Writer(s): Brandi Terry
She may be a world champion in the sport now, but Natalie Russo hasn’t always loved power soccer. In fact, she used to hate it. When she first heard of power soccer, seven years ago, she thought the idea was ridiculous. She’s a very competitive person and to her, power soccer was not a real sport. She wanted nothing to do with it.
“I thought it was stupid, just because every other disabled sport I’ve played has just been kind of like a joke,” she says. “Everybody wins, and everybody plays.”
Seven years later, Natalie, a senior journalism graphics major, lives and breathes power soccer. She and her brother, JC Russo, a computer graphics technology major at IUPUI, both played on Team USA in 2007, the year the team was crowned the Power Soccer World Cup champions. The seed for their passion was planted at a Muscular Dystrophy Association camp the siblings attended as children.
It was (insert year here—I’m finding out exact year from Natalie) and Natalie and JC were at summer camp. At lunch one day, the counselors announced that Jerry Frick, a power soccer player from Atlanta, would be there that day to teach the campers about the sport. He did a short demonstration before letting the campers try the sport. The siblings had differing views on power soccer. JC tried moving the ball around and was instantly hooked.
“As soon as I started moving the ball around I was hooked,” he says. “It wasn’t like other sport I’ve played where I can’t play independently.”
Natalie, however, was a little more skeptical.
“I didn’t want to play, I wanted nothing to do with it,” she says. “This was eight people pushing around a giant ball, that’s what it sounded like to me.”
Natalie had played softball in the past, and she assumed that power soccer would be played in much the same way. “Everything was in slow motion,” she says. “There was somebody helping me swing the bat, and there was somebody helping me throw the ball, and they would run in slow motion to get to the bases. I was like, ‘I’m not stupid, I know what’s going on. I’m not really playing. I’m just sitting out in the hot sun, burning my face off.’”
Despite her reservations, Natalie hadn’t heard the last of power soccer. JC had fallen in love with it, and that’s all he talked about on the seven-hour ride home from camp. He told his parents how Frick had given him contact information and instructions about setting about a power soccer clinic. JC’s parents were interested and after giving Frick a call, Sudden Impact was born.
The 12-player team, based in Indianapolis, began to train and practice for tournaments, the first of which was the National Power Soccer Tournament. The team had never played a game together before. They went into the tournament with low spirits, expecting the worst.
But they were surprised.
Sudden Impact scored 20-0 in most games of the tournament and left undefeated. They had become national champions in their first game.
Despite her dislike of the sport, Natalie had played in nationals. The team only had 11 members—one short of qualifying for nationals. After much pestering from her brother and father, Natalie relented and agreed to play.
“They were pretty much forcing me to play,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll play until you don’t need me to anymore, but I’m not doing this. It’s dumb.’”
Naturally, Natalie never expected to fall in the love with the sport—but that’s exactly what happened. “Of course, I played the first time, and I realized that it wasn’t like the average disabled sport, so I never stopped.”
It was about this time that power soccer began to pick up steam on an international level. The sport was relatively new. Its origins were in France in 1970, where a group of teachers worked together to create a sport adapted to the needs of students in wheelchairs. American power soccer has roots in Canada, where a similar form of the French sport had been developed in 1982. Power soccer was also being developed in Japan and England. There was a problem, however: each different country had different rules and forms of the game, ruling out any chance of international competition.
In 2005, representatives from seven countries came together to form the International Powerchair Football Association (IPFA). The IPFA worked together to form one set of rules and standards that would be applied internationally, leading to international competitions and eventually, a Power Soccer World Cup.
At the same time, work was being done to unify power soccer teams in the United States. In 2006, the United States Power Soccer Association (USPSA) was formed, with JC and Natalie’s father, Dominic, as president.
After the formation of the IFPA, the idea of the World Cup was solidified. The game would be played in Tokyo in 2007. With this announcement, Team USA was formed, a team that would represent the United States in the World Cup.
Natalie and JC both sent in applications for the team and were accepted. The next step was tryouts, in Tampa, Fla. Out of 20 athletes, 12 were selected to form the team—including JC, who would play on the team, and Natalie, who would serve as an alternate. The team was selected; now it was time to accept the challenge and begin preparing for the biggest game of power soccer ever played.
The Big Game
Training for the World Cup would prove to be extensive. The coach of the team, Chris Finn, sent out weekly drills that team members were to practice individually. Bimonthly, the team came together for a training camp. These camps were held in different places around the country and consisted of three days, 10-12 hours each day, of practice. The team also went through teambuilding and leadership training. The Russos had a slight advantage over other members of the team, however: their dad was the assistant coach.
