UW-L Alum leads team to World Cup on wheels

Chris Finn

Photo © Scot Goodman. Coach Chris Finn throws his hands up in the air as the final whistle blew in a victory against England in the 2011 World Cup.

Chris Finn remembers long afternoons in the 1980s in his Whitefish Bay, Wis., backyard. The 10-year-old imagined he was Brazilian Football Star Pele winning the World Cup as he kicked a soccer ball against the garage. He dreamed one day he, too, would lead a team to victory in the worldwide soccer competition.

“Sometimes life takes us down a different path, but ultimately we achieve what we set out to do — only in a way we didn’t think of before,” explains Finn, a ’96 UW-L graduate.

Finn thought his childhood soccer dreams were smashed in 1992 when he fell in a pizza restaurant in La Crosse. A UW-L student at the time, Finn only remembers entering the bathroom and then waking up on the floor unable to move his limbs. He later learned his cervical fourth and fifth vertebra were injured causing paralysis.

Finn calls the incident “ironic.” At the time, he had been studying adaptive physical education to one day work with people who have physical disabilities. Now he would be the one needing assistance.

Finn kept a positive attitude despite new physical limitations. He continued his studies and leadership positions in campus organizations. He graduated with a major in therapeutic recreation. However, Finn thought playing sports would no longer be a part of his life. Sports for people with physical disabilities were geared toward those who could maneuver manual wheelchairs, not those needing power assistance, he explains.

But when Finn moved to California in 2001, he discovered power soccer through the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, an organization that provides sports and recreation opportunities to people with physical disabilities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Using his power wheelchair, Finn began to play, coach and compete internationally in power soccer.

“Getting back into soccer was like a light bulb switched on again,” he says. “I’ve been able to find my passion for sports and passion for life again.”

Chris Finn

Photo © Scot Goodman. Michael Archer on Team U.S.A. makes a play during the 2011 World Cup. Archer, from Greenwood, Ind., was MVP of the World Cup tournament.

The concept of worldwide power soccer competitions is relatively new. Team U.S.A. formed in 2006 when the International Federation of Powerchair Football Association was established. The first World Cup competition was played in 2007. Finn was at the helm of these developments and began coaching the first U.S.A. team in 2006. In 2007, Finn led the first Team U.S.A. to victory in the Power Soccer World Cup.

Finn says positions at UW-L such as president of the Residence Hall Association Council and being a resident assistant helped him develop leadership skills. His life experience gave him insights into coaching.

Team U.S.A. returned to compete in the Power Soccer World Cup in 2011. In the first match against England, Team U.S.A. lost 1-0. Finn told his team to remember “the three r’s.”

“You have to recognize what happened, realize what you need to do and then respond,” he told the team. “How you respond is up to you.”

Finn had employed that mentality many times in life. For one, when he recognized he would never be able play sports, he responded by discovering a new way to participate through power soccer.

“People may not always win the game, solve the problem or overcome the obstacles, but chances are when you approach it in that way, you’ll have a better chance of doing so,” he says.

After the England upset, the next World Cup tournament game was against Switzerland. Team U.S.A. responded with a victory of 21-0. And then beat France in the semi-finals 2-0, despite a raucous crowd of French fans. In the final competition they were up against England again.

On Nov. 6, 2011, Team U.S.A. beat England 3-0 to retain the World Cup title and become the first U.S.A. national soccer team to win consecutive world championships.

The victory over England was vindication, says Finn. Knowing the team dominated the World Cup tournament was a joyous moment, he notes. But the most gratifying part was seeing people with physical disabilities play a sport they loved, which ultimately changed their lives, he adds.

“Some people aren’t expected to do certain things or aren’t included in certain things,” he says. “When they finally are, it’s like 1,000 light bulbs go off instead of just one, and they realize that there are so many other possibilities not only in sports, but in life that they’re able to achieve.”

Chris Finn

When he’s not winning World Cups, Finn, of San Leandro, Calif., coaches at the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program or BORP in Berkeley, Calif. He’ll start training Team U.S.A. again in about two years for the next World Cup. The International Federation of Powerchair Football Association is working to develop power soccer around the world, especially in Asia and South America so the association can bid to make power soccer a part of the 2020 Paralympic Games.

Note: UW-L Alum Chris Finn is available for public speaking engagements. Contact him at chris@chrisfinn.com

Check out more photos of the World Cup event.

Watch a video of the game.

Featured in the Winter 2011-12 Magazine