Wheelers kicking it up in power soccer
It’s a familiar routine that’s become a ritual for countless Americans: the Saturday morning soccer game.
Now a group of Tampa, Fla., enthusiasts has joined the soccer faithful and formed the Tampa Thunder, a power soccer team.
Power, as in power wheelchair, that is.
Power soccer is a relatively new but steadily growing sport that’s opened a door for people with disabilities to the game that’s popular worldwide.
The Thunder is just one of dozens of teams nationwide, and the sport has become organized enough to see its third major tournament, the Power Soccer 2005 World Invitational, take place in June in Indianapolis.
|Danny Gorman (left) and Tampa Thunder founder Elio Navarro. Photos by Dirk Shadd.|
In fact, if Elio Navarro, the Thunder’s founder and president, and other enthusiasts have their way, the game will be accepted in the Paralympics — the Olympic games for athletes with disabilities.
But for now, the Thunder team members are concentrating on mastering the sport, coming together as a team and, yes, winning.
They gather at a Tampa-area community center on a regular basis to practice drills, work on ball-handling skills and scrimmage.
Each team member uses a power wheelchair for mobility because of disabilities caused by neuromuscular diseases, spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy.
With players ranging in age from 10 to 56, the squad boasts a unique assortment of personalities, abilities and skills.
For example: There’s Tara Hall, a 21-year-old college student with spinal muscular atrophy who plays center for the Thunder and spearheads the team’s fund-raising efforts.
Ludger “Pep” Pepin, a Vietnam veteran, drives four hours to Tampa to attend practices and games along with his wife, Peggy. He’s also a photographer and artist, and owns a sign company with his wife.
Ben Carpenter, who also has SMA, plays goalie for the Thunder and is the team’s best player — at age 10.
They all agree that the opportunity to play an organized team sport is overdue.
“It’s fulfilling an essential need that has been absolutely vacant from the entire power wheelchair community,” said Navarro, who has SMA and works as a software developer for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He’s also a member of MDA’s National Task Force on Public Awareness.
Navarro, 24, noted that there are many opportunities to play team sports for others with disabilities, especially manual wheelchair users who have upper body strength.
“Power wheelchairs have been consistently excluded from that,” Navarro said.
Hall spent plenty of time watching her able-bodied siblings play sports and often yearned for her own experience.
“In high school especially, I always wanted to play a sport, but I’ve always had that boundary,” said Hall, who fulfilled some of that desire by getting involved in other ways, such as coaching a “powder puff” football team for girls.
"Getting in touch with Elio was one of the best things for me.”
The sometimes hard-hitting game
Power soccer was begun in 1982 by a group of athletes in Vancouver, Canada, and has also caught on in Japan and Denmark.
Power soccer consists of unisex teams with four players to a side. As in regular soccer, the object is to score more goals than your opponent. A player’s ability is a combination of skills plus the speed and power of the chair.
|Thunder players (from left) Ben Carpenter, Danny Gorman and Tara Hall practice some maneuvers.|
The game is played with an oversized, 18-inch-diameter soccer ball, usually indoors on a standard basketball court. Players need only be at least 5 years old and have “adequate control” of their wheelchairs.
Positioning, blocking, setting picks and screens, and controlling the ball are important elements of a team’s offensive and defensive strategies.
Rules forbid excessive ramming or driving wheelchairs backwards during play, and the oversized ball is designed to prevent collision. Yet unintentional crashes and the occasional injuries do happen, despite other safety precautions in place.
One Thunder player wears a helmet because of a previous head injury he incurred in a game, while others choose to wear bicycling-type gloves to protect their hands.
Wheelchair chest straps — in addition to seatbelts — are a new requirement that the Thunder initiated to help keep players in their chairs during the action.
Heavy-duty, plastic “foot guards” are attached to the chair fronts and wrap around the footrests. They protect the players’ feet and serve as the main contact point for controlling the soccer ball.
But if you ask the players, the action and contact are just part of the thrill. Speed is also a big draw and an essential element of top players, meaning some are limited or boosted by their wheelchair’s capabilities.
If you can operate a power wheelchair, you can play this sport.
Navarro said, “We have kids on ventilators. We have people that can’t even move their arms. But they’re playing a team sport, and they’re playing the number one sport in the world — soccer.”
A hometown project
Power soccer is played at many MDA summer camps across the country. Fond camp memories of the game are a large part of what inspired Navarro to start a team in his hometown after he read about an upcoming power soccer tournament in a newsletter.
He started by contacting Jerry Frick at the National Disability Sports Alliance. Frick, who is leading the charge to get the sport included in the Paralympics, helped Navarro organize a power soccer clinic and demonstration by Frick’s Atlanta-based team, the Shepard Strikers, in August.
Navarro invited people he knew from MDA summer camp to the demonstration, created a Web site (www.powersoccertampa.net) to help spread the word, and voila, the Thunder was born.
Hooking wheelchair users to get involved in the game was the easy part; organizing a well-run, which often means well-funded, team, was another.
That’s where Hall came in. She immediately volunteered to lead the team’s fundraising/sponsorship efforts. The team needed to drum up funds to cover the costs of uniforms, equipment, travel, a spare wheelchair (should one break during a game) and more.
Hall and Navarro insist that building the Thunder has truly been a team effort, bolstered by supportive parents and friends who coach, referee, help with transportation and more.
Her fellow team members have helped tremendously by each doing their part, said Hall, a straight-A college student who also works part time.
For starters, she asked each person to contact three potential sponsors, and she got 100 percent response — some on the same day.
|Ryan Coton and Ismael Rodriguez listen to the game plan at a Thunder practice. Both have Duchenne MD.|
“I can completely, totally rely on every member of our team, and I know they’re going to comply,” she said.
