Old Glory DC rugby player Martin Vaca embraces his Tourette syndrome: ‘It’s a part of me’

FAIRFAX, Va. — Communication has an enhanced importance for Martin Vaca.

Just five months into his first stay in the United States, Vaca, who is from Argentina, has had to quickly forge and develop relationships with his teammates and coaches of Old Glory DC, one of 12 professional franchises of Major League Rugby that plays its home games at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown.

And as the team’s hooker — a position likened to the center or long snapper in American football — Vaca has had to coordinate with his teammates certain alignments to win the ball in scrums and line-outs.

The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Vaca, who turns 23 next month, has Tourette syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by movement and vocal tics. Vaca, who displays utterances of yelps and words, said he isn’t embarrassed or discouraged by his affliction and has used his voice freely on the field.

“Luckily, I have a personality in which I don’t worry much about what people will say or what the rest will think about it,” he said in Spanish during an interview interpreted by teammate Ethan McVeigh and assistant coach Ben Cima. “I don’t see it as something bad. It just touches me, and it’s part of me.”

Old Glory coach Simon Cross, who played a key role in bringing Vaca from France to the team, said he, the coaches and players have embraced Vaca.

“At the very start, it was quite prominent, but for the rest of the group, we’ve just gone on with it,” he said before a recent team practice at George Mason University. “There have been some funny occurrences when it has been amusing, and the boys have had a laugh, and Martin will laugh it off himself. But in terms of the rest of the group, as the time has gone on, there’s been less and less prevalence.”

Tourette syndrome — named after Georges Gilles de la Tourette, a French neurologist who published nine cases of patients suffering from motor and phonic tics associated with the disorder — is no longer rare. According to the Tourette Association of America, one of every 160 children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the United States has the neurological disorder and one of every 50 children worldwide has it or another tic disorder.

Tourette Syndrome: An Overview

Vaca said his first experience with Tourette surfaced when he was 12 years old as he felt a tic in his throat that compelled him to shout. His family took him to a psychologist who diagnosed him with the disorder.

Vaca’s outbursts became more frequent as he aged. During a 19-minute interview, Vaca made 27 yelps. But he said his friends and classmates at school never ostracized him.

“Of course, it was a new concept for me and my classmates,” he said. “So obviously, it was different, but we were always together in school and such. So they didn’t treat me any different. It’s just something that kind of happened. We would make a lot of jokes about it, and that’s how we dealt with a serious situation.”

Vaca said Tourette became more problematic when he turned 18 and began to meet and work with adults who might not have been as accommodating as his friends and classmates. The disorder has transpired awkwardly during team meetings or film sessions when he has tried to suppress the compulsion.

Ignacio Dotti, a Uruguayan who plays the lock position for Old Glory, acknowledged that it took a little time for him and his teammates to adjust to Vaca’s outbursts.

“It’s tougher for him,” Dotti said. “When he needs to be silent, that’s when he gets more nervous, and the Tourette gets worse in a way. But we understand it more.”

If there’s one arena where Tourette doesn’t bother Vaca, it’s on the rugby pitch.

“When I’m on the field, that’s when I suffer from it the least,” he said. “I simply enter the field and forget about everything. I’ve never had any problem with Tourette on the field — neither with my teammates nor with my rivals thanks to rugby and all its values.”

Dotti said he has grown to admire Vaca’s openness about Tourette.

“He’s not embarrassed,” he said. “He’s used to it, and I think he feels very good. He has no problem talking about Tourette.”

Cross recalled a hand-eye coordination drill during a preseason practice in the winter that he planned to start for the players by yelling “Go!” But before he had a chance, Vaca inadvertently shouted “Go!” and his teammates began to race through the exercise before Cross and his coaches were forced to tell them to stop.

Dotti speculated that Vaca’s habit is linked to his comfort level.

“It’s important for him to be relaxed,” he said. “When he’s relaxed, he does better. I think our job is to make him feel as comfortable as possible, and that definitely helps.”

With a 4-4-2 record that ranks fourth in the six-team Eastern Conference, Old Glory continues to jockey for the Major League Rugby playoffs, which will include the top three teams in the Eastern and Western conferences. Cross said Vaca will be counted on to continue contributing to the team’s postseason hopes.

“He’s a talented young guy that I think can go all the way,” Cross said. “The Argentinian team should be looking at him. I think he’s got an ability to change the game in terms of his ball playing and tactics. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”

Vaca said he misses his family and friends in Argentina and the music, especially La Mona Jiménez, a cuarteto singer and songwriter. But he said he enjoys Washington (“Life is chill,” he said), is currently studying digital marketing online through a university in Argentina and is considering pursuing a real estate license.

Vaca said he doesn’t concern himself about his Tourette, which has no known cure. He said the disorder won’t prevent him from pursuing what he wants to do.

“I think there will come an age when — you never know — maybe something will just happen,” he said. “It’s not a problem. I live.”

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