Alan Heiber

I’m an avid fan of many sports, yet finding one to watch that includes people who look like me can be a “looking for a needle in a haystack” type of search. 

For someone with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), power soccer might just be a perfect outlet for this void. 

The US Power Soccer Association (USPSA) is the nation’s governing body for the sport. It’s the first competitive team sport to feature power wheelchairs. According to the USPSA website, athletes have conditions such as quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis (MS), muscular dystrophy (MD), cerebral palsy (CP), and more. Matches take place on a regulation basketball court with 4-on-4 attacking, defending, and spin kicking a 13-inch ball at the opposing goals. There are 2 20-minute periods per contest.

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I recently talked to a competitor of this sport, Nikki Dwyer, to learn about her sport and herself.

Dwyer has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which falls under the MD umbrella my disease also falls under. Aesthetically it’s pretty clear she has a passion for her sport. She put a soccer ball handle topper on her wheelchair joystick and also has a tattoo of one.

The Tidewater Piranhas based out of Virginia is the name of Dwyer’s squad.

Since there is a lack of opponents to face where Dwyer’s team is located, they will usually go on the road for tournaments. She has played often in Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio.

In February, Dwyer was back on the court for a tournament after a 2-year absence due to delays from COVID-19. There doesn’t appear to be much rust in her game though, as she has scored 5 goals since returning.

“I really like playing soccer and also the aspect of being around other disabled people,” Dwyer said. “It was kind of hard not to be around other people like me for almost 2 years and just not getting to do my favorite hobby.”

Read more about experimental therapies for DMD

As in other athletic environments, having a quality coaching staff is essential for power soccer. The head coach for the Piranhas is Steve Belechak. He’ll set lineups and register the team for games. Dwyer added it is a family type of atmosphere, which is why he will keep in touch to make sure each player was able to travel well.

With the hurdles neuromuscular conditions like SMA can present, it’s easy and understandable to become pessimistic. Dwyer doesn’t see much benefit in getting engulfed by these feelings.

Nikki Dwyer, who has spinal muscular dystrophy (SMA), is seen in action during a USPSA match. Credit: Scot Goodman/USPSA

“Sometimes people ask, ‘How do you deal with it?’ From my perspective, I don’t see that I have a choice in giving up or being really down about it,” Dwyer said. “I feel like it’s OK to get down sometimes, but I don’t sit around saying, ‘My life sucks.’”

Power soccer is a pivotal coping mechanism for Dwyer.

“I’m not a very angry person, but if somebody was it’s a good way to release aggression,” Dwyer said. “When you’re playing you only focus on the game, so it is a good stress reliever and distraction from dealing with hard life stuff.”

Another stress-relieving strategy Dwyer utilizes is humor related to her disability.

“There’s a time when jokes are inappropriate, but I think making light of hard situations makes it easier to cope with,” she said. “If somebody says, ‘I don’t like using the stairs,’ I’ll say, ‘Neither do I.’”

The wheelchair version of rugby is synonymous with a documentary titled “Murderball.” In power soccer, there is a specialized chair with something that resembles a battering ram sticking out from the footrests. This model even has an intimidating name, “strike force.” Dwyer played down her sport’s physicality, but it definitely can get a little shaky.

“It’s mostly putting a hand on the joystick, but when you’re spinning around and trying to watch the ball and follow it, you have to maintain your positioning in the chair,” Dwyer said. “If someone hits you, your body might hit different parts of the chair. Injuries and getting hurt are pretty rare, but sometimes I get bruises from just hitting parts of my chair.”

Off the court, Dwyer is a graduate student of clinical mental health counseling, a project coordinator at a research lab, a client relations manager for a salon, and part of the worship team at her church. In her spare time, she enjoys driving her accessible vehicle and seeing friends.

There is a line in Dwyer’s Instagram bio that seems to be a fitting description of her. It goes, “Maybe she won’t, but then again maybe she wheel.”