Health & Fitness

Wheelchairs Of Fire

In a sport played entirely in wheelchairs, the members of the champion U.S. Power Soccer compete on chariots of fire... sometimes literally.

Dispel any illusions you have of wheelchairs gliding sedately around a padded court. Power soccer is fast, skillful, and often dangerous.

But the concussions, collisions and 12-hour training days are simply a means to an end for the 12 U.S. Power Soccer athletes, who head to Kissimmee, Florida next July to defend their number one title against nine other countries at the third Power Soccer World Cup.

They love the thrill, the pace, and the challenge of Power Soccer. They love hearing their friends, families, and fans cheer their names. But there’s a lot more going on with these athletes than “just” being wheelchair jocks.

The U.S. Power Soccer champion team.

The U.S. Power Soccer champion team.

One of those athletes is Michael Archer.

Michael Archer.

Michael Archer.

A ten-year power soccer veteran, Michael has always been a sports fan. A whole room in his Greenwood, Indiana home is turned over to paraphernalia for the Pacers, his favorite team. That and his job with sports brand Lids attest to his sports rabidness… but it was a chance encounter that introduced him to power soccer, the sport which he would one day dominate.

Here’s how it happened. Watching his sister playing travel softball as a teenager, Michael was approached by a stranger: a woman who saw him in his wheelchair and handed him her business card. “She invited me to practice because her son played,” Michael remembers. “I went along, saw the game and I just fell in love with it. I’ve been playing ever since.”

Power soccer couldn’t have come along at a better time. Twenty five-year-old Michael was born with arthrogryposis, a disability which has left his joints fused with contractures, or permanent shortening of the joints. While he has some movement and his neck is unaffected, Michael’s arm and leg joints are stuck in place. He’s had surgeries to reposition his limbs, allowing a degree of maneuverability: his right arm is bent, allowing him to feed himself, while his left arm is straight.

While he’s able to walk, Michael uses a power chair most of the time, and has learned to relish the obstacles he faces each day. He uses a grabber on a stick to pick things up with, and he has also had a service dog. Mostly, he’s just determined to work it out himself.

“Whether it’s dropping stuff and not being able to pick it up, reaching things, being able to lift things – those are my day-to-day challenges. Every day there’s always something new that I have to overcome. That keeps me going, I love a challenge.”

When it comes to power soccer, Michael is about as much of a vet as it comes. Next year will be his third time at the Power Soccer World Cup.

But the US Power Soccer team also has its share of rookies, like Ben Carpenter.

Ben Carpenter.

Ben Carpenter.

A fresh-faced 21 year old currently studying mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida, Carpenter is looking forward to his first Power Soccer World Cup. But playing power soccer, while fulfilling, isn’t Ben’s dream.

In between hitting the court and hitting the books, Ben is an intern at Skyline Attractions, a company which is giving Ben his first major step towards fulfilling his childhood dream of working in the theme park business. Think Disney World or Universal Studios.

“It came from growing up in Florida for so many years and falling in love with theme parks,” Ben says. “I wanted to find a way to be a part of that, and use my abilities to make it a better industry.”

Ben has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a condition that was diagnosed only after his parents spotted a Shriner’s Hospitals bumper sticker near their home in Ocala.

“When you’re supposed to start walking and developing skills, I wasn’t,” he says. “I was still crawling – and crawling in a weird way. My mom and dad went to a couple of different doctors, nobody could diagnose me. They would say I was tall, or just lazy, or developing slowly. They ran out of ideas, until they saw a bumper sticker for Shriner’s in Tampa.”

A trip to Shriner’s provided a diagnosis, and further help. Ben’s family moved to Tampa to be closer to the hospital, and there the family remains, although Ben himself lives on campus at the nearby UCF. 

Power soccer can be surprisingly fast and dangerous. Photo: Escot Goodman

Power soccer can be surprisingly fast and dangerous. Photo: Escot Goodman

But while Ben’s ultimate dream might be to help design and build theme parks, you can tell just looking at him as he spins and wheels that he’s not holding anything back on the power soccer court.

That’s something every member of the US Power Soccer team has in common. Scattered around the country, each player does the bulk of their training with their local regional teams. Every couple of months the team gets together for a three-day meet up consisting of grueling twelve-hour practice sessions.

Unlike its less powerful namesake, Power Soccer is played on an indoor basketball court, with two opposing teams of four athletes playing twenty-minute halves. The ball’s small, 13-inch diameter keeps it nearer to the ground, and there’s a two-on-one foul in place of the offside rule, which is when two players from one team vie for the ball against a single opposing player.

Outside of the training sessions, the US Power Soccer team’s coach sends each player tailored weekly drills, which they turn in like homework at the end of the week.

“You go out, you do the drills  and you do them as long as it takes, as much as it takes for you to get it to a level where you’re satisfied,” Ben says. “It’s a responsibility you have to yourself to make sure you’re training properly.”

