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Health & Fitness

The Aztec Warriors of Amputee Soccer

This up-and-coming team of soccer superstars is showing that you can still bend it like Beckham when you're disabled.

Julian Luna still remembers the day a neighbor told him about an amputee soccer team in Mexico City called the Guerreros Aztecas and asked him if he´d be interested in coming to practice.

Luna, who lost his leg due to a soccer-related injury in his home country of Colombia, had a somewhat predictable answer.

“It was eternal waiting for the day that I could go back to playing,” says Luna, who is now a forward for Guerreros Aztecas, a soccer team that forms part of the Amputee Football Association of Mexico.

Amputee soccer was first played competitively in the U.S. in the 1980s and later adopted by countries around the world, including Mexico.

Team photo of the Guerreros Aztecas.

The rules, which closely resemble those of the standard game, have a few key differences: Outfielders can have two hands but only one foot, while goalies can have two legs but only one hand. According to the World Amputee Football Federation, metal crutches are also not allowed to be used to advance or direct the ball.

The rules dictate play around the world, and n the Mexico league, which is comprised of roughly 200 players and 13 teams— including the Guerreros Aztecas.

Omar Espinosa saw a local newscast about the team after it was founded in 2013 and wanted to help. Espinosa and his brother, Carlos, eventually found themselves volunteering as the goalkeeper and midfield coaches, and have since recruited players and designed drills for the team by watching videos on YouTube. One of the key things they train new players to do is gain the confidence to sprint across a field on their crutches. 

“It´s about overcoming your fear,” Espinosa explains.

Thanks largely to efforts like theirs, there are now 17 players on the team up from six only four years ago. And the Aztecas are getting better. When the team played their first match against a northern Mexico-based team known as Tigres, they lost in a 10-0 blowout. This season, the Guerreros Aztecas finished third in final standings, losing just 2-0 to the Tigres in the semifinal match.

“We want to be champions,” says Espinosa.

“We want to be champions.”

The team’s standings have put it in a strong position for the Amputee Football World Cup qualification round in March, when up to four players from each Mexican team will be chosen to form the national selection that competes in Jalisco, Mexico in August 2018.

An estimated 28 teams from around the world are expected to participate in the tournament, up from about 20 when the last World Cup was held in 2014.

At a recent practice, the Guerreros Aztecas prepared for the qualification round with aerobics, drills, and a 12-man scrimmage. Dressed in multi-colored jerseys, they fanned across the field, raising themselves up0n their crutches before flinging themselves counter-gravitationally into the air to kick the ball.

One player received a pass with his chest and stumbled backward from the ball’s force. Then, he found his balance and continued running on the pitch.

Victor Hugo, a defensive player who was one of the two Guerrero Azteca players chosen to be part of Mexico´s World Cup team in 2014, gulped down water in between a play.

“Coming here after an amputation is like being able to live again,” he says, wearing a pink jersey with a large number “2” on the back.

The players on Guerreros Aztecas all have their own stories. One player known as Toro had an amputation after he was thrown off a bull and was gored by its horn. Then there’s Rey David Angeles, the goalie, who liked to give his cat leftovers from his uncle’s butcher shop and had his arm amputated after it got caught in the meat slicer.

But what ultimately unites them all isn’t the fact that they are missing limbs. It’s their love of the game.

“I like soccer. I like to watch it, play it. It’s not just my passion, it calms me,” says Hugo, who earns his living by performing soccer tricks at traffic intersections in Mexico City during the day.

“A lot of people who join the team say, ‘I played for years, but even though this happened to me, I want to keep playing,” says Espinosa.

The Guerreros’ biggest difficulties, Espinosa explains, are those common to many sports teams: gathering finances and finding fields.

The rules of amputee soccer say that you can’t use your crutches to hit the ball.

For now, local congressman Raul Flores has helped sponsor the team, while others have loaned it fields to practice on and even donated uniforms..

As for Espinosa, the Guerreros Aztecas are a passion project for him. 

“Finding this team has been a lesson about life,” he said. “Disability is all in your mind.” 

Health & Fitness

That One-Leg Monster

How K.C. Mitchell, a combat-wounded Army veteran, became the strongest amputee powerlifter in the world.

Powerlifting is a strength sport consisting of three different lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. But being a successful powerlifter takes a lot more than just being physically strong enough to lift a loaded bar off the ground or push it away from your chest. It takes dedication and commitment. It takes hours of hard work and planning, both inside and outside of the gym. And it takes the willingness to move past your comfort zone.

Nobody knows this better than K.C. Mitchell. With a 611-lb. deadlift, 441-lb. bench press and 505-lb. Squat, the Army veteran–known colloquially in the powerlifting community as “that one-leg monster”–rocks some pretty impressive numbers already, but he has his sights set higher.

His goal is to be the strongest amputee of all time. He points out that he may well be that now.

K.C. Mitchell is capable of  a 611-lb. deadlift.

Mitchell’s goal is to be the strongest amputee of all time. He points out that he may well be that now.

