Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Utah wheelchair soccer league offers an escape

Utah wheelchair soccer league offers an escape
League lets kids take control of specially adapted chairs to play soccer for an hour or two.
Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune Youth soccer players line up their wheelchairs as they practice soccer at the Sorenson Multicultural Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 23, 2012.
Sounds of zooming and clicking filled the air as 10 soccer players in their power wheelchairs sped across the basketball court, moving a soccer ball toward the goal.
The kids spun and whacked the ball with custom racks attached to the front of their chairs as they tried to score on their opponents at the opposite side of the gym.
A taunt from goalie Gidget Winward, 12, echoed across the gym as the opposing team approached her goal.
“Bring it over,” Winward said, leaning forward in her chair. “Bring it.”
The 13-inch ball made its way to her side of the court, propelled forward by a power play from the opposing team, but Gidget quickly deflected the shot with the rack on her chair. A huge grin dawned. Gidget, along with the nine other players who came to Sorenson Multicultural Center to practice and scrimmage the night of May 23, make up the Salt Lake City youth wheelchair soccer league.
With greater hand-eye coordination than most, the players steer their chairs using handheld control sticks, which can propel them up and down the court.
The league, established by Shriners Hospitals for Children, Salt Lake County and Ability Found, offers the opportunity for children ages 7 to 18 to hop out of their everyday chairs and into specially adapted soccer chairs to play for an hour or two.
Shriners refurbished chairs donated by the county, and Ability Life donated funding to help add baskets to the front of each chair.
Program coordinator Ken Kozole said getting the funding to refurbish all the chairs proved challenging and that some of the chairs still do not have official baskets. Instead, some push soccer balls forward with white plastic boxes.
“It’s a minor miracle that we have 10 chairs up and running,” Kozole said.
Official equipment aside, Adriana Ibarra, mother of 14-year-old player Hugo, said the program has created an escape for her son. After fully losing his ability to walk a year ago from muscular dystrophy, Hugo found a way to do something he loves again.
“He gets tired of sitting in the same position all day,” Ibarra said. “So this helps distract his from his reality, from his problem.”
Hugo, one of the league’s best players, said he looks forward to the game each week.
“It’s a sport that I can play and enjoy,” Hugo said.
Nik Winward, Gidget’s 14-year-old brother, said he, too, enjoys the game each week. The only part he felt less than thrilled about was spending time with his sister.
“She pushes my buttons all the time. These buttons,” Nik said, pointing down at the control buttons on his chair. Leisha Roberts, mother to Drew, 14, and Noah, 12, said her sons enjoy the opportunity to improve their skills.
“It’s the only sport they can do themselves,” Roberts said. “It really gives them their independence.”
Ibarra said when Hugo went into his power chair full time, he lost some of his friends because they did not understand what he was going through.
For Ibarra, the diagnosis came with intense emotional repercussions as well.
“The world came down on top of me,” she said.
Changing their family’s lifestyle has been challenging, but the wheelchair-soccer league helps bring some normalcy.
Despite her language barrier (Ibarra speaks primarily Spanish), she has found community with the other parents in the soccer league.
“Every day is hard, everything we face, and there is no how-to book for this,” Ibarra said.
After an hour and a half of speeding around, spinning and socializing for players, and after their parents have gathered to support their children and one another, the game ends.
Game chairs get pushed into a supply closet in the gym. There they charge until the next week’s game.
Outside, the players roll to their vehicles, where many are lifted into their seats or roll up ramps to their designated spots.
They leave looking forward to next week’s game.
Youth Wheelchair Soccer League
The league practices and scrimmages Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the Sorenson Multicultural Center, 855 W. California Ave., Salt Lake City. For information, call program coordinator Ken Kozole, 435-640-1325.

© 2012 The Salt Lake Tribune
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