In wheelchair soccer, a chance to be athletes

The sport is pure joy for players and families.

Published July 22, 2007

In May 2005, Jim Carpenter came to Indianapolis decked out in all blue, right down to the paint in his hair. He was there to watch his son Ben's first national soccer tournament, along with about 14 other team parents.

Their spirit might seem extreme, but for these parents, that first tournament was a lifetime in the making.

Their children are part of Tampa Thunder, a power wheelchair soccer team, and it was the first time they could cheer for their children at a major sports event. So they gladly took the opportunity to go nuts, said Carpenter, who lives in Brandon.

And it didn't matter that they couldn't speak for four days afterward.

"You don't realize you're holding it in till you let it out," Carpenter said.

The Tampa Thunder has continued to elicit cheers from its adoring fans. After six hard-fought matches at this year's nationals, they rode away with third place on June 9 -- their best showing yet.

But no matter how they place, they're thankful to have the opportunity to play a real sport, something they didn't think they'd be able to do.

"They could teach professional athletes something," said coach Don Gorman. "They just love playing."

On a rainy Wednesday evening during their offseason, the four starting players of Tampa Thunder reunited at the Safety Harbor Community Center.

They zipped around a gymnasium, pushing their oversized soccer ball through cones set up to mark goals. Though they were happy to be together again, their play was intense.

They occasionally crashed into each other when they chased down a loose ball, but the chairs have guards to help keep them safe. A metal guard on the front of their chairs allows them to move the ball.

To kick, they rotate their chairs in a circle -- for harder kicks, almost a full 360 degrees -- and then release so they can generate power. Sometimes they miss, but they're mostly right on the mark.

A game of strategy

The rules are similar to regular soccer, with some exceptions, Jim Carpenter said. They play four on four. There are two 20-minute halves and no timeouts, so substitutions are on the fly.

Their chairs have to be set at a certain speed, usually a little more than 5 mph.

The ball they use is 13 inches in diameter, a few inches wider than a standard soccer ball.

They control their chairs with a joystick on the armrests, and matches are usually held on basketball courts.

And it takes lots of strategy to win.

The team practices for three or four hours every weekend during the season, which is about the length of a school year.

Sometimes, like all athletes, they have to think outside the box to win. After they placed last at regionals this spring, they had to do some serious problem solving. Since multiple games were played at once, they had trouble communicating. So they blared tapes of loud music and applause as they prepared for nationals.

"It made the biggest difference," said Tari Carpenter, the assistant coach and Ben's mother. "When we went to nationals, it's like they didn't hear the noise."

And to play well at nationals, they had to adjust their mind-sets.

"For once, if we saw a team we thought we could beat, we didn't say, 'We have this game,' " said 12-year-old Ben Carpenter. "In the last 30 seconds (of the final game), someone said 'We don't have this thing won yet.' "

Finally, they pulled through their challenges together to win, as they often do.

'They're family'

The players came together because they all wanted the opportunity to play a real sport, and their passion quickly united them.

"They're family," Tari Carpenter said. "(After practices) we're like, 'It's been four hours, it's time to go home now'. They're always ready to play."

Tara Hall, the team's 22-year-old captain, helped found the team in 2004 after an Atlanta team came to demonstrate the sport. A self-described tomboy, she said she'd always wanted to play sports but couldn't because of her wheelchair.

Danny Gorman, 16, had also searched for a sport to play. In addition to playing for the Thunder, he was selected to compete on the national team this year, and in October, he'll go to Tokyo to compete with international teams.

After years of wishing to be athletes, they relish every minute of being together.

"It's the sense that even if you didn't push the ball through the goal, you still helped in some way, and the fact that you gave it your all," Ben said.

The players and their families work hard to ensure the team competes.

Don Gorman, Danny's father, stepped in as head coach, even though he didn't know much about soccer. Tari Carpenter took on the role of assistant coach because she was the loudest on the sideline, she said, laughing. Ryan Coton, a 19-year-old team member, publishes a monthly newsletter. Relatives and friends field loose balls, referee, take photos and, of course, cheer.

The team is looking to rebuild after four of the original eight Thunder players split off to form a new team. It just got one new member, Chris Rhoades, an 18-year-old from Clearwater, and they said people of all ages can play.

But the biggest challenge is fundraising. The team has to shell out $2,000 to compete at nationals in addition to paying for meals, flights and hotels. This year's trip cost more than $10,000.

In the end, though, their hard work is always rewarded.

"To see this group of people that have so many little battles and wars to fight every day, to see them go out of their way to take on another challenge and say, 'You know what, I'm not done fighting yet.' ... you just look at them and say, 'I don't know if I'd be that strong,' " Jim Carpenter said. "To know that those type of people are in our lives, it's pretty amazing."

Carrie Ritchie can be reached at critchie@sptimes.com.

Learn more

To learn more about the team, to donate or to play, visit powersoccertampa.net or call Don Gorman at 727-726-4657.