Stars & Stripes Grab World Cup in Overtime

Team USA defeats France for power soccer world championship

Photos by Robin Chinn and Tressie Ritter
by Bill Norman on January 1, 2008 - 2:55pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 1

What a magnificent tribute to the gutsiness of eight incredible athletes!

On Oct. 14, after days of intense competition, Team USA emerged victorious in the Power Soccer World Cup in Tokyo.

On their way to the top they beat world-class power soccer teams from Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Japan and Portugal. Their final win came in a sudden-death overtime match against France, which had never before been beaten in international competition.

Victory was sweet, and well deserved, for the team members who hail from local and regional power soccer teams from across the U.S. They had practiced and scrimmaged endlessly for months on end, ultimately assembling a finely tuned machine.

Sixteen players at a time duked it out in a maelstrom of power wheelchairs for two days.
Sixteen players at a time duked it out in a maelstrom of power wheelchairs for two days.

Power soccer is played on a basketball court with a 13-inch ball slammed around by people piloting high-speed metal chairs that can weigh 300 pounds or more. Principles of defense and offense are the same as in standard soccer, although players “kick” the ball with modified foot guards on their chairs and block shots by interposing the chair (or themselves) in the ball’s path.

Did it matter that half of Team USA’s players are in their mid-to-late teens, but they were taking on teams composed largely of experienced adults, often with wheelchairs specifically built for power soccer? Not even.

Here’s what some of them had to say about their triumph in Japan. (Seven of the eight team members have neuromuscular diseases, and six are registered with MDA.)

Jerry Book, 18, from San Jose, Calif., has spinal muscular atrophy. He’s been playing power soccer for 12 years, and is now working to create a new power soccer team in San Jose. During World Cup play, he scored four goals. At the final moment of victory for the U.S. team, he says he was stunned for a moment, almost unable to grasp what had happened. “Just being there and competing was important to me,” he says. “Winning? That was the ultimate.”

There was no question who emerged as world champs in power soccer play.
There was no question who emerged as world champs in power soccer play.

Jessica Lehman, at age 30 the self-described “big sister” of the team, is a community organizer for people with disabilities in the San Francisco Bay area. She also has spinal muscular atrophy. Lehman scored six goals for the team, but she says the final moments of play were almost surreal.

“I was on the sidelines with the team, holding hands so tightly I thought we were going to lose circulation,” she says. “When the French player missed the goal, the whole arena froze. We just stared at each other and asked, ‘Did we just win the World Cup?’”

Elio Navarro, 27, of Tampa, Fla., has spinal muscular atrophy. Prior to the final two days of play, Navarro purchased a Nike T-shirt emblazoned with the trademark swoosh and Japanese characters he assumed spelled out the familiar “Just Do It” slogan. That matched his mindset nicely.

Later he discovered that the Japanese characters translated as “tennis,” but by that time he and his teammates were well on the way to power soccer stardom.

Navarro, a member of MDA’s National Task Force on Public Awareness, was in the thick of scoring activity during the championship, but he acknowledges that the outcome of the competition seemed dicey at times.

Team USA players and coaches confer prior to a match.
Team USA players and coaches confer prior to a match.
Japan was only one of six other teams the United States players had to beat.
Japan was only one of six other teams the United States players had to beat.

“It’s like most other sports,” he says. “The biggest challenge is yourself … the little elements of doubt in your brain. I went through that every day — forcing myself to overcome my doubts. Plus, in Japan we had to contend with more distractions than we’d ever encountered before. We were in a foreign country, foreign culture, foreign customs. The Japanese were frenzied in their support of their home team. Some days we had 20, 30 media people and cameras crowding the sidelines. The noise was deafening.”

Sixteen-year-old Danny Gorman of Safety Harbor, Fla., kicked the final Team USA goal in sudden-death overtime. The French team missed its next goal attempt thanks to a deflection by the Team USA goalie, putting the U.S. on top. Gorman is a high school junior with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. His dad, Don Gorman, coaches his Tampa Thunder power soccer team.

“My dad and I had practiced that shot a thousand times. I think I could make it with my eyes closed,” he says. “When it came time to make my kick, the whole building got totally quiet. I wasn’t thinking about the audience, or missing the shot. All I was thinking about was staying totally focused. The shot was perfect. It was just, like, one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

JC Russo is nicknamed Spider Pig after a gravity-defying character in “The Simpsons” animated TV series. He’s 17 years old, a high school senior in his hometown of Carmel, Ind., and has spinal muscular atrophy.

“The French were tough. They dominated the first half of the last game,” he recalls. “Then in the second half, we had a set play worked out, and we scored. That put us on a run to the finish.”

Coach Chris Finn beams with Team USA's trophies.
Coach Chris Finn beams with Team USA’s trophies.

Modestly, he only casually mentions that he was the one who deflected the last French goal attempt. “Spider Pig” also scored one goal, an impressive feat since he plays the position of goalie.

Brothers Omar and Jairo Solario, ages 22 and 18, both have spinal muscular atrophy. They hail from Hollister, Calif., where they’ve enrolled, respectively, for business school and college next semester.

The brothers agree that their single biggest uncertainty in Japan was not knowing whether their team’s strategies would pay off against opponents’ unknown game plans. Competition was fierce, Omar says, but at day’s end, everyone shook hands and shared camaraderie.

When the final moment of victory flashed into reality, Team USA members raced onto the court and began banging their footrests together in a wild and tumultuous “high five” salute to their win. Family members, coaches and support crew joined them for the joyous pandemonium, and Americans around the world had a great new reason to be proud.

To view video footage of World Cup play, visit www.xable.com.

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