Dakotah Smith had heard the traditional cries of doubt. “You can’t play. You’re a girl. Girls don’t play sports like soccer.”
But those archaic statements never shook Smith’s determination—she had already faced more difficult doubts. Her desire to compete, to win, and to be part of a team trumped all the questions anybody ever had. So she went out for a soccer team, and she made it.
“One of the boys on my team, Tiawan, we grew up at a summer camp together,” Smith said. “When I used to want to play sports with the boys, I always heard, ‘But you’re a girl’. Playing on a team with Tiawan, we’re so competitive at such a high level that my role has changed from the nice, feminine, girly type who didn’t want to get hit. Now I can be the most aggressive one on the team.”
Smith, who has muscular distrophy, believes it wasn’t until she started playing power soccer that she discovered she had a strong desire for competition. “That definitely came from soccer,” she said. “When I was a kid, there wasn’t anything for me to be competitive with. But when I would see able-bodied kids playing soccer, it made me jealous that I couldn’t play. Finding this was really cool.”
Today Smith plays for the Atlanta Synergy power soccer team, competing in tournaments across the country and proving wrong those who thought a girl in a wheelchair couldn’t play soccer. She says she feels privileged to be able to be a role model for other kids who may be facing similar challenges in their lives.
“I want them to understand that having a disability doesn’t have to hold you back from anything,” Smith said. “You only let it hold you back as much as you want it to. You can do anything that you want to do.”
But Smith says she didn’t really set out to find power soccer. It found her.
Smith started using a wheelchair at age five, often when she was tired or was traveling long distances. By age 11, she had moved to full-time use, and today she uses a power wheelchair. While attending a yearly summer camp for young adults with muscular dystrophy, Smith met and befriended Tiawan Britto.
During the summer of 2002, some special guests came to speak at Smith and Britto’s camp. The guests, who were representatives from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital, told the camp’s students about power soccer and mentioned that the Shepherd Center’s soccer team (the Shepherd Strikers) were in search of people to join and play. To gear up interest, an exhibition was held in which campers were invited to learn the game. Smith, despite some hesitation, hit the court.
“One of my childhood friends kind of forced me to try it,” Smith said. “I didn’t really want to. I had never seen a sport specifically for people with disabilities, so I was like, ah, that’s probably not that cool. But I tried it, and I loved it. I went out for the team right after that and I’ve been playing ever since.”
According to the United States Power Soccer Association, power soccer combines the skill of the wheelchair user with the speed and power of the chair itself to generate a game similar to soccer. The sport is played in a gym on a regulation basketball court and features two teams of four players each. Players must attack, defend and spin-kick a 13-inch soccer ball to score goals. The players’ wheelchairs are equipped with guards in front of the players’ feet, which are used to direct the ball during play—and to protect players when the intensity of the game increases.
“I think as soon as someone puts that guard on the front of their chair, it changes everything,” Smith said. “As soon as you realize that you’re doing something completely independently, it changes your perception, and you start to understand that this isn’t just a sport that you just play around with. For me, the change was almost instantaneous.”
Power soccer (which is referred to internationally as “power football”) began in France in the 1970s and moved into the United States during the 1980s. As more countries began to play the sport, rules and strategies began to vary. In 2005, six national organizations met in Paris and agreed to form the Federation International de Powerchair Football Association (FIPFA) as the international governing body of the sport.
By then, Smith’s skill had increased and her team had separated from the Shepherd Center to compete—and to raise money—independently. They became the Atlanta Synergy, and have since traveled to Arizona, Indiana, and across the South to compete in tournaments. The wide spread of the sport’s tournament sites is a clear indicator of its increasing popularity across the country.
“We have received inquiries from several states interested in starting a program,” said Dominic Russo, president of the U.S. Power Soccer Association, in a letter on the organization’s website. “We are reaching not only our target goal of growing within the U.S. but also throughout our continent.”
In a recent survey by FIPFA of ten national organizations across the globe, it was revealed that more than 3,500 people play power soccer, with 600 of those athletes participating in the United States. France leads all countries in adoption of the sport with 1,100 players.
In 2007, Smith and her teammate Eddie McGuire were selected to compete for Team USA in the first World Cup for power soccer in Japan. Jerome Durand, also a Synergy player, represented France. Smith notes that, even in her role as a team alternate, the experience was unforgettable.
“We had like five or six training camps for the year and a half leading up to the World Cup,” Smith said. “We got to go to Minnesota, Las Vegas, San Francisco and all these places to train. Going to Japan was amazing. The level of competition there was unreal.”
In a tense shootout, Team USA beat Japan for the Cup. With her Atlanta teammates, Smith also took a trip to the sport’s homeland of France to pick up some new competition wheelchairs. While there, she played a few exhibition games against some of the local teams.
“Our style mimics how they play,” said Smith, who was recently moved into a striker position for her team in order to be more aggressive on the court. “Everybody plays how the French play, with the passing and how fast the game is. We learned a lot from them.”
It seems teams in North America have also learned a lot from Atlanta. The Synergy has transformed into one of the premier power soccer teams this side of the ocean, proving its worth when it played in the inaugural Americas Champions Cup in October in Suwanee, GA. Smith and her teammates claimed the title with a 4-0 victory over the Circle City Rollers, the team to whom they lost in July in the United States Power Soccer Association National Championship Tournament finals.
The America’s Champions Cup was organized by FIPFA and teams from the U.S. Power Soccer Association and Powerchair Football Canada. It offered eight teams a chance to gain international playing experience, providing them with solid preparation for the 2011 Powerchair Football World Cup, which is still up for bid between potential host nations United States and France.
Whether the World Cup is to be in the U.S. or in the sport’s homeland, Smith hopes to be in attendance as a representative for her country. And if she’s not, she knows that others can carry the torch for her. Whether a girl happens to be carrying that torch or not makes no difference to Smith.
“I see younger kids who have never been a part of something like this and haven’t actively participated in things,” Smith said. “I love to show kids that this is something you can do without anybody’s help. Nobody can hold you back. Nobody can tell you that you can’t do it.”
by Josh Pate