COLUMBIA — The sound of electric motors is constant, the crash of a collision occasional. But it’s the shouts of “Shift!” “Spread it out!” and “Go, go, go!” coming from a practice of Columbia’s Driving Force team that make it clear that power soccer is a competitive sport.
All of the players on the Driving Force team use a power wheelchair. And all find in the sport an outlet for their athleticism, competitive spirit and a sense of community.
Power soccer is played with a 13- inch ball, on a regulated basketball court, by four players a side, one of which plays as goalie.
Players all use power wheelchairs for locomotion.
The game consists of two halves of 25 minutes each. Players use ball guards attached to the front of the power wheelchairs to spin, kick and defend.
Anyone age 8 or older who uses a power wheelchair can join the Driving Force team, which practices from 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays at Woodcrest Chapel, 2201 W. Nifong Blvd.
“This one day a week does more to change how (power soccer athletes) think about things than any therapy because it’s a true competitive sport,” said Mark Ohrenberg, 33, general manager of the team. “No person needs to be fixed. They need to use the talent they have within the community they live in.”
Power soccer is the first competitive sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users, according to the Web site of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.
Driving Force is Columbia’s first power soccer team. It was organized and developed in June 2008 by Ohrenberg, who has muscular dystrophy. He is also youth and family coordinator at Services for Independent Living, a not-for-profit group where more than half of the staff have disabilities.
Last week, MU’s Student Occupational Therapy Association donated $1,000 to the team for equipment, travel expenses and registration fees.
“It’s important to see people who would not have the opportunity to play a sport in a traditional setting get the opportunity to do so,” said Nicole Scott, 21, a physical therapy student at MU who volunteers as the team’s assistant coach.
The idea for the team came up after Romanda Walker played the sport at a Muscular Dystrophy Association camp. She likes the sense of independence power soccer gives her and that she can play on the team without assistance.
“You see people growing up when you’re young, watching your siblings play sports, just sitting on the sidelines,” she said. “But this is an awesome opportunity for me to be out there and be inside the action.”
For Greg Abbott, 19, who has cerebral palsy from birth, the team is also his first opportunity to play sports competitively, his mother, Cara Wright, 43, said. Wright said her family moved to Columbia “because of all of its resources,” one of them being the Driving Force team.
“It levels the playing field. They are a really interesting group of players,” she said. “If they didn’t use wheelchairs, they probably wouldn’t know each other.”
Since her son joined Driving Force, he has graduated from high school, moved out of his parents’ house into his own apartment, found a job and is now about to get his own van, Wright said.
Tad Johnsen, whose 15-year-old son Tucker Johnsen is one of the youngest players on the team, has also seen how the sport can be a confidence booster. Tucker has cerebral palsy caused by premature birth.
“(Power soccer) gives him an outlet for his competitive spirit other than picking on his sisters,” Johnsen said, half-jokingly.
Driving Force will travel to St. Peters to play its first tournament, the Ameristar Power Soccer Challenge, on Feb. 14 and 15. The challenge will host up to six Division II teams, Ohrenberg said.
Although players do not have to pay to join the team, this might soon change because of the high cost of uniforms, travel expenses and registration fees. For example, the St. Peters championship costs $75 per person. Ohrenberg said the team, which now practices at Woodcrest Chapel, is also searching for a regulation-size basketball court for practices.
“My goal is to provide opportunities for people to utilize what skills they have,” he said, “because every person has skill.”