Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wheelchair Soccer Coach Has a Mantra: You Are Able

By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group East Bay
When Chris Finn talks about sports for people with disabilities, he often uses the phrase "you are able." He likes it so much, he adopted it as his e-mail moniker.
The San Leandro man, who coaches power wheelchair soccer for Bay Area Outreach Program in Berkeley and who also happens to be the head coach for the USA National Team, is one of those rare magnetic types who inspires people in ways they never imagined.
Chris Finn, at right in background, coaches a power wheelchair soccer game in Berkeley in January.  Finn also coaches the USA National Power Soccer Team which he is taking to Paris for the World Cup in the fall. Finn's team won the first World Cup in Japan in 2007.  (Photo by Doug Oakley)
Omar Solorio, center, squares off against an opponent during a game of power wheelchair soccer in Berkeley in January. Solorio is on the USA Power Soccer Team heading to Paris for the World Cup in the fall. (Photo by Doug Oakley)

Take Kendra Scalia-Carrow, 27, for example, who met Finn in 2006. Until then, she was one of those people who "hated sports" and never attempted to play. She had used a wheelchair since she was 14 and thought sports was "like a waste of time almost," something with no intellectual merit where people spent hours doing things she didn't understand.
But with encouragement from Finn and her own motivation, she has flourished as an athlete.
Five years ago sports to her was one of those concepts that had her asking, "what's the point again?" Now she is heading to Paris in the fall with Finn and 11 others for her second World Cup as a player on the USA National Power Soccer Team.
"Chris has been my only coach because I never was involved in sports before this," Scalia-Carrow said. "He's this really friendly, down-to-earth guy, who, when you talk to him about soccer, just has this great passion and creativity for it. And you can tell he's so thankful and grateful he found this sport."
Finn is taking 12 players from all over the U.S., including three from the Bay Area, to the World Cup. Finn's team won the first-ever power wheelchair soccer World Cup in Japan in 2007.

Jerry Book gets ready to spin around and whack a ball during a game of power wheelchair soccer in Berkeley in January. Book is on the USA National Power Soccer Team and is headed to the World Cup in Paris in the fall. (Photo by Doug Oakley)
When he's not running training camps for Team USA, Finn also coaches local power wheelchair soccer teams out of Berkeley.
Finn, 39, lives with an upper spinal cord injury suffered when he was 21 that left him with limited use of his arms and legs.
When he talks about power wheelchair soccer, he uses words like "passion" and "purpose" in a way that leaves his disability behind.
"It's not only a sport, it's something that can change your life," Finn said. "It can change your perspective and the ability to actually go out and play and be active." Power wheelchair soccer is like able-bodied soccer, only the players are zooming around in battery-powered wheelchairs with big protective cages near their feet, slamming in to each at speeds up to the regulation 6.2 mph.
Some are quadriplegics who have a hard time even holding up their heads. Many athletes are strapped in so they don't fall out when they slam into each other.
Aside from having fun, staying active and winning soccer games, Finn said power wheelchair soccer is changing the way those with physical disabilities are judged. It also changes the way people with disabilities see themselves, including him, he said.
"For someone from the outside who has never seen power soccer who comes and sees it, they see that people with disabilities can play a sport with tenacity, teamwork and strategy," Finn said. "They can see a guy on the court who can't even hold his head up, can maybe only move two fingers to make the chair go, and yet he's a dynamic player out on the court making passes who can do things you never would think of if you saw him on the street." And for those who play, the game can be a life changer.
Finn knows because it happened to him.
"When I moved out here from Wisconsin in 2001, I was 10 years into my spinal cord injury," Finn said. "I had gotten a bachelor's degree, then a master's. I went to Bay Area Outreach Program and saw power soccer and said 'This is it. This is what I want to be doing.'" Finn describes the first time on the court where he zoomed up to the ball in his chair and hit it into the goal. He quickly got back in line with the other players, "but in my head I was screaming 'goooooaaaaallllll.'" "It brought back all those competitive juices and the passion," Finn said. "It was something I was able to put my heart, body and soul into and something I was able to succeed at."
Jonathan Newman, adult sports coordinator with Bay Area Outreach Program, saw from the beginning when he met Finn in 2002 that he would be a great leader.
"From the start, when he first showed up at a practice, it was clear that he had a really great athletic intelligence," Newman said. "What became evident really quickly is he had these leadership qualities because he understood himself and could convey that to others easily in a way that was meaningful and that they could operate on. It seemed like he would be a great coach -- and I was right." Finn said some of the people who play power wheelchair soccer require help with dressing, bathing, feeding and toileting 24 hours a day.
"But when they are on the court, they are making all their own decisions by themselves," Finn said. "It's their one chance to do all that, to be independent, and that is powerful stuff."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at

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