Mateo Restrepo trades one dream for another, leaving pro soccer for med school

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At 25, Mateo Restrepo has already achieved one dream by playing pro soccer. Now the HFX Wanderers FC defender is embarking on another, quitting football for medical school.

The Toronto native left Monday for New York City where he will start at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai come Aug. 8.

Restrepo admits to a swirl of emotions as he switches careers.

"I know that it's going to be quite a transition from training every day and kind of having a lot of off time to just being on the go all the time," he said in an interview. "But I'm excited and I'm ready to put the work in."

There will be plenty of that. He is looking at four years of med school, followed by three to seven years residency. That time frame helped him make his mind about moving on.

"The training for medicine is so long that I didn't want to start at, let's say, 30 or 33," he explained.

He's not giving up on soccer. He is already exploring options on playing in New York, through a friend.

"I plan on continuing to play football. It's been part of my life for the past 20 years and I don't plan to let it go completely," he said.

But school will take precedence.

His last game was July 23, a 1-1 tie with FC Edmonton at Wanderers Ground that saw Andre Rampersad hand over the captain's armband so Restrepo could lead the team out on his Canadian Premier League finale.

It was an emotional day for Restrepo, who has called Halifax home since joining the team in January 2020.

"It was a lot to say goodbye to everybody," he said. "Some of my best friends are over there. It's always hard to say goodbye. But at this point, I've relocated so much, I don't know, it almost kind of feels normal."

Born in Colombia, Restrepo was five when he came to Canada with his parents.

He started playing soccer at six or seven, with Woodbridge SC his youth team. At 13-14, he was invited to try out for Ontario team and ended up captaining the side. He was 14 when he made his debut in the Canadian youth program in 2011 with coach Sean Fleming.

As a Canadian youth international and member of the TFC academy, he got to develop on and off the field.

He went to high school, Dante Alighieri Academy, with Canadian international Richie Laryea, a former Toronto FC fullback now with England's Nottingham Forest, and Kwame Awuah, now with St. Louis City SC 2. Restrepo also counts former Toronto midfielder Liam Fraser, now with Belgium's Deinze, and current TFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye as friends.

His roommate in Halifax was midfielder Aidan Daniels, another former TFC academy product.

He spent three years with the Toronto academy and, in 2014, had a training stint with the Brentford FC academy in London.

"The level was incredible," he said. "It was a great eye-opening experience and one I still look back on."

A year later he moved to Germany to join the under-19 side at FC Ingolstadt 04, which converted him from centre back to fullback.

He had been scouted while at a youth tournament in Austria when he was 17. He remained in Europe and went on a month-long trial. Three days before graduating high school, he got the call to come over. He left the next day.

"The football was absolutely amazing," he said. "We were playing Bayern Munich one week, Hoffenheim the other in the U-19 Bundesliga. It was top-quality, top-class football. It really helped me grow in a lot of ways, that experience."

In 2016, he started at UC-Santa Barbara where he studied cellular and molecular biology — and played 66 games for the Gauchos.

"Football gave me everything," he said. "It gave me an avenue through which I could work on myself and grow, as a human being, as a man. It took me all around the world and allowed me to represent Canada, the country that took in my family at our time of need. It gave me an education.

"I don't think I could have asked any more from football. The game was really really really nice to me."

Restrepo spent months studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), eventually taking it prior to the 2021 season. He found out he had been accepted in January.

He thought about deferring for a year so he could finish out the season but eventually decided the time was right to return to school.

"I had a lot of anxiety about bringing it up to the club. I kind of felt I was letting the team down by leaving in the middle of the season. But once I told them, there was nothing but support, nothing but good wishes. They completely understood … It made it easier to move forward and let go, I guess."

Icahn School has a stellar academic reputation and appealed to him for its emphasis on working with "underserved populations."

"And me being an immigrant from Colombia, it's always been something I've wanted to focus on," said Restrepo. "I want to help individuals that have a similar background to my family, who maybe don't have access to health care or maybe can't speak the language. I want to help facilitate those interactions and make them feel taken care of. And that's at the centre of Icahn's scope."

"I'm blessed to go to a school like that," he added.

He leaves with fond memories of the CPL.

"It was so great to be able to come back home and play in a professional league," he said. "It was something that didn't exist when I was growing up. It wasn't really an avenue to look forward to when I was a youth player."

He savoured travelling the country playing soccer.

"Being able to experience different aspects of Canadian culture was an absolute blessing. So I have nothing but good things to say about the CPL," he said.

"I think it's going to grow, it's going to keep growing. The level's going to keep getting higher. The interest is going to keep expanding. And I'm excited to see how it's going to be in 10 15 years … And I'm excited that the youth has something to look forward to. That there's professional clubs in their backyard. Not in all places, but in a lot of places now."

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Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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