Coach Chris Finn, our Very Inspiring Person of the week, lifts up disabled athletes with a simple message: “You Are Able.”
Growing up in Whitefish Bay, Wis., coach Chris Finn was an avid soccer player who dreamed of someday representing his country in the World Cup. Years later, Chris realized his childhood goal—albeit in a very different way than he ever imagined. Coach Finn serves as the head coach of the USA National Power Soccer team, a sport that enables severely disabled individuals to compete using electric wheelchairs. In 2007 and 2011, he coached the team to two consecutive World Cup wins—a “dream come true” for Chris, who himself uses a power wheelchair.
Chris was a college senior in La Crosse, Wis., when an unexpected fall in a bathroom stall shattered his cervical fourth and fifth vertebrate, leaving him paralyzed from the chest-down.
“It was a freak accident,” says Chris. “Doctors aren’t exactly sure what happened to me or how it happened.”
His mobility compromised, Chris was placed in an electric wheelchair, or “powerchair” as it is commonly called. After the accident, Chris grappled with feelings of malaise and helplessness as he came to terms with the fact that he would never again be able to participate in the activities he previously enjoyed, including soccer.
Or so he thought. When Chris relocated to San Leandro, Calif., in 2001, he heard about a new sport called “power soccer”—the first competitive team sport designed specifically for power wheelchair users. “I knew I had to check it out,” he says.
Chris was immediately hooked. At that first practice, he scored a goal—and, for the first time since his accident, regained a piece of his former self. “At that moment, I felt like I was back where I was supposed to be and doing what I love to do. The lightbulb went off for me again as far as my life and my purpose,” he says.
Chris coached power soccer at the local level in the Bay Area for several years before starting to develop the sport both nationally and internationally. In 2006, Chris was one of the founders of the Federal International Powerchair Football Association (FIPFA), the international governing body of power soccer headquartered in Paris, and he was appointed head coach of the USA National Power Soccer Team. The very next year, he led the U.S. team to become the 2007 World Champions in the inaugural Powerchair Football World Cup held in Tokyo.
“Helping the USA Team win the world cup was a dream come true,” says Chris, who also coached the team to a consecutive World Cup win in Paris in 2011.
With two World Cup wins under its belt, the USA Power Soccer Team hopes to defend its title in the upcoming 2015 FIPFA World Cup. But according to Chris, power soccer is about much more than winning. For individuals with severe disabilities, it’s about self-affirmation, teamwork and learning to believe in oneself.
“Growing up, kids in powerchairs are often told they will never amount to anything. I want to challenge this perspective,” Chris says. “Through power soccer, I want to show them what’s possible.”
One of the unique things about power soccer is its highly democratic nature. The USA team, for example, has an incredibly diverse makeup, with both male and female players from ages 16 to 28 playing side-by-side. Athletes’ disabilities include various forms of muscular dystrophy such as spinal muscular atrophy and duchennes, arthrogryposis, cerebral palsy, congenital birth defects and spinal cord injuries.
But Chris’s message to all players is the same: “You Are Able,” a slogan that speaks to his firm belief that people can accomplish anything they put their minds to. He says, “I want to show my players that they are able—whether it’s maneuvering a wheelchair, making a pass, or just having fun playing a sport. As a coach, I help them see what’s possible out there in the world that they never thought they could do.”
Chris, who is the vice president of FIPFA, hopes to bring more awareness to the sport of power soccer and continue to spread it around the world. For a person in a power wheelchair to become a member of a team is “incredibly powerful,” Chris says. “They go from thinking that they don’t have anything to thinking that the possibilities are endless,” he says. “That’s my favorite part about being a coach.”