http://www.adn.com/sports/story/4145984p-4159964c.html

Dreaming of Greek gold
Two Alaskans are on the U.S. Paralympic Soccer Team, playing in the World Championships


By ERIC SMITH
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: October 12, 2003)


Keith Johnson, of Anchorage, is a goalie for the US national Paralympic soccer team. Johnson was born with cerebral palsy, a non-progressive motor disorder that affects body movement and often results in spastic paralysis. (Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Click on photo to enlarge
By the time Anchorage's Keith Johnson and Jason Slemons become conversational in Spanish, they hope to start learning another language -- Greek.

The two Alaskans are part of the 12-man U.S. Paralympic Soccer Team, and they're in Buenos Aires, Argentina, playing in the Paralympic World Championships.

A successful showing there and the U.S. team can make plans for a trip to Athens, Greece, where the 2004 Paralympic Games will be held a few weeks after the Summer Olympics.

But the players are trying not to look past Argentina.

"We're going to take it as it comes," said Johnson, who primarily plays goalkeeper. "We're not going to have any expectations; that's the best way to go into it."

Johnson and Slemons are both 23 and both graduated from East High -- Slemons in 1998, Johnson in 1999 -- but it's another similarity that brought them together on this team.

To be eligible for Paralympic soccer, which is played seven per side on a smaller pitch and with smaller goals, players must have suffered a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, or must be diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Johnson and Slemons were both born with cerebral palsy, a non-progressive motor disorder that affects body movement and often results in spastic paralysis. But that hasn't stopped either from living their lives.

For Johnson, that means staying in shape for a wide range of sports.

"I've played football and baseball," Johnson said. "I go ice skating, I ride my bike, I go to the gym and work out."

And there's a whole lot more he'd like to achieve, such as obtaining a pilot's license.

The first certificate he wants, however, is the kind that comes on parchment paper. Though he left college after one year, Johnson, who works as an auto detailer at Alaska Sales and Service, plans to re-enroll and study criminal justice, either at UAA or a school in Texas where he may move to help care for his grandmother.

Slemons, a wing on the team, didn't know until recently that he had cerebral palsy. His parents kept the diagnosis from him so he would maintain a normal life and not be affected by any kind of stigma -- imagined or not -- that might come with having the condition.

It wasn't, in fact, until last summer when a future Paralympic teammate, who also has cerebral palsy, saw Slemons and recognized a similarity.

"The captain of the team sort of pulled me off the street and said, 'You've got cerebral palsy,' " Slemons said.

That was a surprise, but it didn't stop Slemons from going after his dreams, either. He earned a bachelor's degree from Cal-Berkeley and a master's from the University of Washington, where he is now working toward a Ph.D. in mathematics.

But Johnson and Slemons are putting their non-soccer plans on hold for a few weeks as they work toward the dream of playing in the Paralympics, a dream that came closer to reality in August, when they and 10 other players made the national team.

During the tryouts at Carson City, Calif., and at the training camps that followed, the teammates bonded, something Johnson said is critical if they hope to compete next year on one of the world's biggest soccer stages.

"We've come together as a team on and off the field," Johnson said. "We'd have team meetings, watch TV together, eat lunch and dinner together. We'd go shopping and go to the ocean. It was fun.

"We've been working hard and we have good coaches," he added. "Our teamwork is good -- we're good."

The U.S. team must be good if it hopes to advance to Athens. Brazil, Russia and Ukraine have already clinched berths, leaving 10 teams vying for the five remaining berths. Those berths will be awarded at the Buenos Aires tournament.

"If we play every game as well as we can and as well as we should, then we'll qualify," Slemons said.

U.S. Paralympic soccer coach Jay Hoffman, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., said the United States is still behind some other nations, particularly the three that have qualified.

"We're at a level where we're trying to qualify for the Olympics and develop a program," Hoffman said. "We're trying to find more people within these disabled groups that have played soccer."

If the national team can do that, the level of play will only rise, according to Slemons.

"As more and more people find out about Paralympic soccer, the playing pool will become larger and the competition will become fierce," he said.

Hoffman said Johnson, one of the youngest among players ranging in age from 17-48, is the kind of player the U.S. team has been looking for.

"He's courageous, and he does what he has to do for us to play well," Hoffman said. "Keith brings a couple different elements to the team. He brings good mobility and he's got some good ideas about where he needs to be when he plays in goal."

Though Johnson is second on the goalkeeping depth chart, there's always the chance that coaches will give him the nod come game time.

"If I start, then I'm going to be really, really nervous," Johnson said, "cause I don't want to screw up."

Johnson left Anchorage on Tuesday and Slemons left Seattle on Wednesday. They met the rest of the team in Washington, D.C., and from there they flew to Argentina.

Uncertain of how often an interpreter will escort the team, Johnson made sure to bring along a Spanish dictionary.

"I have a few sentences put together and a few one-word (phrases) that can carry me far,'' he said. "The only things I can say right now are 'hello,' 'thank you' and 'how are you?'

"And I can count."

In two weeks when Johnson begins the long trip home to Anchorage, he might have something special to count -- the number of days before the Athens Paralympics and a shot at a gold medal, something understood in any language.

Daily News reporter Eric Smith can be reached at esmith@adn.com.