Monticello athlete Nathan Mayer has overcome a debilitating disease to help his power soccer team to three straight national championships
For Nathan Mayer, it all started six or seven years ago, when he discovered power chair soccer.
No, check that.
For Nathan Mayer, it all started 14 years ago, when he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at the age of eight months, and learned that he would spend much of his life in a power chair.
For some, the story might start and stop there. For Mayer, it continued, and picked up steam six to seven years down the road – when he discovered power chair soccer.
Mayer, a self-professed competitive kid with a love for soccer and hockey, among other sports, found himself able to play an adaptation of one of his favorite games.
“It feels really good,” said Mayer, of now being able to compete. “Because, I know I’m different, but yet I’m the same. I can say that I’m an athlete.”
That discovery led him on a journey that has crisscrossed the United States. A journey that has racked up a ridiculous winning percentage. A journey that has led to friends and fans. And a journey that has now produced three straight national championships.
But, the journey didn’t happen just like that. It’s been a culmination of a lot of 36-week long seasons, with Nathan and his dad Tracy (the coach) heading down to Golden Valley each and every Saturday morning (except the rare occasions where they use Monticello) to practice with Nathan’s team.
His team, which has remained mostly unchanged over the last four years of its existence, has had plenty of opportunity to grow together. Through trials and tribulations, on and off the court, Nathan has seen them get much stronger together on the court.
“Lots of team chemistry has been built [over the years],” said Mayer. “And trust.”
But while those might have taken a while to build, a winning foundation was quick to form.
Despite Nathan, and Tracy, learning the game on the fly, they became quite good at it quite quickly.
When they began, there were two divisions of power chair soccer, and Nathan’s team played in the bottom division, where they found success.
They finished fourth in his first year, and third in the next year. Then, they transitioned to the current team, although at the time they were the Minnesota Thunder (now the Minnesota Magic).
The first year with this group of teammates, they took second at the division two level.
When they came back the next year, they found they had expectations for the first time.
“The second year, we were expected to win it,” said Tracy Mayer. “Both by ourselves, and honestly, by other teams.”
The Thunder didn’t disappoint, capturing the Division II national championship when Nathan was 12 years old.
Last year, the United States Power Soccer Association introduced a new tiered format to power soccer. They would have five different levels of competition, and five cups available for the teams to play for.
The Thunder would begin this new format in the second-highest tier.
“We got into the cup last year, and my goal was to place in the top half,” said Tracy Mayer. “And we won it. “
With two national championships under their belt, and because of a top-two finish at the cup II tier, the Thunder were moved to the top level.
The team would decide to go independent before this season (and become the Minnesota Magic), their first at the premiere level. It gave them added opportunities to fund raise and it just made logistical sense. But it also put all the pressures of being an independent team on them, combined with the pressures of entering a new level of play.
Still, when the season began in September, the Mayers weren’t worried.
“The level of competition was an unknown,” said Tracy. “But, I’m very comfortable and confident in what these kids can and can’t do.”
What they did do was schedule even tougher competition. There are two other power chair soccer teams in Minnesota; so naturally, the three teams match up a lot.
But, the Magic also traveled to find competition, going anywhere from Indianapolis to Atlanta to provide these kids a chance to challenge themselves against the best.
In April of this season, the Magic did just that. They traveled to Indianapolis to take on the country’s top power chair soccer team, Circle City.
They lost 8-0.
“We kind of got a taste of the medicine in Indianapolis,” said Tracy Mayer. “But, we didn’t play our best.”
No, that was still yet to come.
As the regular season wound down this year, the Minnesota Magic made a key investment. They bought power chairs from a new shop (Power Soccer Shop) in Zimmerman.
“They can do whatever you want,” said Nathan Mayer of the new chairs. “Spin faster, push harder – that helped.”
But, the new chairs also brought an added element of unknown to the mix. The team had just two practices and no games in the weeks between getting the chair and beginning the national tournament.
But, it was the least of the concerns for the Magic, who entered their first-ever premiere cup tournament as the eighth seed out of nine teams.
“The entire team, coaches included, fans even included were like we’re just going to go in there, and see what it’s like,” said Nathan Mayer. “We had no expectation that we were going to finish in the top four even.”
Then, the wins started piling up. They won a close first game of pool play; assuring them they wouldn’t finish last and would remain at the premiere level for the next season (sincerely their biggest goal coming in). Next, they knocked off the number two team in the country, 3-0.
At that point, the Magic started to get their hopes up.
They were never dashed.
A third pool play win put them in the semifinals where they eliminated the hosts of the tournament (Tampa Bay, Florida) with a 1-0 win, their second victory over them in just a couple of days.
That brought them to the championship game. A rematch with a team that had beat them 8-0 just a couple of month’s prior.
“Don’t change anything,” Tracy Mayer told his team before the game, as he urged them to keep their attacking style.
“We’ve got nothing to lose, we made it further than anyone thought we’d make it, including myself.”
But the run wasn’t done.
The Magic, who Mayer said played in fear of the number one team in their first matchup, played flawless this time. They scored five goals in the opening half, including one by Mayer (his third goal of the tournament, to go with five assists), to take a 5-0 lead into the half.
“Oh. My. Gosh,” was Nathan Mayer’s halftime reaction.
Up five goals on the best team in the country, and one of the best teams in the world, all they had to do was not screw it up (which would be easy to do against a team that can easily score six times in a half).
But, the Magic stayed the aggressor, and for that they were rewarded. They held on to win 5-1 in the championship game, giving them their first-ever premiere championship, their third straight national championship, and handing Circle City their first loss in 90+ games.
“It felt amazing,” said Nathan Mayer. “It just felt amazing.”
For their part, Nathan Mayer said Circle City appeared to be in shock. No one could blame them. With three starters that are members of the World Cup team, they hardly could have expected to lose to a team they had already beat 8-0 earlier this year. But, they learned, as has everyone else – both on and off the court – to not underestimate the Magic.
“I’m extremely proud,” said Tracy Mayer. “Most satisfying tournament for the way they came out of Indianapolis to the way they responded in this tournament. I had no expectations. They were not in fear of the #3, #2, or the #1. They played their game the way they know how to play. Nathan had his best tournament. He had the most confidence he’s ever had.”
So, what’s left?
Well, first there is the order of getting championship rings, a thought that has Nathan giddy.
But, what makes him equally happy? The thought of defending his new national championship.
“We have a big target on our backs,” admitted Nathan. “But it’s even more exciting. Everybody wants us, just like we wanted that team that we beat. I think it will be fun.”
The journey’s been a lot of things for Nathan Mayer. But, nothing beats fun.