Eric Westover is starting goalkeeper for the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team, as well as Vice President of the American Amputee Soccer Association. Photo Credit: Carl Calabria
Soccer News: Loss of Limb Doesn’t Keep These Soccer Players from the Game They Love
The loss of an arm or leg can be devastating to anyone, but the experience of being an amputee with a deep passion for a sport, such as soccer brings its own special challenges.
The American Amputee Soccer Association (AASA) offers an opportunity for recreational soccer programs for men, women and children. Thanks to the AASA and the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team, the love of soccer does not have to hit the couch after an amputation.
Amputee soccer was first developed in the United States in the 1980s after amputee Don Bennett realized he could raise up on his crutches to kick an errant basketball during his son’s home practices. If he could do that, clearly he could also kick a soccer ball on crutches.
From that simple beginning, amputee soccer was created and has since become a world-wide recreational and competitive sport, with associations in some 30 countries. Every two years the World Amputee Football Federation, which the AASA is a member of, presents their Amputee Soccer World Cup, providing elite competition for amputee athletes around the world.
Eric Westover is one such player who has benefitted from Bennett’s simple discovery. After growing up playing soccer and hockey, Westover suffered a nerve injury in his right arm in 1992 that eventually led to the onset of a disease called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
Eight years ago his arm was amputated about six inches below the elbow because of that, but it has not kept him from being active and involved in sports. In 2006 he was “discovered” and was invited to attend a tryout of the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team. Since then he has become not only the team’s starting goalkeeper, but the Vice President of the AASA.
This month, in conjunction with the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) Championship Series, Westover will be conducting two clinics in San Diego. SoccerNation spoke with him about amputee soccer, the National Team and the upcoming clinics.
SNN: How did you originally become involved with the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team?
Eric Westover: They actually found me on Facebook back in 2006. I played hockey goalie for 15 years and I also have a soccer background. I played sweeper from the time I was about seven all the way through high school. At that time they were looking for some goalkeepers, and they asked if I would try out for the team. I tried out and they offered me the starting keeper position.
SNN: What is it like playing soccer as an amputee? Obviously it must require some adjustments in style and technique.
Eric Westover: Absolutely. Amputee soccer is a little different. All the field players are leg amputees and nobody can wear their prosthesis. They play on forearm crutches. Also, the field players can’t use their short limbs or their crutches to advance the ball. As keepers, we can’t use our short arm, so I actually have to put my arm in my shirt.
I was originally right handed, and that’s the arm that I lost, so there have definitely been some adjustments to how I defend and how I play. But I also play for an able-bodied league here in Myrtle Beach. So in that league I’m able to use both my arms.
SNN: What has the National Team been doing recently?
Eric Westover: Things have really picked up with the National Team. We’ve been doing clinics around the country. We did a clinic last October with the Wounded Warrior Project up at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. We also did an exhibition match with the Haiti National Amputee Team. Since then we’ve really catapulted the program. We’re going to be doing three clinics in three states in the next ten days, and that’s before we hit San Diego.
SNN: Can you tell us a little about the San Diego clinics:
Eric Westover: What we’re doing is working with the NPSL Championship Weekend. We are working with the San Diego Flash and their CEO Clent Alexander.
We’re going to offer a 2 to 2½ hour clinic where we invite amputees from around the San Diego area. We’ll probably send out fliers a little closer to the event.
If the amputee has played soccer before they lost their limb, or they want to learn how to play, we invite them out and we show them what amputee soccer is.
We get them up on forearm crutches, get them comfortable on the crutches, put a ball in front of them and just make it so it is kind of a confidence builder for them. We give them some tips and really just teach them about the game.
SNN: How did you get connected with the NPSL for this clinic?
Eric Westover: Our head coach, Roy Howell, is a part owner with the Flash. He introduced me to Clent, and through talking to Clent we came up with this idea of doing a clinic out in San Diego.
We’re also going to be doing a separate clinic at Balboa Naval Hospital on the 26th. I’ll be coming in on the 25th, we’ll do the clinic at Balboa on the 26th and then we’ll do the open clinic with the NPSL on the 29th.
SNN: How do people tend to react when they learn about amputee soccer?
Eric Westover: I think when they hear the word “amputee,” at first people are not really sure what it’s going to be about. After they watch us play and watch the guys out there who are passionate, they really have a new respect not just for amputees but for guys who are out there playing a game they really love. We get a lot of spectators who aren’t really sure about it at first.
By the end of the game they are incredibly enthusiastic and overwhelmed at how fast the game is, how challenging it is and that it’s really just like able-bodied soccer.
We were just down in Mexico to play the Mexican National Amputee Soccer Team, and we had a crowd of 2500 people that came out and watched. It was the first time any of them had ever seen amputee soccer, and it was such a fun environment to be in. And the fans down in Mexico are rabid soccer fans, anyway. We’re kind of developing a border battle with them now.
SNN: Is there an international championship for amputee soccer?
Eric Westover: There is an Amputee World Cup that takes place every two years. There is a World Cup this year in October, right now scheduled for Russia.
We will not be competing this year because we can’t afford to send our players there. We’re a non-profit and totally funded by donations, so most of the players have to pay their own way. And it’s real tough for players who are working to take two weeks off from their jobs.
SNN: Where do you normally train?
Eric Westover: We really try to train wherever and whenever we can. Our players are scattered around the country, so we’ve been using these clinics as an avenue to have training for whatever players are able to come. This is because of the economic costs of trying to get us all together for a training session. If we had the full team come out, you’d probably be looking at $10,000 for each training session.
That’s been kind of an issue for us.
We have a core group of players who have been playing together, so we know each other. Usually if we have a match we’re able to come in a couple days early and train hard just to get back into shape. We usually do pretty well.
SNN: Do you ever pick up new players through these clinics?
Eric Westover: That is exactly what we are trying to do. We really want to develop the sport here in the United States so that we can develop players up to the National Team. With the clinics not only are we out there teaching people about amputee soccer, but we really want to start leagues across the country. The clinics are a good starting point for us.
We’re doing these events to find amputees who want to come out and play and who are interested in playing on a team and in a league. If they are committed, we want to develop them up to the National Team. It gives us a deeper development pool to choose from and we can get to younger players. Right now our youngest player is 17 and our oldest player is 46.
|The U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team during the National Anthem prior to their match against the Mexican National Amputee Soccer Team
We want people to know that this is a great sport to come and watch. It’s just as fast and as rough-and-tumble as any able-bodied soccer match you are going to see. And you’re going to see guys out there who have really overcome circumstances in their own lives and have gotten themselves back not only playing but playing at an elite level.
All photos from the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team matches with the Mexican National Amputee Soccer Team. Credit: Carl Calabria