As the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil approach the U.S. Paralympic Team is making sure it’s ready to take the pitch. With the start of competition only days away, the group trained Wednesday at the facilities of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo in order to get back in the swing of things. Since their week-long Los Angeles training camp ended on August 24, the players have had a reprieve from normal preparations.
“The players have been working extremely hard over the past five months,” head coach Stuart Sharp said. “What we decided to do was taper our conditioning and training program as we got to the final stages of our preparation.”
The PNT was given a four-day break to return home and savor final moments with family before departing for South America, but these were by no means complete days off.
“They still had their individual workouts,” Sharp explained. “We did this in order to have the players at their freshest before the first game.”
Following months of intense training, the team makes its way to Rio Thursday once it completes processing in Houston, a special moment for all Olympic and Paralympic athletes. During processing, every Team USA athlete gathers to be outfitted with all the apparel it needs to represent the country abroad. And while it’s certainly a fun experience, it’s a meaningful one as well.
“It’s like Christmas for an athlete who’s put in four years of work to make the team,” veteran U.S. PNT defender Bryce Boarman said. “In some ways, it’s seeing all your hard work pay off.”
Between receiving gobs of Team USA swag and meeting many of the other Paralympians, the experience is a significant mental milestone to the significance of the representing the country on the international stage.
“It’s part of a process that’s bigger than just receiving new equipment,” Sharp added. “We enter purely as U.S. Soccer. We leave as Team USA. You’re no longer there as an insular unit. You’re there as a larger team.”
The U.S. PNT scrimmages at the U.S. Soccer National Training Center in Carson, Calif. in preparation for this summer's Paralympic Games.
With the team headed to Rio and residing at the Paralympic Village (the same site as the Olympic Village), the focus turns to preparing for its first match, a showdown with the Netherlands on Sept. 8. Before match day, the U.S. will hold three training sessions at a local military complex and attend the Opening Ceremony on Sept. 7 at the Maracanã Stadium, one of the main stadiums for the 1950 FIFA World Cup and site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final.
“[We’re] continuing to look at video to ensure that when the whistle goes, we’re ready to step on the field and be fully prepared for what [the Netherlands] will bring to us,” Sharp said.
For Boarman, his experience at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London taught him the importance of mental toughness and limiting distractions once the games begin.
“It’s unlike any competition we go to,” Boarman said. “There’s a lot of distractions. Our goal is to be comfortable with our surroundings. That way, when it comes time to perform, that’s our singular focus.”
The USA kicks off Group A play in this summer’s Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on Sept. 8 against fourth-ranked Netherlands, followed by matches against twelfth-ranked Iran on Sept. 10 and sixth-ranked Argentina on Sept. 12, whom the PNT came back to defeat 4-3 on May 6 in Salou, Spain. Group B contains Brazil, Great Britain, Ireland and Ukraine. The top two teams from each group will advance to the Semifinals on Sept. 14, with the medal matches set to take place on Sept. 16.
As its first match approaches, the PNT is excited for the challenge ahead and know what it wants to accomplish.
“Our goal is to end up on the medal stand,” Boarman said. “This is the first time we’ve been together for an extended period of time, and in the last month or two, something has clicked. The spirits are high, and we look forward to testing ourselves in Rio.”
“We’re going in with the mindset that we can create some upsets,” Sharp said. “It was a fantastic achievement for us to qualify, but we’re not finished. We will continue to work to show everyone what we can do on the biggest stage in the world.”
The U.S PNT is always looking for potential athletes. To qualify for the team, members are required to have at least one of three disabilities: cerebral palsy (CP), stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI). If you’re interested in trying out or learning more, contact Head Coach Stuart Sharp at firstname.lastname@example.org.