It was all the way back in October of 2014 that Nathan Mayer got the life-changing phone call that he had been selected to represent Team USA’s power chair soccer squad at the Federation Internationale de Powerchair Football Association (FIPFA) World Cup.
More than two-and-a-half years, and a whole lot of work later, Mayer finally got the chance to don the Red, White, and Blue in the World Cup, held this past July in Florida.
The Monticelloan, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was eight-months-old, helped lead Team USA to a second-place finish at the 2017 World Cup, the most prestigious event in power chair soccer.
It wasn’t quite the ending Mayer dreamed of, and he’s been dreaming of it ever since he discovered power chair soccer at seven years old, as he hoped to bring home the championship for Team USA. But all of it, representing Team USA, advancing to the championship game, playing in a giant stadium, and making lifelong friends and memories, was still a dream come true.
“It was a very surreal experience,” said Mayer. “I’ll never forget that moment. Being in the world cup, being in the championship game.”
Trying out for two years
When Mayer got the phone call that he’d been selected for the Team USA top-12, it was expected that it would be less than a year until World Cup competition begin. Instead it was a year and a half before Mayer even learned if he’d make the top-eight players that would actually compete at said World Cup.
The cup, originally scheduled for 2015 in either London or Australia, had to be relocated to a new date and a new place, eventually settling in on July 2017 in Florida. That lengthened the time period for the program to settle on a final roster.
Through much of the process, Mayer said he felt like a long shot to make the active roster for the World Cup. But the 2016 MHS graduate kept working, putting in several hours at the gym each week working on his skills, and even more hours at home going through film with his dad Tracy.
“He worked his tail off,” said Tracy. “And we watched tons of film, hours of film.”
As the months went by and the weekend camps, held in Indiana, Arizona, and Minnesota, came and went, Mayer started to become a little more encouraged about his chances.
“I never thought that top-eight was a possibility,” said Nathan. “It was the middle of the summer of 2016 where I thought maybe I could do this and maybe I could make [it].”
But it wasn’t smooth sailing. As a camp in Atlanta approached in October of 2016, Nathan fell sick. This was the camp where the roster would be cut from 12 to 8, and the pressure was on.
“That camp was kind of scary because I got sick the week before,” he said. “I was really nervous I wasn’t going to be able to perform.”
“Luckily I did my job well enough.”
But it wasn’t until two weeks later that he found out for sure, when he got a call letting him know he would be a member of the top-eight for Team USA.
“That was the longest two weeks,” said Mayer. “That was a really long wait because that was my dream since I was like seven years old, and it was two weeks away from becoming true.”
A few months later, Mayer found out he would be a member of the starting four, getting to play as the goaltender for Team USA.
Mayer hadn’t played goalie since his younger days, but he said it was an easy transition.
“I’m a very defensive minded player, so it fit very well for me,” he said. “It was actually a perfect role.”
Team USA arrived in Florida a week prior to the start of the tournament. They held a two-day training camp there, their final training camp of the two and a half year lead-in to the tournament. It was also likely the hardest.
“It was a very intense training camp,” said Mayer. “We were a week away from the biggest tournament of our careers.”
Following camp, Team USA held five days of team activities. That week provided one of the highlights of the trip for Mayer, as him and five teammates went across the street to play mini golf with no able-bodied help.
“That was kind of fun just to play mini golf and not have to worry about doing anything else,” said Mayer. “It was fun just to be alone and do it independently. It looked kind of funny, but it was really fun to be with those guys.”
Eventually, the start of the tournament rolled around. Opening Ceremonies were held at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, the host venue for the tournament. The stadium was big enough to seat 12,000 people, by far the largest venue most of these athletes had ever played in. Mayer said the players first entered the venue for a practice just prior to the opening ceremonies, and they were each taken aback.
“All of us were like ‘whoa’. It was just kind of a surreal moment,” he said. “Like, we were finally here.”
Next came another one of the highlights of the week. Listening to the Star Spangled Banner while donning the Red, White and Blue.
“We waited for that moment for three years,” said Mayer. “Hearing the national anthem during the opening ceremonies was such an honor.”
