Washington Spirit players living at Rockville retirement community


Washington Spirit soccer players Diana Matheson, left, and Robyn Gayle, far right, eat lunch with Ingleside King Farm residents Chuck and Joanne Colbert. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

When Robyn Gayle and Diana Matheson, teammates on the Washington Spirit pro soccer team, learned where they would live this summer, they thought someone was playing a prank.

Ingleside at King Farm did offer a furnished two-bedroom unit with granite countertops, 21 / 2 bathrooms, dual balconies and walk-in closets as large as some of their previous living quarters. It also had underground parking, an indoor pool and a fitness center. But the amenities also included water aerobics, bridge lessons and afternoon lectures such as “Politics of Aging: Medicare and Social Security.”

The world-class athletes who won bronze medals at the 2012 Olympics for Canada were to live at a retirement community in Rockville.

Average age of the players: 28.

Average age of their neighbors: 82.

It was no practical joke, and after seeing their new home for the first time last month and receiving a warm welcome from the residents, Gayle and Matheson are embracing inter-generational living.

“You’re going to win Saturday, right?” a male resident said while offering a hallway high-five to Gayle last week.

“You know it, Alan,” she responded while slapping his hand.

One of eight clubs in the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League, the Spirit has played to two draws this season. And in a league that is trying keep costs down, Spirit management sought families to host several of the 18 players — akin to what minor league baseball teams around the country arrange for their prospects each spring.

Some Spirit players were placed at guest homes near the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, where the team also practices. One lives with a family in McLean. Through a chain of local connections, the Spirit reached an agreement with Ingleside that allows Gayle and Matheson to live free of charge for the five-month season.

Early last month, they were on Canadian national team duty in Cyprus when they received e-mails from the Spirit about the living situation.

“I was in disbelief, thinking they were stuck with something at the last minute,” said Matheson, one of the most accomplished players in Canadian history. “Then we went onto [Ingleside’s] Web site and started looking at the photos and floor plans and said, ‘Oh, wow, this could be okay.’ It grew on us quickly. We got here and it surpassed our expectations.”

‘I would do it again’

The 350-plus residents at the high-end facility have embraced their young guests. One made them throw pillows. Others have dropped off biscotti and bagels.

The players are on the meal plan and recently had dinner with the woman who parks her car next to theirs. Each on-site dining experience creates new friendships.

Gayle and Matheson are not confined, though. Commercial restaurants and shopping sit a few blocks away and the SoccerPlex is a 20-minute drive.

Matheson builds an extra 10 minutes into her morning coffee routine in the lobby, knowing someone will strike up a conversation with her. She learned that one resident is a confirmed descendant of Chinese philosopher Confucius, 76 generations removed.

At the end of the day, the players match the names of residents they met with profiles in the center’s directory.

“Whether they were doctors or homemakers, they all have these incredible life stories — about themselves, their children, their grandchildren,” Gayle said. “It’s just so enriching for us.

“One lady told us about having four children of her own and three adopted. We had dinner with a couple, and he pulled out the chair for her. It was the cutest thing I have ever seen.

“I want someone to pull out a chair for me someday.”

Marilyn Leist, Ingleside’s executive director, said the primary reason for accepting the players was the promise of bond between young and old.

“I see relationships develop, and it’s a beautiful thing when young people can embrace it as a positive,” she said.

Resident Shirley Baker, 84, attended the team’s VIP fan event hosted by Ingleside last week. “We’re looking forward to learning from the girls,” she said, “and maybe they will understand more about us.”

Ingleside is an active community, belying the perception of a sedentary elderly home. (An additional 60 residents do rely on assisted-living services or comprehensive care.)

“When you hear ‘retirement community,’ your mind swings to ‘nursing home,’ ” said Steve Gurney, an elder-care advocate and publisher of “Guide to Retirement Living SourceBook,” a Washington Post subsidiary. “A lot of people are scared to walk into such a place. But it’s a great opportunity to look at senior living and break the age segregation.”

Gurney proposed the idea to Ingleside after learning from local fitness director Kevin Boyle that the Spirit was searching for temporary housing on short notice.

At first, Leist was skeptical. “I didn’t know what it was going to do,” she recalled.

Gurney then showed her an ESPN report about Josh Faiola, who, while pitching for the minor league Lake Erie Crushers in 2009, lived with his wife at an assisted-living facility. The couple forged deep ties with the residents.

After viewing the video, “I was sold,” Leist said. “If we have a spare room, I would do it again and again and again.”

‘We got lucky’

Gayle and Matheson wanted an apartment-style arrangement instead of living in a spare bedroom or basement. They got more than they expected: 1,800 square feet with weekly cleaning service and access to planned activities.

“I can’t wait to learn how to play bridge,” said Matheson, 29, an economics major at Princeton.

Upon visiting Ingleside for the first time, Spirit captain Lori Lindsey, a Capitol Hill resident who did not request housing from the team, said: “This is so posh. How do I get in here?”

The players’ china cabinet is stocked with permanent vases and stemwear, but Matheson added a personal touch: her bronze medal from London.

“We got lucky. It’s a great place,” Spirit General Manager Chris Hummer said. And with the players living with elders, “it’s like the ultimate soccer moms.”

When they moved in, the players were greeted by residents and staff and presented with signed posters. One wrote, “Think of us as your extra grandparents.”

In exchange for housing, the Spirit will provide residents and staff with 20 tickets to each of the team’s 11 regular season home games. The club will distribute an additional 300 tickets for a designated game late in the season.

The residents can’t wait.

“When they told us the young ladies were moving in, I said: ‘What? Soccer players? Well, that’s great. When do they arrive?’ ” said Baker, who has lived at Ingleside for 21 / 2 years. “I grew up in Kansas. I didn’t know anything about soccer. My grandson was a goalie. I am excited to see [the Spirit] play.”

Some of the residents have a competitive streak.

When Gayle and Matheson returned from a scrimmage against Duke, a female resident asked how they had fared.

“We tied,” Gayle told her.

The response: “Tied? Come on!”

Reflecting on the broader experience, Matheson said: “We got the better end of this deal. There are some amazing people here.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.

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