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Reprinted from SNS July 2017

Power soccer's biggest championship finally kicks off

After more than five years, Jordan Dickey and Team USA can finally defend their back-to-back Federation Internationale de Powerchair Football Association (FIPFA) World Cup titles.

It only took two years longer than expected. But how sweet it could be, especially since they’ll be playing the World Cup in the United States for the first time in the tournament’s history this month.

“It’s hard to explain hearing the national anthem played for the first time. It just gives you chills,” says Dickey, who played on Team USA in the 2011 FIPFA World Cup in Paris. “Just getting to represent my country at an elite level of competition, the freedom of mind I didn’t really expect to happen when I was a little kid because of my disability. But power soccer has given me this opportunity. It’s just an athlete’s dream.”

Change In Chairs

That dream kicks off July 5 at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Fla.  

Ten countries will compete in the FIPFA World Cup, featuring the two-time defending champion United States with Denmark, Japan, Argentina and Uruguay in Group A. England, Ireland, France, Canada and Australia are in Group B. Pool play runs July 5–7, quarterfinals take place July 8 and the final is set for 3 p.m. EDT July 9.

Team USA defeated England 3-0 in the 2011 championship in Paris and knocked off France 2-1 in sudden death triple overtime in 2007 in Japan. 

There’s one major difference from previous championships, though: Everyone will be using the same power wheelchairs instead of using whatever sports wheelchair the athlete had available. Strike Force introduced the first power soccer wheelchair in 2012. It’s designed with a low center of gravity, a wide wheelbase, a 6.2-miles-per-hour speed limit and a steel frame, increasing wheelchair athletes’ agility and spin kick power. 

Dickey acknowledged with everyone having the same chair, it’s completely changed the sport. Before, power soccer relied on both skill level and how an athlete’s chair performed in action. Athletes could have the same skill level, but they could get outplayed by another person just because one’s chair performed or functioned better. Now, it’s an even playing field. 

“So it’s really a cool experience. The physical ability of a chair is not impeding people’s ability. It’s all about skill now, really. It’s really exciting to see,” says Dickey, a Pendleton, Ind., resident, who was born with distal spinal muscular atrophy. “I’d say anticipation and reading angles really is what can set players apart. The ball moves a lot quicker, so you have to think a lot quicker. So now that everyone has the same equipment, it’s just outsmarting your opponent. The more competition, the more things you see, you get that experience and get a higher on-court IQ. I’d say, in soccer, IQ is really what separates a good player from an elite player.”

Team USA member Natalie Russo agrees. The 28-year-old, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 18 months old, acknowledges the game is much faster with the Strike Force chairs. 


“Now you can just see how quickly athletes are coming up with these decisions and reacting to players, versus having to slow the game down because the chair isn’t acting the way they need it to,” Russo says. “It’s taken it to a whole new level.”

Taken Time

Team USA actually selected its team in 2014, thinking they’d be playing in Rio de Janeiro. But according to World Cup chairperson Karen Russo, the venue wasn’t adequate and that fell through. Then, Houston bid on hosting the event, and that was turned down before a Florida bid was submitted and worked out. 

Karen Russo struggled to find a bus company in Florida and enough buses to handle moving all the athletes’ wheelchairs. Each athlete needs two power chairs, a regular chair and a power soccer chair, to take to the World Cup. That’s 16 power chairs per team and 10 buses needed total.

Teams have over a week in advance to practice, adjust to a new time zone and their hotel rooms and make sure their equipment is in order. 

“To be able to defend at home for the first time is extremely important to us. Most of the time, we’re in venues with our competitors’ fans,” says Karen Russo, who’s also Natalie’s mom. “We’re really excited to showcase it this year in the U.S. and open it up to the estimated 400,000 people who are power chair users in this country who haven’t heard about the sport. There’s such a small portion of people who could be participating.”

Developed in France in the early 1970s, power soccer is the first competitive team sport designed specifically for power wheelchair users, including those with quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, head trauma, stroke, spinal-cord injuries and other disabilities.

It was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1980s. After an international meeting in Paris, FIPFA was created in 2005 and a year later the United States Power Soccer Association began. Currently, there are about 65 teams playing competitively in the U.S. and 27 countries playing wheelchair soccer throughout the world. 

In power soccer, teams are allowed four players on the court, including three forwards and the goalie. Players are grouped into two class levels, PF1 (most severe disabilities) and PF2 (power wheelchair users who have upper-body strength and don’t fatigue as much). There must be at least two PF1 players on the court at all times.  

Tryouts and Training

Making the FIPFA World Cup roster is a strenuous process. Just ask Natalie Russo. 

Twelve athletes are selected to Team USA, but only the top eight are allowed on the final World Cup roster. After her third tryout attempt, she finally reached her goal.  

In 2007, Natalie Russo made the 12-person team that went to Tokyo but was named an alternate and didn’t get to participate in any of the activities. 

Four years later, the Carmel, Ind., resident tried out again but couldn’t crack the top 12. So when 2014 came around, she wasn’t sure about going through the process again.

Former World Cup teammates encouraged her though. So, she decided to risk it, submitted an application and was one of 20 people to be invited to Team USA tryouts. Players participated in a three-day training-camp-style atmosphere, where they performed drills, played plenty of games and completed interviews. Natalie Russo acknowledges it was exhausting, physically and mentally, but well worth it when she found out from U.S. national power soccer team head coach Mike Hayes she made the squad. 

“I’m thankful for my teammates that encouraged me and had seen my growth over the last few years to think that it would not problem for me to make the team this time,” says Natalie Russo, who has played power soccer for the past 13 years and plays on the Circle City Rollers, a club team based on the south side of Indianapolis. “I was definitely elated. I think I cried when he [Hayes] told me when I made the team. I felt pretty good about my performance at tryouts. But you never really know. After going through the last two times where I didn’t get to where I wanted to be, I didn’t want to, like, get my hopes up or anything. I was just trying to stay calm and in the moment and in the end, I think everything has its time and everything happens for a reason. So I’m happy, and I felt so relieved to have finally made the team. It’s just such a great feeling to have that accomplishment.”

They don’t skimp on training either. 

Each week for the past three years, Team USA players have been emailed a set of drills they work on individually. Some focus on aim and shooting, some on passing and some on chair control. Athletes record their success, answer questions about what they learned, what they didn’t do well and what they could improve on that week, and they email their results back to the entire team. 

“It holds you accountable for your own training, so people can see you’re working even though you’re apart,” Natalie Russo says. 

Every two to three months, athletes participate in a group training camp. They’ve headed to states where team members live, including Arizona, Minnesota, Florida and Indiana, for practices and to work on team-building and chemistry. 

Dickey and Natalie Russo share one bond. They both play the wing position. 

Originally, Dickey, 24, didn’t even want to try the sport. But his mother, Peggy, pushed the then-9-year-old into it. After the first time he rolled onto the court, Dickey changed his mind. Besides being on Team USA, Dickey plays for the RHI Sudden Impact, a club team based in central Indiana.

Sticking with power soccer changed his mindset, gave him a competition outlet and helped him gain his independence. He graduated from Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., in 2015, where he majored in sports business and now is working on his master’s degree in business administration at the University of Indianapolis. 

“Before I found the sport, I didn’t really know if I could go to college, drive a car or get a job, you know?” says Dickey, whose 26-year-old sister, Katie, is an alternate on the team. “But as a young player, I saw all these older athletes doing all these things having a family, going to college, get a job. I realized that I could do that, too. And now that I’m in position to be a role model for others, I really relish that opportunity.”

For more information, including schedules and broadcast time, visit powersoccerteamusa.net

 

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