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Monday, January 18, 2010

Powerchair Soccer

The opening ceremonies begin at 11 a.m. The athletes enter the gym, one after the other. The captain finds the team placard and leads his teammates to it. They line up behind the placards, which are held aloft by volunteers. Sixteen teams, some with twenty players, some with half a dozen. The names echo the ferocity of the competition. Red Eagles. RC Crashers. Fine Friends. Best Brothers. Nanchester United. Rainbow Soldiers. The teams are here for the 15th Japan Power Chair Soccer Championships, hosted in Kanazawa by the Best Brothers. A surprising number of fans fill the stands.

The athletes come in all sizes and shapes. Their eyes flash with anticipation. Their teams have won their way through regional competitions to earn a berth at the 15th Japan Power Chair Soccer Championships. Some lean there heads against special rigging that helps keep their eyes on the playing floor. They operate their chairs with joysticks. One player can only move his head. He controls his chair with his chin. He’s a power midfielder for the Red Eagles.

Yukari is the captain-coach of Best Brothers. Her legs are tiny appendages to her body. Her eyes are big and round and her voices booms across the court. She’s the wife of the Head Coach of the Japan national team. Power Chair Soccer now has a World Cup.

“The American’s a tough,” says Ayumu, Yukari’s son and midfielder. Japan was instrumental in bringing together the Americans and the Europeans and the Japanese and forming a set of International rules for the World Cup. Last year saw the first ever Power Chair Soccer World Cup, played in Japan, and won by Team USA.

The players handle their power chairs like F1 drivers handle their racing machines. Speed is set at no more than 10 km/h, but the special-built power chairs whirl and brake and reverse and dodge with exciting alacrity. The chair operator may be unable to move on his or her own, hardly able to say a coherent word, fight at the constraints of their noncompliant bodies, but they play their power chairs like maestros, joysticks positioned to respond every command, no matter how small. I watched a young woman lying aslant in her power chair, head against a support apparatus and joystick positioned beneath the fingers of her right. She roamed the backfield, helping protact the goalee. She had an uncanny ability to judge where the oversized soccer ball would go, and she and her joystick and her power chair were there to cut it off, knock it out of bounds, or bounce it off to one of her team’s forwards. It seemed she could play for only a few minutes at a time, but the coach would send in a substitute, she’d come off to the sidelines, close her eyes and rest for a few minutes, then when the pinch came, back she went, using her interceptive skills to keep the enemy ball away from her goal and send swift passes into the other team’s forecourt where her power forwards waited to shoot for the goal.

Kato lies flat on his back. He surveys the playing field through a parabolic mirror. He’s learned to match the reverse images in the mirror with reality. His joystick commands are swift and precise. He guards the goal for Nanchester United, and no competitor on the floor is fiercer than he.

Kazuko Ito, a statuesque woman of 47 (she’d hate me for giving away her age), runs NPO STAND, the organization that promotes enabled sports in Japan. Thanks to her, millions of fans were able to watch the recent Asia Youth Paralympic Games from Japan. Ito set up an internet system called Mobachoo through which live action webcasts of the games were shot and uploaded from onsite mobile phones. Mobachoo webcasts of the 15th Japan National Power Chair Soccer Championship semifinals and finals helped spread the sport across the Internet. The day of the finals, Ito could hardly speak. She wore a surgical mask to keep her germs from others. But she was there, and her team picked up the fever of the competition and webcast it to the world.

The first day of competition is over. The team Best Brothers sit in a semicircle around me. They were eliminated in the first round, 3-2, by the Red Eagles. BB was in the tournament because it was the host team. They just lost their coach to the national team. Yukari does her best while playing midfielder. Son Ayumu adds the enthusiasm that only comes from a 16-year-old. The team shows no disappointment with the loss. “We didn’t expect to score,” says Ayumu. “We came close to picking up a third goal. We totally outplayed ourselves.” Strange things happen in national tournament competition.

Yamazaki travels to Kanazawa from Niigata, more than 100 km away, just to play with Best Brothers. Yamazaki used to be a motorcycle rider until he had a terrible accident. Now he rides power chairs and plays a powerful game of soccer. His smile and enthusiasm lights up the whole gym.

Kyoko can hardly speak. I ask her what soccer means to her. The smile tells the story. “We need every player,” Yukari says. “Kyoko does more than her part.”

Granpa is the oldest player on the team. He plays a patient forward. While Ayumu and Yukari pass and dribble down the court, Granpa carefully positions his chair for greatest advantage. In the second half, he took a hard pass from Ayumu and caromed it past the Red Eagle goalie and through the uprights for the team’s second goal. His joy is catching. He can’t stop talking. His wife Keiko tends goal at the other end of the court. She grins when asked what power chair soccer means to her, and looks at Granpa. “We’re a team,” she says. “A real team.”

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