Paralympic Team Concludes Championship Training Camp
CHULA VISTA, Calif. (Aug. 21, 2009) – The U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team concluded resident training camp this month at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., in preparation for the Cerebral Palsy International Sports & Recreation Association (CPISRA) International Football 7-a-side Championships to be held Oct. 20 through Nov. 1, 2009, in Arnhem, Netherlands. The team has been representing the U.S. on the soccer field for 25 years, and has participated in the Paralympics in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, before missing out on the Beijing games in 2008. They are now focused on getting back to the Paralympics in London 2012 and the tournament in Holland is an important step toward that goal.
The team is led by head coach Jay Hoffman, whose credentials include being the former head coach of the Boston Breakers of the now defunct WUSA, and an assistant coach for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team.
Since taking the helm in 2003, Hoffman and his staff have remained busy. All of the technical and tactical instruction, team promotion, player scouting and recruitment duties are covered by a three-person staff: Hoffman, assistant coach Mike Haas, and team manager Dana Schoenwetter. All three have full-time jobs which they juggle on top of their Paralympic team commitments.
“It has been all of that and more and will continue to be so until we can compete in the medal rounds on a consistent basis,” said Hoffman. “We are always seeking ways to increase the awareness of the program, to anyone who will listen, which will hopefully result in the identification of more players and the development of an infrastructure that will serve us well into the future.”
Although the team is mostly unknown, there are a few recognizable names. Have you heard of basketball phenom Tyler Hansbrough? Tyler’s older brother Greg participated in a recent training camp. How about comedian Josh Blue? He was the Season 4 winner of NBC's “Last Comic Standing” and has earned over 20 international caps with the team.
Blue joined in 2003. “There was a girl on the paralympic swim team and she saw me playing soccer,” said Josh. “She said, ‘you know there’s a team for you right? You’re really good!’ So I emailed her contact and wrote ‘I’m Josh Blue, I’m 22, and I’m a damn good soccer player.’ The guy wrote back ‘That's great Josh, we’re always looking for damn good soccer players!’ I’ve been a member ever since.”
But there are other players, lesser-known, whose stories are equally compelling. Like Joe Chavez, a student at Chula Vista’s Southwestern Community College, who became the youngest on-campus club president, for students with disabilities, and represented his group in front of the California State Senate a few months ago. Jason Slemons, a Seattle-based computer specialist with a bachelor’s degree, two masters degrees, and a Ph.D. in mathematics. Josh McKinney, the team’s captain, has scored 50 goals in more than 70 international caps since 1995. Finally, there’s Long Beach’s Marthell Vazquez, who, despite a 10th place U.S. finish at the 2007 CPISRA International Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was named MVP of the tournament.
In addition to Chavez and Vasquez, there are two other southern California locals in the 25-member player pool: Chris Ahrens, a Scripps Ranch Adapted Physical Education (APE) teacher who recently relocated from New York to be closer to the training camps, and Moises Morales, a South Bay student and youth soccer coach who is one of five soccer-playing siblings.
People are surprised to learn this team has been around for over 25 years – which means it was conceived before 80 percent of its players.
In 1984, the same time the U.S. team was emerging on the scene, soccer debuted as a Paralympic sport. The Americans, however, did not first qualify for the event until the 1992 Barcelona Games.
The Paralympic Games itself are widely misunderstood. Often mistaken for the Special Olympics, the athletes struggle to showcase their skills while fighting societal stigmas.
Paralympic soccer differs from the traditional 11-a-side game. The game is played with seven players (six field players and a goalkeeper) in two 30-minute halves on a smaller field. The offside rule has been eliminated and under-arm throw-ins are permitted for participants unable to perform conventional overhead throw-ins.
To be eligible, players must be ambulatory and have a physical challenge from a diagnosis of cerebral palsy (CP) or from having suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Players are classified (classes 5 through 8) according to the severity of their disability and the laws of the game restrict the number of each class allowed on the field at any given time.
“Not only are we looking for the best players, we have to take their classification into consideration as well when we pick a roster,” said Schoenwetter. “However, the larger our player pool grows, the easier that becomes.”
Despite the differences in the game, the players are motivated by the same things: a love of the game, a desire to win, and a chance to represent their country. But, they also have a unique opportunity – a self-imposed directive – to help people understand what the word “disability” means, and what it doesn’t mean.
"Playing on this team has given me opportunities that I dreamed about when I was younger – playing for a national team, and helping kids with similar disabilities." says McKinney. “I can do anything if I work hard at it.”
That sentiment permeates the attitudes of these players. They all insist they are not disabled.
“I can do anything you can do, I just might have to go about doing it differently.” said Ahrens. “I have no regrets about having cerebral palsy because ultimately it has made me a better person.”
Overcoming obstacles only adds to an athlete’s fighting spirit. Chavez underwent numerous corrective surgical procedures to help improve his mobility. He has now played as both forward and goalkeeper.
“I have had multiple knee operations.” said Chavez. “I’ve been able to overcome re-learning how to walk at least five times through physical therapy.”
Playing for the U.S. has also helped Chavez away from the field. “Being on this team has given me hope and faith. I’m able to speak up for myself louder and stronger. I’m very proud of myself for not giving up which has led me to represent the USA.”
With the Paralympic Games every four years, the team is always looking to deepen its player pool.
Although the team welcomes new talent, Blue puts it all into perspective. “Try as hard as you can, unless you’re trying for my position.”
For more information about eligibility and the classification of athletes, visit usparalympics.org.