I will never forget the day I drove into the parking lot at my son’s elementary school ready to volunteer for my duties at Cherry Tree Elementary Track & Field Day. The school yard was a blur with hundreds of little kids- five years old thru 5th grade – running, jumping, laughing, dashing, leaping, throwing, cheering, and in general having the time of their lives; happy to be outside on this warm spring day and finally out of that stuffy classroom.
A circle of kids caught my eye as I got out of my car. I couldn’t quite make it out. All the teachers and volunteers were busy running events or applying Band-Aids and ice packs. The kids in the circle were some of the older kids, laughing and squealing and chanting, but their circle formation sort of blocked my view. As I walked closer, I thought I caught a glimpse of my son in the middle of the group, but I still couldn’t quite bring into focus.
My steps quickened as a few scenarios ran through my mind. After all, my son was African American in a predominantly white school and he was one of the smaller 5th grade boys. I pushed the thought from my mind and just walked a little faster. Maybe they were break dancing, I hoped, just showing off for the girls.
When I reached the scene however, it took a few moments for it to register. It WAS Walker in the center of the circle all right, and he was flying through the air like a rag doll, his body parallel to the ground at the mercy of centrifugal force. He was holding on to the back of another boy’s power wheel chair, the driver cranking the controls in the fastest tightest circle he could muster. Both boys were weak with laughter. The crowd squealed with delight. I didn’t know whether to cheer with them; it was so cool to see them engaged in such ecstasy — or scold them; this can’t be good for this expensive chair and it can’t be ok with his mom. So I just stood and watched until a teacher came scurrying over to put an end to this nonsense and ordered everyone back to the games.
That little boy driving the wild wheel chair was JC Russo and it turned out his family lived in our neighborhood. That summer JC and Walker became good friends and spent a lot of time playing at one house or the other. With a full charge on his battery JC could make it all the way to our street and back before dark. They played inside and outside; we built a ramp for our front step so JC could roll in and out of our house with ease. His power chair was super heavy so there was no lifting it up the step. They mostly played video and computer games, but sometimes they would think up driveway games using balls and goals.
You see, JC and his sister Natalie were born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and have both been in power wheel chairs since they were pre-schoolers. SMA is the number one genetic illness causing death in children under two years old. When they were born just a year apart, there was no sign of any illness, but then first Natalie then JC – between the ages of 12 and 18 months – were each diagnosed with this debilitating disease. Both siblings have had surgery to insert metal rods tied to their spines which have served to straighten their posture and protect their vital organs. Years ago, before this type surgery was available, the life expectancy of children with SMA was less than 12 years, mostly because of the breathing difficulties associated with the atrophy of the muscles.
JC and Natalie’s parents are Karen and Dominic Russo. Hardworking and dedicated are words that fall short of just how diligent and resourceful they have been with regards to tending to their kids’ special needs. After enrolling JC and Natalie in every club and sport and camp available to children in wheelchairs, they heard about this thing called Power Soccer. The kids played a few games and loved it because it was the first sport they could do on their own totally independent without the help of an adult. If their kids loved it, it stood to reason that other kids in power chairs would too, so Dominic and Karen set to work organizing leagues across Indiana. They had to work out all the details other sports clubs have to deal with; coaches and managers, venues and travel, rules and regulations. All through high school and college Natalie and JC looked forward to weekends where they would travel to tournaments and compete with some of the best teams in the world.
Developed over 30 years ago, Power Soccer is the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Two teams of four each attack, defend, and spin kick a 13-inch soccer ball in an attempt to score points in a goal. The ball is maneuvered and passed to their team mates with a special foot- guard mounted on the front of the wheelchair. The sport is co-ed by design with boys and girls often playing on the same team and the game is usually played indoors in a gymnasium on a regulation basketball court. Anyone who uses a power wheelchair can play, as long as they can operate their chairs safely. Participants include people five years old and older who have muscular dystrophy, quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, head trauma, stroke, or any other physical disability. Power Soccer is a real sport and has made a huge difference in the lives of the people who play it. And it is awesome to watch!
Well, JC Russo is now 21 years old and last Sunday, November 6, 2011, just outside of Paris, France, he and Team USA won the World Cup of Power Soccer! JC is the Goalie. Wild cheers were heard all around Carmel and Indiana and Facebook with the news that Team USA had shut out Team England, 3 – 0.
Largely due, I am certain, to the excellent spinning skills of Team USA’s amazing Goalie JC Russo … skills I am sure he began honing back in the school yard of Cherry Tree Elementary as Walker flew like a rag doll through air on that warm spring day.
Note: The 2011 Team USA was the first team in the history of the sport to win back to back World Cups. Both Natalie and JC were on Team USA that won World Cup Japan in Tokyo in 2007.