World class para-athletes have come to Rome for the second time in a month. This week, it’s the U.S. Para 7 a side soccer team training on the Darlington campus for the upcoming World Cup competition this summer.
Late last month, the Georgia Open Wheelchair tennis championships brought athletes from two dozen nations to Rome with a variety of disabilities.
Disabilities? Scratch that.
“I can’t move my fingers too well and I can’t move my toes,” athlete Drew Bremer said. In spite of that, he has been playing soccer since he was four years old and made the team at Kalamazoo College in his native Michigan.
“This is just a great opportunity to go to Spain the represent United States playing soccer,” Bremer said. “The nature of this team there are so many young kids that are disabled that look up to us so it’s special to be a role model for those kids.”
Head Coach Stuart Sharp, a native of Scotland, has been working with the U.S. national team for five years. The players were either born with Cerebral Palsy, or have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury.
“We get our players from across the country, including players from college soccer, club soccer and we also have some veterans on our team who were injured overseas,” Sharp said.
His team is currently ranked fourth in the world which he said is representative of five years of hard work.
“We are getting ready for the World Cup. We’re not delusional in any way. It is going to be very hard,” Sharp said. “That doesn’t mean there are going to be any easy games at the international level.”
The World Cup will be played in Seville, Spain in July. The U.S. team is in a preliminary pool with Ireland, Iran and Finland which Sharp calls “the Group of Death” He said it will be a challenge for the U.S. team to advance out of pool play into the quarter-finals.
Bremer explained that teams scout out opponents and like any competitive athlete, don’t cut the players any slack for their disability.
“We all have similar disabilities so we understand that a lot of players have one-sided impairments so we scout for that so we know which way they want to go and their major tendency,” Bremer said. “If I get hit on the right side it’s easier for me to fall over so I’ve really had to adapt to that and mostly dribble with my left foot and shoot so it’s all really one-footed.”
The team also has a connection to Rome in the form of Daniel Wartner, who played soccer for four years at Berry College and is now the U.S. Paralympic team’s strength and conditioning coach leading up to the World Cup and Para Pan Am Games.
“I do the strength programs for the players, warm-up, cool-downs recovery, nutrition.” Wartner said.
Working with the paralympic teams is definitely more of a challenge.
“Especially the CP guys with affected limbs it make certain exercises challenging, it also will affect their muscle lengths, their physiology and how they are able to cope on the field.” said Wartner.
While the challenge is great, he feels like the reward is even greater.
“These guys would often be over-looked and don’t have teams to play for and it’s an opportunity for them to compete at the highest level and travel all over the world and wear the USA badge,” he said. “It’s great to be able to help them develop.”
This is not the first time the U.S. team has trained in Rome.
“In 2016 I brought the USPNT to Darlington for a two week prep camp prior to the Rio Olympic Games,” said Chad Liddle, director of the Darlington Soccer Academy. He served as an assistant coach for the team in 2017-18, spending a month with them in Argentina for the World Championships.
Sharp said that if anyone knows a soccer player who has Cerebral Palsy, had a stroke or a traumatic brain injury and would like to try out for the the national Para 7 a side team, to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.