Cheers erupted on the sidelines of a practice field outside RFK Stadium as Sandy Jean Louis Louiseme, the youngest member of a Haitian soccer team composed entirely of amputees, dribbled toward the goal.
Amputee soccer has rhythms, and risks, all its own, which became clear when Louiseme collided with the goalie of the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team, crutches flying in every direction. Only after Louiseme sat up with a smile on his face did the crowd exhale.
Louiseme’s squad, Team Zaryen, scrimmaged with the U.S. national team Tuesday as part of a five-day “Haitian Inspiration Tour,” in which the amputees, victims of last year’s earthquake, held clinics in amputee soccer for U.S. service members who have lost legs while stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The clinics, held at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Monday and the RFK practice field Tuesday, were the team’s way of thanking the U.S. military for its work evacuating and caring for victims of the disaster.
Amputee soccer was founded 30 years ago in Seattle by Don Bennett, a sportsman who lost his leg in a boating accident at age 42. Now, people who have lost a limb play the sport around the world, on crutches. All prosthetics are left on the sidelines to level the playing field.
Justin Masellas, 25, a Marine sergeant who lost his right leg below the knee in July after a rocket blast in Afghanistan, watched the action Tuesday. Although he had never been a soccer fan, his opinion changed after attending two of Team Zaryen’s clinics this week. Now, he said, he’s ready to challenge his two-legged friends to a game of soccer, “the amputee way.”
“It gets a lot more complicated when you have to use one less leg,” he said.
Team Zaryen’s trip was sponsored by Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable organization, and Project Medishare, a nonprofit organization based in Miami that helped found Team Zaryen in September 2010.
Prosthetic arms and legs have transformed the lives of hundreds of Haitians who lost limbs in the earthquake, including Team Zaryen members, said Jason Miller, a physical therapist who directs the rehabilitation program at Project Medishare’s Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince.
Historically, amputees there have been stigmatized, Miller said. “Disabled people have always been on the fringe of society in Haiti,” he said.
Many of those injured during the earthquake didn’t want their limbs amputated, said Adam Finnieston, a prosthetist who has worked with Project Medishare to fit Haitian amputees with mechanical limbs, including all Team Zaryen players. “They would risk their lives to keep their limbs,” Finnieston said.
Mackenson Pierre, 28, was trapped for three days under the rubble of a collapsed school in Port-au-Prince and lost a leg to infection after he was rescued. An avid soccer player before the earthquake, he said he was “overwhelmed” with emotion after losing his leg, especially while sitting on the sidelines watching his friends play the game he loved.
When he visited Project Medishare one day to see about getting a prosthetic, someone there asked whether he played soccer. “I can’t play soccer with just one leg,” he responded. But he quickly accepted an offer to join Team Zaryen. Amputee soccer was part of what Project Medishare calls its Return to Sport Initiative for Haitians who lost limbs in the earthquake.
Soon, Pierre was playing several times a week.
One of the lessons amputee soccer taught Pierre and his teammates was when to put their prosthesis aside in favor of crutches.
They happily do so while playing but gratefully put them back on after the game.
The word “zaryen” is Creole for tarantula, a spider that can grow back a leg. When a team member has a prosthesis, “they grow another leg,” said Cedieu Fortilus, the coach and co-founder.
Pierre would miss a lot of balls at first as he tried to kick them with his phantom right leg. When that happened, he said, he’d tell the coach, “I’m sorry. I’m a righty.”
These days, Pierre is one of more than 20 Haitian men, women and children who have started to play soccer with Team Zaryen in Haiti, dramatically changing the way people with disabilities are viewed in their country. When they wear their uniform shirts, people cheer for them in the streets, said Robert Gailey, director of rehabilitation at Project Medishare’s base in Miami.
On Saturday, Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, came to watch them play, Gailey said.
“Kids see them play, and they’re heroes,” Miller said.
With each game, the team gets closer to its dream of playing in the 2012 Amputee Football World Cup, the most elite of international competitions for disabled soccer players. Playing the U.S. team Tuesday was just a warm-up.
This week, though, teaching military veterans that they, too, can do something they thought they never could after losing a leg was the team’s primary goal. Bennett, the amputee game’s founder, watched Tuesday’s game and clinic with a sense of pride: Team Zaryen changed veterans’ lives. Now, he said, “they know they can play the fastest one-legged sport in the world.”