Mitchell had planned to join the military in junior high, but stuck around after high school for a while to work at a dairy farm and spend time with his then-girlfriend.After about six or seven months of this, he was ready to move on. “The [Iraq] war was going on, and it was just time,” he explained. The career station recommended the infantry, and offered to pay him extra to jump out of planes. He agreed. Then they asked him when he wanted to leave. He said, “Actually, just as soon as I can go.”

A week and a half later, Mitchell went to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training, followed by Airborne School at Fort Bragg. He deployed to Baghdad, Iraq in 2005/2006. Then he was promoted to Sergeant, re-enlisted, and moved to Fort Lewis, Washington. He was there for about three years, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009/2010. Before leaving, Mitchell got engaged, and learned that his wife was expecting a baby. While he was deployed, In February, Mitchell was able to get a short leave to visit his daughter, Skyree, before he had to get back to Afghanistan to finish out his tour.

Mitchell was wounded in the Kandahar province in April 2010 at the end of his tour when an improvised explosive device blew up under his Humvee while he was on night patrol, severely injuring his left leg. “I woke up after I got blown up, so I knew immediately what had happened,” Mitchell says, “but I didn’t know how severe my injuries were until probably about a month after I got injured.”

Mitchell attempting a squat. His record is 511 pounds.

His injuries included second and third-degree burns, shrapnel wounds, a broken right forearm, a lower back fracture, and injuries to both his right and left leg. He was in ICU in a sedated coma for about a month before moving into a different ward, and doesn’t remember anything about that month. He was bedridden for four months and was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland for almost a year.

About seven months after Mitchell was wounded, he decided to have his leg amputated below the knee. “It was really painful, there just wasn’t a very good outlook on my future with it, and more than likely I would’ve had to amputate it anyway when I got older. Me being younger, I could recover a little bit better, so I figured that would probably be the best thing to do rather than to sit there and deal with the pain and everything else,” he explained. After transferring out of Walter Reed, Mitchell transferred to the Balboa Navy Medical Center in San Diego, where he’d go through two more years of rehab trying to fix his right leg.

What kept him going while in recovery was some of what he saw around him at Walter Reed. “I saw a lot of guys that were missing all four limbs. The only way they could move was people moving them from one bed to another, or from the bed to the wheelchair. That’s how they got around. In my head, I realized, it could always be worse.  That’s how I’ve always been. It could be worse than what it is now.”

“I saw a lot of guys that were missing all four limbs… In my head, I realized, it could always be worse.”

That’s not to say that Mitchell walked straight from the hospital into the powerlifting gym. He instead struggled with depression and found himself reliant on the narcotics his doctor had given him. “Luckily, I had a reckoning that kind of sparked me out of that whole little funk,” he explains. He went to Disneyworld with his wife and daughter to celebrate her third birthday, but found himself stopping after walking less than a block to take some pills. He realized that he wasn’t even able to walk around with her and enjoy it. “That was my whole turning point, realizing that I wanted to basically become better and get better for her.”

Doctors often recommend against quitting narcotics cold turkey, but that’s what Mitchell felt he had to do. He went home and threw out all of the pills in his cabinet, withdrawal symptoms be damned. He also swore off drinking that day. Soon thereafter, he started working out at a 24-Hour Fitness near his home.

Mitchell credits powerlifting for restoring his health and his confidence after losing his leg.

At first, he felt really insecure going into the gym. Although he’s 6’ tall, he only weighed around 170 lbs., and he wore sweatpants because wasn’t confident with his leg and didn’t want people staring at him. But as he continued to train, he started feeling better, and soon he noticed that he was moving around better, too. He began to regain his energy. He noticed he was starting to get a lot stronger, too—and his confidence came with it. And he feels more comfortable with his prosthetic leg as well. “I just rock it. No need to put a fake one on to make it look real. It is what it is.”

“I just rock it. No need to put a fake one on to make it look real. It is what it is.”

After a year of working out at the box gym, he went to a powerlifting competition in Las Vegas to see some of his friends compete. After watching it for the first time, he knew that was what he had to do. So he switched to a powerlifting gym and started training. Now, after two and a half years of training, he’s 240 pounds of muscle.

Despite his prosthesis and injuries to his other leg, Mitchell doesn’t compete in the Paralympics, or in single-lift bench press competitions where other athletes with missing limbs compete. “I can do what able-bodied athletes can do, so there’s no point in competing against disabled athletes. I can challenge myself more when I compete against able-bodied athletes,” he says. And though his range of motion and mobility cause his form to look a little different than other athletes, he’s definitely giving them a run for their money.

You can follow K.C. Mitchell on Twitter and Instagram.

The Good Fight

Giving Mexico New Wheels and Limbs

In Arizona, a group of paraplegics and amputees work to provide affordable wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs to those south of the border.

It’s a sad but true fact that incidents of disability and chronic illness are higher amongst those who can least afford to not be healthy. This is as true in Mexico as it is in the United States, where as many as 2% of the population – or over 2 million people – live with a disability, most of them well below the poverty line. And how much help does the government of the 11th most populated country on Earth provide?

