Minnesotan in Colombia leads yearly soccer pilgrimage

  • Article by: NATE TAYLOR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2009 - 9:29 AM

Dan Skillings started bringing youth soccer teams to the Schwan's USA Cup in 1989 and never stopped, giving those players the cultural opportunity of a lifetime.

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Salvador Pombu, 10, waved the Colombian flag while being held up by teammates in a sea of color and soccer players during opening ceremonies of the Schwan’s USA Cup tournament in Blaine on Tuesday.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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In 1988, Dan Skillings thought he left the state of Minnesota and the country for good.

After spending the entire year in 1985 studying abroad in Colombia, Skillings met his future wife, Connie. And though he came back to graduate from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in international studies, one thing was certain: He was going to spend the rest his life in Colombia with Connie.

Skillings soon began teaching at a K-12 school in Colombia when he was first introduced to soccer. He had never played the sport, but he couldn't help but enjoy the way his students loved it. So in 1989, the idea rushed into his head: Minnesota had just started a large soccer tournament during the summer. Why not take the kids on a field trip?

From that summer on -- now 21 years later -- Skillings is still making the trip from his adopted home to Minnesota for the Schwan's USA Cup in Blaine. For this year's tournament, Skillings, who is from New Ulm, has brought 96 kids and 17 volunteers from Colombia to participate in the largest youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere.

The group is made up of six boys' teams and two girls' teams that will compete against U.S. and other international teams. Over the years, Skillings has been able to create and build his own company, PCT Colombia, which gives kids in Colombia a chance to play in sports programs in the U.S. and Canada.

More than 1,500 students are part of the organization. Last year alone, Skillings brought a record 14 teams to the tournament.

"Any kid that wants to play soccer can come," said Skillings, who now lives in the Colombian capital of Bogota. "I've enjoyed coming back every year. The kids enjoy everything, and it's easy for teams here to come get an international experience."

Instead of teaching at the school in Colombia, Skillings soon left teaching to manage his business full time. Now during the school year, he recruits students from all the private bilingual schools in the country.

Even though Skillings chooses not to coach any of the teams he brings (mostly because he still has little experience in soccer), he does more of his teaching off the field, providing American culture to his students eager to use the English they learn in school.

"The whole trip is a good experience for the kids to mature in soccer and learn values in life," said Danilo Correa Oviedo, a coach for one of the boys' teams. "The kids can interact with kids from different countries."

For most of the students, this is their first time being away from their home country.

"This is a very important soccer tournament," Connie Skillings said. "The kids really consider it as one of their greatest experiences in their life growing up."

Early Tuesday afternoon, Dan Skillings watched one of his teams -- the Colegios, a boys' team in the age 11 division. The Colombian team is pretty good, too. The boys went on to win easily, defeating the Iowa Galaxy 7-2.

When the game was over, all the boys smiled and talked to Skillings. Some joked to Skillings in Spanish; others, like his son, Nico, in English. No matter what language, Skillings knows coming back to Minnesota for a week every year is important.

"I like to think my contribution is having different people getting to know each other," he said. "I know after 20 years there have been a lot of really good relationships that have been made based on me introducing people. I know those friendships are special."

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