On a mission
Jess Bye is what you would call “a gamer.” She’s a driven athlete, a fierce competitor and a demanding coach. She never settles and a her passion for sports spills into everything else she does.
But Jess Bye is also a little bit of a contradiction.
With just weeks left before she departs for a seven-month stint of virtual homelessness in Asia, Bye is surprisingly relaxed about the months ahead.
“It’s called like Bada Bang — I don’t know,” Bye laughed as she tried to remember the name of the Cambodian region she’ll call home for four months. “Basically I just need to know how to get there. I’ll figure the rest out.”
Bye, 21, and the junior varsity soccer coach at Brainerd High School, is taking her love of the game halfway across the globe to Battambang, Cambodia, where she will spend the first part of 2012 immersed in Asian culture teaching English and coaching soccer. Bye will work with Sports and Leadership Training Academy, a program created for Cambodian youth, most of whom are at risk of being exploited by human trafficking.
“I like to classify myself as a young independent woman and that’s just out the question girls there,” Bye said. “I hope I can be a role model for them.”
Bye got her start in sports as a child, first a talented swimmer — even competing at the junior Olympic level — and later as a soccer and hockey player. Bye said she actually gave up swimming to play soccer.
“I just loved soccer so much more,” she said. Bye went on the become a highly decorated soccer and hockey player. She was the first all-state female soccer player from Brainerd. She was part of the teams that played in the 2006 and 2007 state tournaments, something Bye said she is still so proud to have been apart of.
“What did the (2011) homecoming t-shirts say? ‘Once a warrior always a warrior,’” Jess recalled. “It’s so true.”
After graduating from Brainerd High School in 2008, Bye went to school to become a personal trainer and spent a few months backpacking across Europe with her best friend. “She got me hooked on traveling,” Bye said. “I realized there is more to life than sports. You learn some from other people and other cultures.
“There’s a whole world out there.”
While traveling in Europe, Bye got the news that her mom was diagnosed with cancer. With a job opportunity awaiting her in Miami, upon return from her travels Bye made the decision to come back to Brainerd to be with her mom while she battled her cancer.
“I wanted to come home and help take care of her,” Bye said. Her mom died last fall.
In the midst of supporting her mom, Bye got a call from then Brainerd High School girls’ Varsity soccer coach Sara Rojas to come help with the program that helped shape her athletic career.
“I knew I would coach someday, but I didn’t know it would be so soon,” Bye said. “I definitely view it differently as a player than as a coach.”
Bye said her involvement with SALT came after another former Brainerd High School soccer player, Sarah Parsons, a student at Concordia University, came back from a season of playing soccer in Thailand and a short time working with the soccer program at SALT.
“She didn’t even tell me about her traveling,” Bye said. “The first thing she saw was, ‘Jess, you have to do this.’”
While Bye’s adventure begins when she departs Minnesota on Nov. 7, her time in Cambodia won’t come until after the new year. First she’s going to spend some more time traveling and couch surfing.
“They hate it,” said Bye of her family and friends reaction to her couch-surfing plans. “Half of them don’t know what it is.”
Couch-surfing is an actual network of travelers from all over the world that arrange to stay in each other’s homes to provide an authentic cultural experience. Bye, who is admittedly particular about her food, said her culinary survival strategy is to find something she likes and stick with that. “I’ll just live off of noodles,” she said.
In addition to Cambodia, Bye will spend time in Fiji, New Zealand, parts of Indonesia and Thailand.
Bye said traveling has taught her to appreciate what other cultures have to offer and the way others live.
“You not only learn so much about them, you learn so much about yourself,” she said. “You learn that there’s a different way of life.
“I’m just thankful to be able to do something like this to help. I think I’ll be able to tell a story when I get back.”
Bye said after her time in Asia she plans to return to the Brainerd area and continue her personal training career, a venture she started last fall. She also plans to continue coaching.
Bye said as a coach she has learned how unique the Brainerd sports community is. “I love what I do,” she said. “We’re a tight community through our sports — not a lot of other places have that.
“We are warriors.”
SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5879.