By Gord Goble/For the Now-Leader
Surrey’s Bhavyn Sandhu watched from the sidelines.
Her game was played earlier in the afternoon, a bronze medal affair pitting her squad – the Greater Vancouver Lightning – against a team from Alberta. Sandhu’s team earned a medal with a 5-1 win on Sunday and she came achingly close to scoring a goal.
But now, she cheered on another local squad as they battled a team from the Okanagan for gold.
The occasion was the 2017 Power Soccer Provincials Championship, held last Saturday and Sunday (June 17 and 18) at the Cloverdale Recreation Centre.
Power soccer is essentially a hot-rodded version of regular soccer that’s played in gymnasiums by mobility challenged athletes using “power chairs” (nimble motorized wheelchairs operated by joysticks). The ball is substantially oversized and the players use “guards” fixed to the fronts of their chairs to pass and shoot.
That’s where things get interesting.
You see, physics dictates that the most powerful shots come not from the front of a player’s guard, but from the side of it. By aligning themselves so the ball sits a couple feet to their right or left, players can quickly spin or pivot their chairs so that it makes contact with a tremendous amount of force.
It’s a tough move that only the most skilled players can perfectly pull off, but if they do, that giant ball flat-out hurtles toward its target.
The spin/pivot is just one of several distinctions between power soccer and its regular soccer counterpart. And now, Sandhu watched as the best two teams in the tourney, stocked by some of the best players with some of the best moves, played the gold medal game.
Players like Vancouver’s Dale McLeod, an obvious master of the sport who can break through defences and position and shoot the ball like nobody’s business. Sadly for the local side on this day, the Okanagan opposition proved formidable. There were few weak spots on the Penticton-based team, and in the end they’d claim the gold.
It’s clear that Sandhu wants one day to be in that position. And she probably will. Just 12 years old, she’s been a power soccer competitor for five seasons and has the will and the age advantage to be a star far into the future.
Her life has not been easy. Born with a host of issues, she’s already had a dozen surgeries. But she handles it like a champ. She’s a swimmer and a wheelchair basketballer when not attending Grade 7 at Mountainview Montessori.
As the gold medal game eased into its second half, she talked in great detail about the moves she’s already mastered even at her young age. She says she can play every position – even goalie – though it’s obvious that she enjoys scoring goals rather than saving them.
And she really wants an equipment upgrade. Currently, she uses a generic power chair and a plastic guard. The older, elite players use low-slung chairs and elongated metal guards to give their shots and passes that extra “kick.”
Mom Parminder says better gear is in the cards, though she cautions that better gear means more money.
Later, moments after the medal presentations, silver medalist Chase Baker moseyed on over. Unlike Sandhu, Baker is barely capable of holding his own medal aloft. But that didn’t stop him from demonstrating how he maneuvers his chair – carefully manipulating a tiny joystick between his two thumbs.
It’s a moment that sticks with you.
Soon enough though, Baker’s laughing and talking about the times he’s unintentionally smacked another player’s chair with his own, thereby contravening the no-contact rules. He then professes his great love for video games and hanging out with buddies.
And of course, silver medals.
Ross MacDonald is the executive director of SportAbility BC, the registered charitable organization that manages the provincial power soccer program, along with other disability-centric sports such as boccia, sledge hockey, and 7-a-side soccer.
“The whole idea is to provide opportunities for athletes with different kinds of disabilities,” MacDonald said. “We have a wide range of athletes we deal with. In power soccer, you’re going to have athletes who may have suffered an injury or been born with a disability…there’s a range of muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, quadriplegia.
“The great thing about power soccer…you look at them out there, they have smooth motion, very fluid. But if you or me hopped in their chair, we’d be all over the place. Their chairs are touchy, real finicky. They’re so skilled they make it look easy.”
MacDonald credits Surrey for being at the forefront of “adaptive” sport support. “We have a great relationship with the City of Surrey. The city itself offers a program for adaptive sports, so we have a partnership with them.
“And this rec centre is central for a lot of the teams. We do try to move it around because we are a provincial organization, but Surrey’s our main place to go.”
He’s particularly psyched that an Alberta team was able to make it to this year’s tourney. Alberta, according to a couple of it’s team members, hasn’t been quite as proactive as B.C. when it comes to adaptive sports.
Cole Rutter, 21, is the coach of Surrey power soccer. It’s his job – his paid job.
Rutter, a former able-bodied athlete, says he sustained a spinal cord injury nine years ago and started playing power soccer four years later.
“So I’ve had a taste of both worlds,” he said.
“Power soccer is a fun sport. Everybody is super nice, and they welcome you,” he added, smiling.
Not long after he signed up for the program, he saw that it needed a coach. So he applied and soon thereafter got the job.
Today, Rutter commutes to his power soccer job from Abbotsford. He also commutes to college, where he’s working on a broadcasting degree. He ultimately wants to be a play-by-play man or a sports writer.
But in the meantime, he’s all about power soccer.
“We’re always looking for new members,” he says. “We’re running a little low on numbers right now. We need at least five or six to get a good game going on. You need a power chair, and we’ll get you fitted with a foot guard so you can play.”