Disability

Superleg

Amputee soccer player, Powerade spokesmodel, and mountain climber, it's as a teacher that Nico Calabria thinks he can really make his mark.

It was the greatest goal of his life.

Sailing into the box from the left corner of the field, the box flew over the heads of a series of defenders. Nico Calabria, a high school senior at the time, readied himself. He had shaken off his defender, carving out some space in the crowded penalty area. Launching himself into the air, he acrobatically connected with the ball, sending a powerful shot off his left boot into the back of the net.

The goal, scored in the fall of 2012, was instrumental in giving Massachusetts’ Concord-Carlisle High School Varsity Soccer Team the win over a fierce rival. Calabria’s technique would not have looked out of place in the English Premier League, the best soccer league in the world. In fact, a clip of the goal would be loaded up to YouTube, where it would become an overnight sensation, eventually garnering over 1.8 million views.

It would be a special moment for any player. The thing is, Calabria scored the goal on crutches. He’s only got one leg: his left one. Born with a congenital limb deficiency, he’s missing his right leg and the right side of his hip, for reasons even his doctors don’t fully understand But only having one leg hasn’t stopped Calabria from competing in sports. He’s scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, starred in a PowerAde commercial, and competed in soccer internationally.

Calabria kicks. Photo: Carl Calabria

Calabria, 22, currently attends Colorado College where he’s an education major. This summer he captained the United States Amputee national soccer team (the team lost a tournament to Haiti’s national amputee team at the end of July). And thanks to his parents, Carl and Jeanine, he’s never let a silly thing like a leg get in his way.

“The mentality that they raised me with from day one was: we need to treat Nico as if he’s a regular kid,” Calabria says. “I think that mentality is very much just who I am. I’m driven, confident and willing to fail. My life would just suck if I didn’t have that mentality.”

“The mentality my parents raised me with from day one was: we need to treat Nico as if he’s a regular kid.My life would just suck if I didn’t have that mentality.”

Calabria played varsity high school soccer on crutches with able-bodied players. The crutches didn’t allow him to dribble much, but he shot and passed just like everyone else. Although he was always one of the slowest players on the field, he could move surprisingly quick on the crutches. He’s always been passionate about soccer. When he was just three years old, he would kick around the ball, hopping around on his prosthetic leg.

“It’s just a great game,” Calabria said. “It’s the beautiful game, the ultimate sport.”

He also loves soccer for the way it hammers through barriers. For many people, interacting with a person with a disability can be initially awkward. Calabria’s found athletic activities to be a way to blast away that awkwardness like a blow torch.

“When I played an away game and the other team saw me for the first time get off the bus, they’re just like ‘what’s going on?’ and, ‘let’s make sure no one hurts him,’” Calabria says. “But right when the whistle blows and I get the ball and they realize I have game, they realize we’re on an equal playing field.”

Calabria refuses to let his peers outdo him. Photo: Carl Calabria

Calabria lives a full life off the field, as well. He likes to DJ and takes jazz piano lessons. He also plays volleyball, dives, and has taught gymnastics.

The outdoors are one of his passions, and he tries to escape outside at any opportunity he gets. What he likes most is hiking and camping with friends in the Rocky Mountains.

“It (camping) gives you a chance to talk with friends about things that matter to you instead of going to a large house party where talk can be superficial. Being outdoors just feels a lot more authentic to me.”

“When the whistle blows and I get the ball and they realize I have game, they realize we’re on an equal playing field.”

He’s seen patterns emerge in social interactions. “Some people will just get it right in the open, saying ‘what happened to your leg?’” he said.  But he has friends he’s known for years who have never mentioned it.

He doesn’t like people treating him any different than an able-bodied person. “It’s pretty frustrating,” Calabria said. “People have a tendency to give me too much space. I understand it comes from a place of compassion, but I’m not asking for it.”

At Colorado College, he’s an education major. His immediate goal it to teach high school social studies. His long term goal is to work on educational policy.

“Education is a noble profession,” Calabria said. “It makes me proud to say ‘I’m going to be a teacher.’”

Nico on the field. Photo: Carl Calabria

The PowerAde commercial, which hit TV screens in April 2014, was part of an advertising campaign the sports drink company launched in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup, featuring people who’ve overcome adversity to play soccer. The commercial shows snippets of home videos of Calabria from when he was learning to walk, to standing using a prosthetic leg, to running down the field using crutches (he jettisoned the prosthetic leg to help him move easier).

It also shows his grit. When a voice off camera asks him how he’s going to spend the day, a very young Calabria simply responds, “uh, play.” After he’s knocked over as he tussles for the ball in a soccer game, he pops right back up and keeps playing, never complaining to the referee or looking toward any parents standing on the sideline.

Although Calabria’s fast on crutches, he’s always been the slowest player when playing with two-legged people. His strengths are his passing skills and his awareness and vision on the field to distribute the ball.

“Education is a noble profession… It makes me proud to say ‘I’m going to be a teacher.’”

And that’s precisely what he does as a midfielder for the U.S. Amputee National Soccer Team. He joined the team three years ago and is now its captain.

Amputee soccer is played on a smaller field than soccer for able-bodied players. The teams field seven players, instead of the 11 that are fielded in able-bodied soccer. Goalkeepers must have only one functioning arm, and all other players must have only one functioning leg. There is no offsides rule, and using a crutch as a weapon leads to an automatic ejection.

The pace of amputee soccer is slower than a game with able-bodied players. But the games have more action. There are a lot more shots on goals. The players quickly advance the ball up the field, rather than try intricate short-passing movements. The play is also surprisingly physical. Players are not afraid to clatter into each other as they challenge for the ball.

When he’s not playing sports, Nico aims to inspire an entire new generation of kids as a teacher. Photo: Carl Calabria

“There are half as many legs on the field, so yeah, it goes slower,” Nico said.

The first Amputee World Cup was held in 1984. The tournament has been held every two years since 2010. England is the current champion. Russia, Angola, Poland, and Turkey also field strong sides.  Although the U.S. isn’t yet a favorite to win the tournament, the team has made rapid progress in the last few years. It advanced out of the opening stage for the first time in 2014 at the World Cup, held in Culiacan, Mexico.

“It was a big step,” Calabria said, “we started to be seen as a threat, where we were never contenders before.”

In most countries, the options for people with a missing limb are much more limited, Calabria explained, so a lot more people are funneled into amputee soccer. The plethora of sports options in the U.S. actually winds up putting the U.S. team at a disadvantage competitively.

Calabria wants to see the U.S. amputee soccer team grow and compete for the gold medal. One of his goals in the years to come it to set up a network of regional amputee soccer teams within the country. The teams would compete against each other. This, he thinks, would help foster amputee soccer in the U.S., and the competition would produce better players.

Perhaps most of all, he wants to develop a public speaking career on top of teaching. His message is that people need to live their lives to the fullest, despite whatever challenges they face.

“People often times blow challenges out of proportion and box themselves into a space where they think everything is against them,” he said. “Not to say that other people’s challenges aren’t significant or even harder than mine, but I hope people stop feeling like they’re the victim of life. You make yourself the victim.”

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