Building a group of backers is an ongoing process, with goals of covering costs to the tournament in Indiana.
Success on and off the field
Perhaps the greatest marks of the team’s success can’t be seen on the roster or in its win-loss record.
For some the experience has been so positive, it could even be classified as life-altering.
Playing on the team has helped several of the young male players shed some shyness.
Vilma Rodriguez said her son Ismael, 18, is a “totally different person” since he started playing power soccer.
“He’s more happy, more outgoing and he doesn’t even worry about what’s going on,” Rodriguez said, adding that the sport is a great thing for families to do together.
Ryan Coton, a 16-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), is the team’s soft-spken “playmaker” who diagrams meticulous soccer plays for the Thunder in his spare time.
Playing for the Thunder has helped bring him out of his shell and given him a role model in Navarro, too, said his mom, Jamie. (Navarro got married this spring — wife Jessi Rowen is the team referee — and drives his own adapted van.)
“He’s waited for this for so long,” said Jamie Coton, who is also enjoying her new role as a “soccer mom,” and getting to know other team members who are “a lot like family now.”
“Sometimes after the game or practices we go over to each other’s houses and have pizza and play video games,” Jamie Coton said.
Danny Gorman, a 14-year-old with DMD, said his favorite part of the sport is being with his friends. As an offensive specialist, he also relishes speed and ball handling.
Gorman, for whom shyness doesn’t appear to be a problem, said he only wishes the team had more (presumably young, female) fans, and said with a laugh that he’s “available.”
For Hall, the game came along at just the right time, and gave her a new beginning she desperately needed.
Hall received the word from Navarro about the team shortly after she fled an abusive relationship and moved home with her family.
Assuming a leadership role and just blowing off steam while playing were the perfect outlets for her as she started her life over, Hall said.
“It’s been a great stress reliever,” she said, and a great new group of friends. “My 21st birthday — I didn’t want to spend it with anybody but them. They were the first people who popped into my mind.”
And Hall’s mother, Carol Farber, discovered something new about her daughter.
“I had no idea that Tara was so competitive!” Farber said. She’s thankful that the game gave her daughter her “spark” back.
“I’ve just seen her change and become very mature in her leadership role,” she said, adding that all the team members are very dedicated. “These kids never miss a practice or a game.”
Michael Pizzurro, 21, who is on the team along with his brother Joe, 19 (both have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease), said he absolutely loves to play soccer and it feeds his “bloodthirst for competition.”
But his mom, Mary Pizzurro, sees the bigger picture.
“The first time they score a goal, that’s all they talk about,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I can do it.’ They accomplished something. And they can be part of a team.”
Do you have a power soccer team in your hometown? Why not start one! A team needs some key ingredients in order to work:
As a youngster, Michael Pizzurro participated in a variety of sports, from soccer to karate to playing in a bowling league.
But as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease slowly stole his athletic abilities, Pizzurro, now 21, figured he was “out of the game” for good.
No so anymore.
A gizmo called the IKAN Bowler is enabling Pizzurro, of Tampa, Fla., and many people with disabilities to enjoy the sport of bowling, and often, to get a new outlook on life at the same time.
The innovative device allows wheelchair users to compete on an even-as-possible field with able-bodied bowlers. It’s engineered to mimic a ball being released from someone’s hand.
The only real difference is the use of a caddy — someone to place and align the ball according to the bowler’s directions. The bowler then controls the speed, direction and timing of the ball’s release by moving his or her wheelchair.
News is spreading about the IKAN, which is being promoted nationwide by the IKAN Sports Foundation, a nonprofit founded last year. The IKAN Bowler is even approved for league play by the American Bowling Congress and the Women’s International Bowling Congress.
But something was different about Pizzurro’s reaction to the “barrier-free bowler” (IKAN comes from the Greek word ikanos, meaning enable).
His enthusiasm for the bowler — not to mention his personality and charm that he hopes to parlay into an acting or comedy career — was so evident he was hired on the spot to become a spokesman for the product.
“Michael is a delightful young man, and embodies everything we seek in an ambassador. He displays good sportsmanship, is witty and kind, and has an unquenchable desire to be his best,” said Jennifer Frazier, vice president and director of communications for the foundation.
The IKAN was invented by Claude Giguere, a retired engineer who wanted to help a young man named Bill Miller, who had recently become a quadriplegic, to enjoy his favorite sport. It retails for $1,875.
A member of the Tampa Thunder, Pizzurro readily admits that power soccer is his favorite sport to play (“I have such a passion for it,” he says).
But he’s thrilled to be helping spread the word about his other passion, and this exciting sports opportunity for wheelchair users.
He sees dramatic potential for the IKAN Bowler to revolutionize the sport of bowling on a worldwide basis, Pizzurro said.
“All these people think that because they are in a wheelchair that they can’t play, well, hey, they can get back in the game,” he said.
Plus, anyone who has become disabled, or is looking for a competitive outlet, now has a new opportunity to compete in a physical sport, just as he has.
“Thanks to the IKAN, I can get back to the things I once did when I was an able-bodied person,” Pizzurro said.
In addition to being paid for occasional public appearances on behalf of the foundation, Pizzurro was given his own bowler so he could introduce it to his friends.
Photos of him are prominently displayed on the sports foundation’s Web site (www.ikansportsfoundation.org) and on some of its printed materials.
Frazier said the foundation will look to Pizzurro in the future when it introduces equipment tailored to enable people with severe physical disabilities to play sports such as boccia, lawn bowling and croquet.
Meantime, Pizzurro has a message for those who might have thought their sporting days were over, or would never come:
“Hey, wake up! This is a sport that you can actually play!”