To answer that question, William Neubauer, a retired surgeon living in an old cowboy ranch near the Arizona-Mexico border, likes to tell a gruesome story. Running up the waist of Central America from Venezuela, there is an ad hoc network of trains used by migrants to cheaply and quickly reach the U.S. where work is more plentiful. But it’s not a safe trip. Colloquially, this network is known as El tren de la muerte, or The Death Train, and travelers don’t buy tickets. They ride on top, where they often fall off, plummeting beneath the wheels of the train.

Recently, Neubauer met a man who had lost his legs on the Death Train, 30 years prior. Yet in these three decades, this man had never once been helped by the Mexican government. “Here’s this guy, sitting there in this terrible rickety wheelchair,” remembers Neubauer. “He’s unable to work, Mexico didn’t provide him with anything.”

A worker in ARSOBO's wheelchair workchops creates the frame for a new chair.

A worker in ARSOBO’s wheelchair workchops creates the frame for a new chair.

So Neubauer did what he’s done dozens of times before. He gave the man new legs. Prosthetic legs, to be more precise. Along with wheelchairs and hearing aids, Neubauer distributes affordable prosthetics as part of ARSOBO, an American non-profit that crosses the Arizona-Sonora border to help underprivileged Mexicans living with disabilities.

The problem is huge. According to ARSOBO, while 2% of all Mexicans are disabled, a full half of that number – or 11 million people – are in need of a wheelchair. An additional 786,100 amputees need costly prosthetics, and 630,000 more live with serious hearing loss. But getting impoverished Mexicans the devices they need is Herculean.

Take wheelchairs, for example. In America, an entry-level wheelchair costs around $2,000. For those living on the bottom rung of Mexican society, that might as well be $200,000, and even if they could afford it, the wheelchair design is completely unsuited for the realities of day-to-day life. Their tiny front wheels get stuck in the cracks and drainage grates that are ubiquitous through Mexican cities. The wheels, meanwhile, can not easily traverse Mexico’s ubiquitous unpaved roads.

Another ARSOBO worker helps craft a colorful prosthetic leg.

Another ARSOBO worker helps craft a colorful prosthetic leg.

ARSOBO’s answer to this problem? Design a better wheelchair. Instead of distributing off-the-shelf wheelchairs, they pair those in need with a specially designed wheelchair created by Ralf Hotchkiss. A wheelchair-rider himself, Hotchkiss’s design is called the RoughRider, a super-durable chair with a 2mm steel frame that uses mountain biking wheels and extra-wide front wheels to allow riders to easily traverse rugged conditions. “They’re basically unbreakable,” Neubauer brags, but if they do break? They use simple bicycle wheels, meaning they can be repaired in any small town bike shop for cheap.

Instead of costing $2,000 to make, ARSOBO can produce a RoughRider wheelchair for less than $300. Even that, though, is subsidized by ARSOBO’s state-side donors. The end cost to the rider-in-need, Neubauer says, is whatever they can afford to pay, even if it’s as little as a few dollars. (“My job is to make this very bad business plan work,” laughs Neubauer.) But they have to pay something. “Buy-in is important. If you just give someone something, they don’t value it as much. They can’t take pride in it the same way.”

This concept of buy-in is one that’s important to ARSOBO all around. Like their wheelchairs, ARSOBO expects the people who need their prosthetics (which are even more expensive to manufacture and custom-fit) and hearing aids to pay what they can. But ARSOBO itself also buys into the community of paraplegics and amputees it supports. All ARSOBO chairs and prosthetics are manufactured by native Mexicans who are in wheelchairs or amputees themselves. Asked why ARSOBO makes a point of hiring these employees, Neubauer says that it’s only in part because the best person to mod a wheelchair or a prosthetic limb is someone with the experience of living one. It’s also a simple issue of humanitarianism. “In Mexico, if you have a disability, it’s incredibly hard to find employment,” he says. “If we didn’t employ our workers, they just wouldn’t be employed.”

One of the many people ARSOBO has helped.

One of the many people ARSOBO has helped.

Asked if he finds being surrounded by such poverty and disability depressing, Neubauer sounds like he thinks I must be crazy. “Are you kidding?” he scoffs. “Before I did this, I was a surgeon. I did over 25,000 operations, and I was proud of everyone, but right now, on a one-by-one basis, this is easily the best thing I’ve ever done.” The chance to make a positive impact on a beautiful but disenfranchised person, to help them reclaim their life, is simply without parallel.

Listening to Neubauer’s stories about the people he’s helped, it’s easy to see what he means. He talks about a little girl who was put into an orphanage because of her debilitating cerebral palsy; it was only after ARSOBO provided her with a wheelchair that she was able to be adopted, and now lives in a loving household with her grandparents, who couldn’t previously care for her because of her extreme mobility issues. He talks about a little boy born without arms and legs, whose biggest complaint about his ARSOBO-provided prosthetics was that he wasn’t growing along with his friends… until ARSOBO made that happen too. And he speaks about a gorgeous young 20-year-old woman who, after being bitten by a tick, lost both arms and legs to sepsis. Today, she walks around on computer-controlled prosthetics worth a quarter-million dollars, thanks to ARSOBO.

“Who would be depressed to take part in that?”