“He’s been my coach ever since I’ve been playing soccer,” Natalie says. “He’s a great coach and I think he’s done such a great job with it. We really look up to him. I think he’s so easy to relate to, and makes it easy to understand and makes it exciting, and makes me want to be there.”
After all the intense training and long days, the game finally arrived. It was time to put the skills the team had worked so hard to perfect to work. Team USA was not popularly thought to win. Out of the eight teams present, they were ranked six. However, the team proved their doubters wrong as they progressed through each match, winning every time they played, until it was time for the final game in the tournament—against France.
France was considered the best team in the tournament—they had the longest history of power soccer and had the most time to hone their skills. The pressure was mounting for Team USA. France scored the first point of the game. This unsettled JC, who was playing the role of goalie.
“I remember thinking I blew it,” he says. “But I stayed confident in my team and they scored to tie it.”
The game was close, continuously going back and forth. When it was finally over, it had ended in a tie. The teams played into two overtimes, which both also ended in a tie. After the overtimes, the game went into a sudden death penalty kick shootout. In a sudden death penalty kick shootout, each team is given four kicks. After all eight kicks have been taken, the team that scored the most wins. JC, in his role of goalie, was charged with the responsibility of keeping France’s ball from entering the net.
It was the 7th kick, and it was France’s kick. This meant that the last kick belonged to Team USA, and because they were ahead, if JC blocked this kick Team USA would win. The France player took his kick, and JC blocked it—Team USA had won the Power Soccer World Cup. The referee blew the whistle, and the stadium erupted in cheers.
“Everyone started screaming and rushing out to the court,” Natalie says. “When I realized that we had won I was out of my mind. I was screaming, I was about to start crying. We were all in the middle of the court, people from the stands were coming down, the Japanese media was surrounding us, there were cameras everywhere flashing.”
JC says the experience was unlike anything he had ever imagined. “In overtime it was very nerve racking,” JC says. “I remember looking at the referee to see if the game was over or if there was another kick. When he blew the whistle I went straight to my team and we celebrated. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I never would have thought that I would be traveling across the world playing this sport. Its unreal.”
Natalie felt rewarded by her team’s victory. “It was like a Disney movie. All that hard work that we had done for two years paid off. That by itself was an amazing feeling.”
A Lifelong Passion
The Russos have become world champions in their favorite sport, but that doesn’t mean they’re finished playing. After the World Cup, both siblings came to Ball State University, where they started a power soccer team.
Ball State had a power soccer team in the past, but the team did not play games or compete. They had very little equipment and only played the game for fun. This was not enough for Natalie, and seeing that there was more interest in an official team, she and JC decided to take up the challenge of starting one. They wrote a constitution and bylaws, and submitted them to the university to become official. They recruited their father as coach, and looked to Power Soccer of Indy, a group her family started, as an inspiration.
The club was approved and started practicing and competing. It took fourth place at Nationals the first year.
Working so closely with their father has changed the dynamics of Natalie and JC’s relationship with him, but solely for the better.
“I don’t know how my relationship would be like with my dad if I didn’t have power soccer,” JC says. “There wasn’t a lot we could do together before that we could really bond with. Now that I play we are always talking about strategy or how to improve my wheelchair. I’m thankful that we have it because I’ve gotten so much closer to him.”
JC has since transferred schools, but he’s not done with power soccer. He currently plays with the Circle City Rollers, a power soccer team based in Indianapolis. This is JC’s first year on the team, but in it has won national championships three of the past four years. JC says he’s looking forward to playing Atlanta Synergy, the Circle City Rollers’ archrivals.
“The team in Atlanta is so desperate to beat us that they have bought high performance wheelchairs and are recruiting and paying French players to play for them,” he says. “I think one of my favorite parts of this season will be beating them in the championship game and showing them you can’t buy a championship.”
The Russo family has become immersed in the culture of power soccer, and they can’t see living their lives any other way.
“It’s meant a lot to me over the last seven or eight years,” Natalie says. “I really just want people to understand that this isn’t just an everybody-wins sport; that I can play a competitive sport and be part of a sports environment and society in that type of way. It’s just really fulfilling.”
JC says that he has no doubts that power soccer will continue to play a role in his life. “I don’t know if I will continue playing for my whole life, but I will definitely be involved in some way,” he says. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t have power soccer. It has consumed me.”