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arthrogryposis

Power soccer helps remove limits for disabled youth



Power soccer helps remove limits for disabled youth
JOE MECHTENBERG

St. Cloud Times


WAITE PARK, Minn. - Riley Johnson moves constantly.

After sitting at the dinner table for a couple of minutes, the 8-year-old pops out of his chair and begins to pace around the Johnsons' kitchen.

In many ways, the Discovery Elementary School third-grader is as active as any of the neighborhood kids who live nearby in Waite Park.

But when he goes out to play, he relies on a power wheelchair.

Riley was born with arthrogryposis, a disability that reduces the movement of his joints and limits the use of his arms and legs.

It also limited his opportunities to play competitive sports - until Power Soccer arrived in Minnesota.

"It gives Riley the opportunity to stay athletic-minded," said Kim Johnson, Riley's mother.

She is the Power Soccer coordinator for Roll With It, a St. Cloud nonprofit organization that organizes wheelchair athletics.

"It's a great opportunity for anyone in power chairs who wants to keep active," she said.

Roll With It already offers wheelchair basketball and is hoping to add wheelchair softball.

The program also has bought the necessary equipment for Power Soccer - but, as Johnson explains, one last element is needed for the sport to take off in Central Minnesota.

"Now we just need the people to join," Johnson said.

The fast-paced game brings together boys and girls of any age and with various disabilities to play an altered version of soccer.

The sport matches two four-person teams in a 40-minute game played on a regulation basketball court.

The object of the game is to move an oversized soccer ball - almost three times the size of a regulation ball - into the other team's goal.

Unlike most sports for people with disabilities, Power Soccer is specialized for power wheelchair users. That includes people with quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, head trauma, stroke and other disabilities.

The Johnsons first heard about the game through Courage Center, a group of Minnesota medical rehabilitation facilities.

In January, Riley, Kim and Riley's father, Rob Johnson, went to the Duluth Courage Center to get a taste of the game. Although they only watched practices, the family immediately connected with the experience.

"I thought 'This is it. This is something (Riley) can play without someone having to assist him,'" Rob Johnson said. "The sport gives him independence."

The trip to Duluth sparked the Johnsons' interest enough to lead them to Indianapolis, the site of the 2005 Power Soccer World Invitational. With some idea of what the game entailed, the Johnsons and J.R. Mamea, sports coordinator at the Courage Center in Golden Valley, wanted to get a better grasp of what Power Soccer was all about at the top level.

They were struck by the intensity of the game. A few teams used headsets to communicate among players. Others rigged wheelchairs to travel at high speeds.

"One father altered his son's chair so it was going around 15 or 16 miles per hour," Mamea said. "Golf carts don't go that fast. He was flying around the court."

When action on the court stopped, the scene on the sideline resembled a NASCAR pit stop. Some competitors cooled off their power wheelchair motors by spraying liquid freon on them.

The Johnsons also witnessed the social aspects of the sport firsthand.

The San Jose Steamrollers, one of the teams competing in the event, took Riley in as an honorary player. He never got on the court, but the team's actions did plenty to make him feel involved.

"Riley was full of smiles that whole day," Kim Johnson said. "It was quite emotional because we just went to watch. We didn't think that would happen. But that is what Power Soccer is all about. The game is truly inclusive."

A few weeks later, Riley's turn to play arrived when Mamea organized a team in Golden Valley.

It was official: Riley and the Johnsons were hooked.

While the sport is relatively new to Minnesota, Power Soccer has existed since 1982.

Invented by a group of athletes in Vancouver, it spread in the 1980s to the United States and has grown in popularity in California, Florida and along the East Coast.

The game adapted the concept of soccer to the basketball court. The principles of the game have stayed about the same for 23 years.

Power wheelchair users attach foot guards, made of metal or plastic, to protect the wheelchair and allow for control of the ball.

The four players on the team - a goalie, two defenders and an attacker - try to work the ball through the 25-foot-wide goal.

Unlike other wheelchair sports, there are strict no-contact rules. Like any sport, there is plenty of strategy.

"Just like soccer, the game is about attacking and keeping defense in mind," Mamea said. "Most good teams that win tournaments are defense-minded." The sport also requires a lot of team continuity. Players have a range of experience and ability.

"Last year was a little helter-skelter," said Charlie Wittwer, assistant sports coordinator at the Duluth Courage Center and one of the volunteers at the Duluth Power Soccer League.

"The kids had not been able to play competitive sports before Power Soccer. In the second year, they have grown and they realize the team concept."

One of the additional challenges of Power Soccer is the lack of awareness about the sport.

Mamea insists the game will catch on once it's known around the state.

"The impact is huge. You give kids the opportunity that they have always wanted. We have opened the door for these kids where they now know what it is like to be a team leader," Mamea said.

Part of the problem for the Johnsons is location. The family makes the hourlong drive every Sunday to Golden Valley to take Riley to his team's practices.

It's not an ideal situation, but he seems be fitting in well with his team and the sport in general, though it's not his true passion. "My favorite sport is hockey, because I like to check," Riley Johnson said.

So, what does he like about Power Soccer?

"I like to score goals," he said.

And while the Johnsons work on starting a team in the St. Cloud area, Riley will hit the road with his teammates.


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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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