Wheelchair soccer a growing sport in Houston area
The Campus Recreation and Wellness Center was busy as normal last weekend with basketball teams, rock climbers
and even badminton players. The gym was also host to the players of an uncommon sport: wheelchair soccer.
As the sweat dripped on Courts 1 and 2, the participants of the 2010 National Indoor Wheelchair Soccer “Blue Northern” Championship brought a competition full of joy, skill and desire to win not only the title, but also to promote the fledgling sport.
The United States Association of Indoor Wheelchair Soccer hosted the national championships of a sport that is a hybrid of soccer and basketball, and resembles water polo without the water.
William Lardi, chairman of the USA-IWS, and Dave Stephenson, co-director of the Greater Houston Athletic Association for the Physically Disabled, organized the event, which was both competitive and well organized.
“We sponsor local, regional and national tournaments and occasionally hold clinics to provide exposure of our sport to the disabled population,” Lardi said.
“This is a sport that, when the athletes come and play it, they don’t want to leave it. They don’t want it to die. There is so much dedication between the coaches and athletes that this sport keeps living.”
IWS is a year removed from leaving its former umbrella organization, the National Disability Sports Alliance, which financially supported regional and national tournaments.
IWS has faced numerous challenges on and off the court, ranging from handling finances to finding resources.
“When you have an umbrella organization, you have financial backing. You have access to facilities and a lot of support,” Lardi said. “When you are alone, financially, it is very difficult. Nationally and locally, that has been our biggest obstacle.”
Wheelchair soccer pits two six-man co-ed teams against each other over two 25-minute halves. The goal is the same as in soccer, except players throw the ball into a goal similar in size to a lacrosse goal.
The competition involved teams from several parts of the country playing in either Division I or II. One team, consisting of players from Houston and from California, was appropriately named Cal-Tex.
“We currently have several teams in the Houston area, the Northeast, Southern California and other locations across the US,” Lardi said.
Locally, Houston has been labeled the largest “hot spot” according to Lardi and won the past three Division 1 Championship.
The Houston Toros and the Houston Challengers were the representatives at this year’s tournament.
“We support each other; this sport is hard. You have to train and be fit to compete,” said Ricardo Cedillo Castaneda of the Houston Toros.
The competition itself has elevated in the last five years with a New York-Houston rivalry.
In the last three years, the Division 1 title has been decided between the two cities. The Houston Challengers have won nine titles. The New York Chariots have won the title three times.
“These tournaments have gotten more and more competitive each and every year,” five-year veteran referee Brian Swaney said. “They are the top athletes in this sport … it’s a great fast paced game, it’s a fantastic game.”
The players in the two different skill divisions were bumping against each other with their wheelchairs and laying out for loose balls while picking up fouls. In one case, a player was even ejected, showing that these men and women are just as competitive as professional athletes, which is the way these athletes would like to be perceived.
“It means a lot because I feel like it gives us an avenue to show that we have talents and are just like everybody else,” said Christian Ekunwe member of Division I champions New York Chariots of Fire.
The New York Chariots won the 1st Division tournament with a 7-5 victory over the Houston Toros. Pasadena won the 2nd Division tournament with a 9-5 victory over the New York Strikers.
“I am very happy about our win. It’s been a couple years since we won it, so it is a big win for us,” Ekunwe said.
Houston was selected as the host city in March due to the facilities available and the increased interest in the sport.
“The University of Houston played a big part in the tournament coming to Houston. It’s a premier location for a tournament like this,” Stephenson said. “I think these tournaments are huge. People with disabilities want to participate in life just like everybody else.”
The tournament had two UH connections with alumni Eric Owens making his rookie debut as coach of the Houston Crusaders and Jacob Klementich starting at goalie for the Houston Challengers.
Stephenson insists nobody should be sitting at home wishing they could do this or that when there are organizations like the IWS.
“We don’t turn anybody away. The goal is to compete. The goal is to grow the sport.”