“If I can get onto a tennis court or parking lot to practice I try to do that as much as possible, too,” he says. “Even if you’re just dribbling a ball around on a court you can try and think of some new ways to accomplish your tasks. That way when you step out onto the field next time you’re that much more ahead of where you were.”

The sport is fast, requiring skill and physical and mental agility, yet Michael and Ben have experienced resistance to the idea they’re international athletes… as well as to the notion that they are able to live independent lives.

Michael remembers a frustrating experience that’s stuck with him. “Me and my buddy who used to play in my local team were at a restaurant, we were both in chairs, and this lady comes up to us and says ‘I am so happy that you’re out here, God bless you’ and all this stuff. Her perception of us was ‘I can’t believe you’re out here doing this’. I was like ‘why wouldn’t we be doing this?’.”

When Ben Carpenter is on the court, he's a dangerous opponent.

When Ben Carpenter is on the court, he’s a dangerous opponent.

Michael was too polite to point out to the woman that the wheelchair-bound man she was patronizing was actually Power Soccer’s top international player. Instead, he prefers to get on with it. “I just end up proving everybody wrong,” he says.

That patronization is something that Ben notices too, when he talks about being an athlete.

“A lot of people think Power Soccer’s not a real sport,” Ben says. “The first thing that comes to people’s mind is Special Olympics, not even Paralympics. When you come across that the only way to deal with it is just to show them. This is the sport, this is what it looks like. This is what can happen when you play it: we’re not playing in a padded room, if you get hit the wrong way bad things are going to happen.”

And “bad things” do happen in Power Soccer. After all, how many sports can you think of where there’s a risk of immolation?

[B]ad things happen in Power Soccer… how many sports can you think of where there’s a risk of immolation?

“A few years ago, somebody took a hit right in the battery,” Ben remembers. “The battery split open on top of the motors–which were running extremely hot–and they started smoking. The dad pulled the kid out of the chair and rolled it outside, where it caught on fire.”

No less dramatic is the risk of concussion from a ball traveling at speed. “I can kick the ball forty miles an hour,” Michael says. “If the ball’s coming to me and it’s bouncing a bit and I kick it, it could go flying. If it hits someone in the face at forty miles an hour, well, that hurts.”

It’s worth noting if you’ve never seen a Power Soccer game that the kicking isn’t literal. It’s done with guards on the front of a motorized wheelchair. Before the advent of the Strikeforce, which would eventually become the darling steed of Power Soccer players everywhere, athletes adapted their everyday chairs for the sport by fixing guards to the front for kicking the ball. But these chairs were top heavy, and if the ball became stuck between the tires players could tip over.

Power soccer is played with special, motorized wheelchairs. Photo: Escot Goodman

Power soccer is played with special, motorized wheelchairs. Photo: Escot Goodman

Ben’s had two such accidents, each ending in concussion. The first involved a practice session with his dad on a tennis court and resulted in short-term memory loss for eight hours. The second happened during the national championship in Tampa.

“I had the ball on the side of my chair, driving along the side line, and a player from the Atlanta team came up and T-boned me at full speed, wedging the ball under my chair. I flipped right over.”

And the other guy?

“The other player was fine, he didn’t even get a yellow card.”

That’s why the Strikeforce has become the wheelchair to beat in Power Soccer. As well as being fast and responsive, the Strikeforce is safer than many custom-modded wheelchairs: lower to the ground, with protection between the wheels to prevent the ball getting between them. But the chair costs up to $8,000 and players on the US Power Soccer team have to buy them themselves. Nor is that the only fundraising players need to do to remain competitive:  while the U.S. Power Soccer team has a few sponsors, it’s up to teams to to raise the $700,000 sum required to get them through training and to the world cup.

In power soccer, wheelchairs sometimes catch on fire.

In power soccer, wheelchairs sometimes catch on fire. Photo: Escot Goodman

It’s a huge commitment–physical, financial and mental–but Michael lives the advice he’d give others, which is to never give up. It’s a philosophy which has driven him to achieve goals from the extraordinary, like becoming the top player in an international sport, to the beautifully ordinary, like getting married and becoming a father: his wife is about to give birth to their first baby, a boy.

How does he do it? He just does. “If you want to pick something off the floor, figure out a way to do it,” says Michael. “If you want to become a millionaire and get married and have a kid, do it. You can do it. Figure out a way, just never give up. Never get down on yourself and never say that you can’t do something.”

“Being disabled, I used to feel like I wouldn’t accomplish a lot or amount to much but I got out of that phase. I’ve accomplished everything I can in the soccer industry:  I’ve won every single award, I’ve won Most Valued Player of the world – I’ve got a lot of trophies.”

“Now, looking back at myself, it’s just amazing.”

If you’d like to sponsor the U.S. Power Soccer team, you can do so here.