There is a rapidly growing adaptive sport that is changing the way people think of those using a power chair. That sport is power soccer. “It is not only changing the perception others have, but also how participants think of themselves,” said Jonathan Newman, the Adult Sports Coordinator at Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) in Berkeley, California, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “They are athletes.”
Tony Jackson has used a power chair all his life. “I thought I would be a scorekeeper or a referee, but never an athlete,” he said. But in 2009, he found a power soccer team in Arizona and he has been playing the sport ever since. Now, he plays for the NEP Wildcats, a national competitive team based at Northeast Passage, a Disabled Sports USA chapter in New Hampshire. Jackson also serves as the Power Soccer Coordinator at the organization and finds time to coach as well as serve as a play-by-play commentator. “When I had my first experience with contact, it made me feel like an athlete for the first time,” Jackson said. “I grew up watching my brother play team sports, so being part of a team was huge for me.”
The sport has also benefitted Jackson in other ways. “I have been able to travel the country and the world as a result of power soccer,” he said. In addition, like any sport, it provides a physical element too. Once the adrenaline gets going, the heart rate goes up and some cardio kicks in. “There is a level of exertion,” Jackson said. “After a game, my mind is tired and my body is sore.”
Gabe Trujillo describes power soccer as a mash up of traditional soccer and demolition derby. He was an avid sports fan as a kid but, at the age of 14, he found himself in the intensive care unit at the hospital after developing a cold and pneumonia. He would end up spending eight months in the hospital with paralysis. Two years later, he was diagnosed with Hopkins Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. Trujillo, now 24 and paralyzed from the neck down, didn’t think he would be an athlete again. “Since I was in a wheelchair, I thought I was done with sports.”
Power soccer allows him to tap into his competitive spirit. He plays for the Phoenix Heat, hosted by Arizona Disabled Sports, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. His team is one of approximately 60 teams organized through the United States Power Soccer Association (USPSA). Through this affiliation, he enjoys being a part of a unique community and the camaraderie that comes with it. “Getting to know other people like you and meeting other people with disabilities on and off the court is a nice benefit,” he said. “Playing the sport also went a long way in allowing me to develop my ability and confidence.”
Sarah Schwegel, a graduate student at St. Louis University, has been playing power soccer for about ten years. Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as an infant, she has been using an electric wheelchair since the age of two. “I love having that feeling of being able to play a competitive sport,” she said. She plays for the DASA Rush, a competitive team through Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA), a chapter of Disabled Sports USA located in Missouri.
PLAYING THE GAME
The game is typically played on a standard basketball court with two 20-minute periods. There are eight players on the court at a time, four on each team. A team consists of a goalie, a center, a strongside wing, and a weakside wing. The center controls the flow of the game, both offensively and defensively, as well as handles the ball distribution. The strongside wing works in tandem with the center to move the ball up the court while the weakside wing occupies the lane where the other two players are not located to ensure coverage. In most cases, players specialize in one of the positions.
HAVING THE RIGHT STUFF
Since anyone that uses an electric chair can play power soccer, Trujillo suggests that you don’t need much when you first jump into the sport. “Most teams (or DSUSA chapters) have access to loaner equipment,” he said.
Although you can use your own wheelchair, it is not recommended if that is your only means of mobility so most players acquire a secondary chair to play. The primary requirement is there must be a foot guard for the chair.
The level of play has improved with the advent of a specialized chair, the Strike Force Power Wheelchair, which is faster and more dynamic. “It has leveled the playing field in the game in terms of equipment. The focus is now on the athlete,” Jackson said.
The chair also provides a faster pace for the athlete as well as the spectator. “It is more fan friendly and it allows us to pass the ball more effectively,” Trujillo said. In the past, there have been safety concerns such as chairs flipping over, but the new chair has safeguards in place to prevent that. Trujillo also suggests helmets, rollbars, or other safety equipment is available to those who want it.
Although the power chair is an expensive purchase, some athletes have set up crowdsourcing pages to help fundraise.
PLAYING FOR FUN OR FOR COMPETITION
At some point, each player must make a decision whether to play recreationally or competitively. At BORP, DASA, NEP, and locations across the country, there are recreational teams and competitive teams to choose from, depending on an individual’s preference, ability level, and commitment. At USPSA and at local venues, it is important to gather individuals at similar skill levels to have an equal chance to compete.
Trujillo suggests if you are new to the sport you should start off with a recreational team. Then, if you desire, you can take it to the next level.
Power soccer is currently not recognized as a Paralympic sport, but BORP’s Newman points out that the USPSA is hoping it can be recognized in time for the 2024 games. “There have been three World Cups in the sport’s history, in 2007, 2011, and 2017. The U.S. won the first two and France won the last one,” he said.
FIND A PROGRAM
Nearly 20 DSUSA chapters offer power soccer programs. To find a program near you, click here.
You can also check out USPSA’s website for a full list of recreational and competitive teams and contact the team coach in your area. If there is not one in your community, consider starting one. USPSA can come in and help with introductory clinics and provide other resources. Either way, Trujillo recommends you “give it a try!”
NOTE: All photos copyright Scot Goodman.