2018 Circle of Excellence Award Recipient John Schlenker

2018 Circle of Excellence Award Recipient John Schlenker

When and how did you get involved with TOPSoccer and VSA?

My roots coaching athletes with different abilities go back to 1985, when I first volunteered to coach a Special Olympics soccer team in Alexandria. In 2002, I was coaching my son’s travel soccer team as well as my youngest daughter’s house team when it occurred to me that my middle child was just being dragged to games as a spectator. Despite having Down syndrome, Katie still had a passion for kicking the ball with her siblings. So, I researched the options and stumbled upon TOPSoccer – US Youth Soccer’s national program for athletes with disabilities. By the way, TOPS stands for “The Outreach Program”.

We’ve worked hard to build a very inclusive environment where all kids, regardless of ability, can come together to play this beautiful game.  TOPS is a unique program, because it truly lives up to US Youth Soccer’s tag line -- “the game for all kids”.  Our athletes have Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and a host of other challenges, while our volunteers range from ODP skill level to completely inexperienced.  Everyone is welcome, everyone participates, and everyone has fun!

After coaching TOPS in Fauquier County for several years, I was discussing TOPS with former VSA Board Member David Fitz at the indoor facility he built in Warrenton. At the time, my daughter Lauren was also playing travel soccer for the VSA Heat.  So, it was a natural to expand TOPSoccer into Prince William and partner with VSA.  Today, we have approximately 80 athletes with different abilities and an army of over 100 amazing student volunteers.


What are some of the fondest memories with VSA?

My favorite VSA memory did not occur on the pitch, but it’s certainly reflective of the rich culture of compassion within this club.  Three years ago, one of our VSA TOPSoccer athletes was in a horrific life-threatening car crash.  His mother ended up in a coma and Carson, a TOPSoccer athlete with cerebral palsy, was left with broken bones and months of rehabilitative physical and occupational therapy.  A fundraiser to help the family resulted in the most amazing sense of community I’ve ever seen. “Cones for Kelly and Carson” attracted so many people that the line for an ice cream cone was more than a soccer field long and the average wait to be served was 90 minutes. 


What advice do you have for parents and/or players and our club in the years ahead??

Although VSA has excellent fields and facilities, the real difference is the culture of learning, excellence and community that comes from a focused Board and the best coaches; all of which have our athletes’ personal development at heart and truly makes VSA the gold standard of soccer clubs.  Soccer is an excellent vehicle for teaching youth to think on their feet, communicate effectively and make good decisions.  My advice for VSA is to simply stay true to this culture. 

I’d like to thank the VSA Board and coaching staff for their amazing support over the past ten years.  Despite full plates, all it takes is an email to Michael, Matt, Kathleen or Steve with a request for TOPSoccer help and, like magic, it happens.