. More on that later.
“Thinking back to the start of the year, I was starry-eyed when I arrived”, says Sian. “I couldn't wait to leave home and get started. I think that meant I didn’t feel homesick. I remember in my first week of school, one of my roommates who comes from Iowa left, so it's not the same for everyone. But I was fortunate to make friends, and being international helped. People would be like: "Oh you're different and want to hang out. They love how I say certain words like 'water' and try to imitate my accent. Lots of the guys call me 'London'. I've got pretty good at doing an American 'Valley Girl' accent (Sian does a quick demo down the line), but I'm challenging myself to do a southern accent which is much harder.
In those early weeks, linguistic matters weren’t all Sian had to navigate. "Pre-season was hot. We'd train across midday, and they'd have to bring wet towels out for me. During breaks, I'd go and sit in the shade. The coach wanted us to run a mile under a certain time. When I didn't do it, I was worried he'd think I wasn't fit enough. But I'd never trained for running that distance - especially not in the heat - so when the next time we did it, I cut a minute off, I knew I'd be ok. I had some good conversations with our coach and I understood that when he shouts at us he's not being angry for the sake of it, it's because he can see we're not doing the things he knows we're capable of. I think some of the other girls found that quite hard, to begin with. We lost our first few games. But we realised we needed some time to gel. I was one of several freshmen [first years] playing in the Varsity [first team], and we'd brought in 20 new players from America and Europe."
In trying to build that team spirit, Sian noticed that the football culture was different to what she was used to back home. "I eat, sleep and breathe football. I'll watch any game that's on. Most of my teammates only follow the USWNT (The USA women's national team), which makes it hard to talk about certain players and how they play. They don't know Drogba, De Bruyne or Van Persie. But we all started playing FIFA together, and as some of the girls have a projector in their room: if there's a game on, we show it. I say to everyone, 'You're coming to watch!' We also go to the games of the university's other sports teams. They have cheering sections in America, and you hear things like: "I believe that we can win" - so, so boring. A few of us foreigners have introduced proper English football chants. If the opposition team understood slang, they wouldn't be too happy!"
It's all part of what Sian describes as an 'exchange of knowledge'. "In my classes too [Sian takes courses in computer science, maths, history and politics], there are certain things I've been taught that my classmates have never heard of and vice versa. So it's different, but that's ok. That said, I'm sticking to my way of doing maths. You know they call brackets parenthesis?!" As well as being adaptable, Sian says managing pressure has been critical. "I know that I've come here as an international player on a scholarship. That means I need to be one of the best in the team to show why I'm here." Sian explains how she has learned to embrace that pressure. "My mindset is I love playing football, and I'll take any opportunity to play. I've become hungry this year. It would be a waste to come all this way and be comfortable. I want people to notice if I'm not in the team and say the game would have been different if I'd been playing. That's why I'm happy to play in any position the coach needs. I don't mind where as long as I'm out on the pitch."
Perhaps Sian frames it that way because she has had to endure a spell on the sidelines. "We were at training, and I'd been carrying an injury, so - just to be involved - I said I'd go in goal. At the end of the session, our captain was running through at me. I locked off the near post. And from about 10 steps away, she blasted a shot. I put my hand up as a reflex. Even over the music playing at our indoor pitch, I heard the snap ... I think all the training we've been doing and work in the gym has made our shots really powerful. Once they'd put my arm in plaster, I joined in at training and accidentally got her back. One of my shots gave her a cracked rib. I felt terrible about it!"
It was during her time out injured that Sian felt a few pangs for home. "I have to say it was my friends who got me through that. They said do you really want to go home? Or is it more that you're missing playing football? They made sure I didn't spend a lot of time on my own in my room. Now I'm really looking forward to getting match fit again and pushing hard next season."
"It's mad when I think about it. I remember just four years ago being on the bus home from school when the sun would set really early, and it was dark. I dreamt about scoring my first goal for my university team in America. When that happened for real this year, I thought back to those days on the bus. That's why I'm always going to take any opportunity that comes my way, however small it might seem - making those phone calls to ask for help, taking the time to read that extra bit of information, pushing my mum to let me come out to America - that's what got me here. It's my life, and if I make a mistake, I'd rather know it's my mistake resulting from my choices than be in a position where I regret not having tried."
Given that Sierra Leone's national team has asked if Sian would be interested in joining their training camp once her arm is fully healed, it may well be that all the little opportunities she's grabbed along her way end up with Sian showcasing her skills on an Olympic or World Cup stage. Wherever Sian's journey leads next, everyone at Behind Every Kick is incredibly proud of her.