Taking Power Soccer to the World Stage

In the summer of 2003, I was a 13-year-old girl who loved the Backstreet Boys & American Girl dolls and dreamed of traveling the world. I wanted to be a veterinarian, live in New York City, and own a bunch of cats. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd one day compete as an international soccer player. That summer I was introduced to power (wheelchair) soccer at MDA Camp. Of course at the time I had no idea this sport would have any effect on me, much less change my life.

I was born with a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). It's a progressive disease that affects my neuromuscular system. As a child, I had a hard time crawling and standing, which made my parents suspect something was a little off. After months of testing, I was diagnosed with SMA at 18 months old. My parents were devastated, but never saw any reason to think I wouldn't have a fulfilling life, despite what doctors were telling them.

Throughout my childhood, I tried various sports and activities directed to those with physical limitations. My overall experience with these sports was poor at best. "Disabled sports are dumb," I used to think. My mom signed me and my brother up for challenger baseball when we were younger. We were the only people on the team that had normal mental awareness and it was not fun. Plus, someone with SMA playing baseball? Let me tell ya, it doesn't work out too well. Someone had to help me swing the bat (mostly do it for me) and then people would run in slow motion so I could get to first base. I may have been young, but I wasn't naive. I understood I wasn't really playing. It was an "everybody wins" activity, which clashed with my competitive personality.

My experience with sports changed forever when a man named Jerry Frick came to visit my camp. I specifically remember his spiel about this sport he played called power soccer and then invited anyone who wanted to try it to join him on the concrete patio.

I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.

Instead of joining Jerry on the patio, I made a beeline straight to the pool and didn't look back. My brother (who is also affected by SMA), though, is a different story. He joined Jerry on the patio and he had the time of his life. Jerry had ignited a flame in my brother.

Power Soccer: A Different Kind of "Disabled Sport"

My skepticism regarding disabled sports remained intact, however. I still wanted nothing to do with power soccer and to this day I remember whining to my mom in the car about not wanting to play. But I didn't have a choice. Her exact words were: "You need to play until we get enough people and then you can quit." Although I was not enthused about it, I thought this sounded like a reasonable request. We scheduled a time for Jerry to come help us get started and we hosted a clinic in my hometowm, Indianapolis.

Natalie playing power soccer. Photo by Scot Goodman

There were quite a few athletes there that night. I wasn't needed to fill out a team, but my prior arrangement with my mom had slipped from my mind. It took all of about 30 seconds for me to realize that this sport was unlike all the previous sports I had tried. For the first time, my parents, my friends, everyone was sitting on the sidelines.

I was the one controlling my actions and I was the one making the decisions, whether they were right or wrong. It was such a new experience for me. Sure, I had always been independent, but more often than not that independence was supported by someone else.

In so many areas of my life, I depend on other people. I need someone to help me out of bed, help me get dressed, help me use the restroom, help me make dinner, help me put my seat belts on so I can drive my car, and in a hundred other ways. When I'm on the power soccer court, I not only support myself, but more importantly, I can support my teammates when they need me.

Power soccer is so much more than just a sport. It gives people a chance to live their life more fully. It gives people from all walks of life and avenue to be physical, to compete, and to learn how to become a productive member of society. It gives players a chance to live their dreams.

World Cup Aspirations

In 2006, I was given the chance to try out for the Inaugural 2007 World Cup in Japan as a member of Team USA. After an exhausting tryout process, I made the team and my dreams of traveling the world were becoming a reality.

I don't think anyone on Team USA really knew the extent of what it meant to compete for the World Cup. For the next year and a half, we were assigned weekly drills and had three-day training camps in various cities every other month.

Natalie playing power wheelchair soccer. Photo by Scot Goodman

Shortly before leaving for Tokyo, the final roster was chosen. Although there are 12 people on Team USA, only eight are allowed to be rostered. I was not selected as a rostered player. I was heartbroken after putting in so much hard work, but I still went to Japan to support the team. I reminded myself that I wasn't a bad player, I just wasn't what the team needed at the time. Team USA was an international underdog that ended up undefeated, winning the first ever World Cup against France in triple overtime.

In 2009, tryouts were announced for the next World Cup. Despite being chosen as an alternate in 2007, I still had an incredible experience and was certain I wanted to try out and make the top eight. Unfortunately, this time I did not even make the top 12. I was absolutely crushed. I tried to remain positive because my brother did make the team and I was happy for him. Team USA went on to win the second World Cup in Paris.

Learning New Lessons

When talk about tryouts for the 2017 Team USA came about, I was more than hesitant. After the previous two shattering experiences, I wasn't sure I wanted to risk putting myself through it again. I was afraid of failing, of being rejected and not being good enough.

Ultimately, I came to realize that everything in life comes with risk. If I didn't take a chance, I would never know what might have been. Why should I rob myself of potential life-changing experiences just because I was afraid? I had absolutely nothing to lose. I was determined to write a different story for myself, to not let past failures color my future. With a lot of hard work and conviction, I not only made the top 12 in 2017, but this time I also made the rostered team.

After 10 years, I finally achieved my ambition of playing in the World Cup. It's hard to describe the feeling of representing your country. It's the highest honor and greatest achievement we have in our sport and I will be forever proud of the achievement.

For the first time, Team USA competed on American soil at the 2017 FIPFA World Cup in Kissimmee, Florida. We had an army of fans (prepped with chant books and all) screaming, pumping us with energy. Being world champions of the last two World Cup games left a huge target on our backs. We went undefeated for our first six games of the tournament, but Team France took the lead in the second half of the championship game and won the tournament. It wasn't easy to absorb as our team had one goal for our two-and-a-half-year training journey and that was to make it a three-peat victory. We may not have reached that goal, but I know each and every player on Team USA has a list of hundreds of personal successes achieved on the road to that match.

Each Team USA experience has taught me something different about leadership, taking risks, self-confidence, and perseverance. Although the future is unknown, one thing is for certain: Team USA will be back for the win and I hope to be part of the team that brings it back. Everyone, no matter what their personal challenges may be, can chart their own course in life.

About the Author

Natalie Russo

My name is Natalie Russo. I have SMA Type II and have been in a wheelchair since I was two years old. I currently live in the Indianapolis area where I work as a web designer for a corporate company as well as my own, Russo Rox! Design Services. I have been heavily involved with the power soccer community since 2004 when it was introduced to my family. I am so grateful for all the experiences and people the sport has given me. I love to travel and will figuratively jump at the opportunity whenever it comes up!

Natalie's ride is a Quickie S-646.

Most of the stories here on RideQuickie were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 2/20/2018 12:00:00 AM

Ayron King
My hope is that your story can help just one person “not be afraid” to go after their dreams and live without limits! You are an amazing person and the world is so much better with you here defying the odds. I look forward to watching you and all of your teammates Prepare to take on the world once again!
2/21/2018 8:09:59 PM

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