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U.S. Soccer Team Chef Survived Colorado Movie Theater Shooting

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SAO PAULO — These days, Bryson Billapando hears about threats of violence in Brazil and beyond and flashes back to a gruesome night two years ago in Colorado.

He has done his best to move on since the deadly theater shooting he witnessed at a midnight Batman movie in Aurora, and is now cooking up fresh and healthy meals for the U.S. World Cup team in a gig he couldn’t have imagined even just a year ago.

“I just happened to be on the left side of the theater,” Billapando recalled Wednesday, taking a quick break a few minutes after preparing the Americans’ post-practice lunch. “Then all craziness broke loose.”

A gunman opened fire in the theater on July 20, 2012, killing 12 people and wounding 70, including Billapando’s then-wife. James Holmes pleaded not guilty because of insanity.

Being part of the U.S. support operation has provided Billapando with a support system of his own, and at a perfect time in his life when he needed a new direction.

Billapando, who celebrates his 31st birthday Thursday, can’t provide specifics of the chaos. The trial is scheduled for later this year.

Billapando’s then-wife Toni was pregnant with their second child at the time, and she was sitting to his left and got struck by fragments. They also have an older daughter.

The two-year anniversary next month will bring mixed feelings, Billapando expects, following such highs of the World Cup experience.

Since the attack, he has jumped into his work, saying the timing of the World Cup “couldn’t have been any better.”

“It’s not as bad as it once was for me,” he said. “I know for some people the healing process is a lot different. It was a huge struggle to get through everything on that end and try and find help. After the shooting, everything was so dark, nothing was positive. … I was just tired of feeling that way.”

Billapando underwent counseling to deal with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which still can be triggered from time to time. A rash of shootings in recent weeks brought back memories of terror.

“Any type of domestic-type attack, it always hits close to home, like the Boston Marathon bombing, school shootings, the mall shooting, everything,” he said.

Billapando insists he loves the challenge of adapting recipes for all dietary needs, whether that’s specific preferences or players who prefer a gluten-free diet.

“We’re in a different culture. I embrace it,” Billapando said. “I know it’s an honor for them to be on a national team, and it’s a huge honor for me to represent the United States culinary-wise.”

Billapando is mixing in some traditional ingredients from Brazil, eating his own share of mangoes along the way. The team appreciates having someone they know available to cook some of their favorites, even when far from home.

“Good food. I think that’s a good thing, absolutely,” forward Jozy Altidore said, grinning. “It’s good to know we’ll have someone to cook stuff we’re familiar with.”

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