Team USA played in the opening game of the tournament, squaring off with Denmark to begin Group Play. It didn’t take Team USA, the two-time defending World Cup champs, long to establish dominance. The host athletes scored three times in the first 10 minutes, quickly relieving any pressure that Mayer felt in his first start as a goaltender.
“I was so nervous about being the goalie,” admitted Mayer. “But I had a great group in front of me – for the most part, my job was easy.”
That first game, Team USA rolled to an 8-0 victory. It would be a similar theme for much of Group Play. Team USA went 4-0 in Pool A, scoring 30 goals while allowing just one against.
The biggest highlight of group play for Mayer came in the team’s third match, a battle with Japan. By that point, seven different players had scored goals for Team USA. Only Mayer, the goaltender, had yet to record a goal. His coach gave him a chance to change that. The coach moved Mayer up into the play, and the 19-year-old took advantage. Mayer put a ball past the Japan goalie for the USA’s eighth goal of the contest, and his first career international goal.
“It was really cool to be a part of,” said Mayer. “It was really cool to get that.”
The other highlight of pool play actually started as a downer for Mayer. Playing against Argentina, he allowed his first goal of the tournament, and it came off the chair of a 12-year-old player, the youngest in the tournament.
“At the time it was like ‘oh man,’” said Mayer. But the goaltender quickly turned it into a positive following Team USA’s 7-1 victory against Argentina.
“Afterward I went up to him and I actually gave him one of my training jerseys,” said Mayer. “His face was just unreal. I’ll never forget the look on his face. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Following their dominant performance in Pool A, Team USA entered the eight-team bracket as a top-seed. They cruised in the first quarterfinal game, a 7-0 victory against Ireland, setting up a memorable semifinal showdown. Team USA was pitted against England, a rematch of the most recent World Cup Championship match, won by Team USA.
“The pressure was on,” said Mayer. “We knew they wanted revenge on us and we knew it was going to be a really big battle.”
The game lived up to the expectations and the hype. It was scoreless at the half, with both goaltenders stonewalling the opponent. Then in the second, the USA broke loose. The Americans scored twice in the opening minutes of the half, and hung on the rest of the way for a thrilling 2-1 victory.
“That game was probably the most fun game I’ve ever played in,” said Mayer. “The atmosphere, the intensity, the moment … we were 40 minutes away from the championship game, and we knew that.”
The victory, the USA’s second of the day on Saturday, sent them to the championship match, where they were set to square off with an unbeaten France team. They just had to figure out how to regroup after one of the most thrilling victories in any of their careers.
“What was weird was that we still had another game to play,” said Mayer. “We were so ramped up for that semifinal, and we had to do it again in less than 24 hours.”
Unfortunately for Team USA, they weren’t quite able to match that level of play in the Sunday final. A very good France team scored first and last in the first half to enter the half tied at two. And Team USA was unable to generate any offense in the second half, and they couldn’t match the two goals that France scored to pull away for a 4-2 victory and their first-ever World Cup Championship.
“We were 40 minutes away from being world champs, and, I don’t really know how to put it.. I don’t really know what happened, I don’t really know why,” said Mayer. “But France just played a better game than we did.”
Tracy said that Nathan was pretty desolate in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup loss. Team USA entered the tournament expecting to win a third consecutive championship, and they fell short. But as a few days went by, Mayer found himself able to gain perspective on what an incredible ride it all was. One thing he was especially thankful for was all the support that he and Team USA had in Florida. Nathan’s mom (Lisa), dad, brother and sister all made the trip, as did one of his moms coworkers, a couple of his cousins, and a couple of nurses.
“I had a pretty big fan base. It was the biggest fan base I’ve ever played in front of,” said Mayer. “There was probably a good hundred to two hundred people there for the US. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But for our sport, at this point right now, it was pretty cool to be in front of that crowd.”
He also made a lot of new friends, and not just the members of Team USA that he grew so close to over the last three years. Mayer said he now feels connected to power chair soccer players from around the world.
“We’re just a big family, that’s what power soccer is,” said Mayer. “When you roll between the lines, you want to beat each other. But the second you roll off, you’re a family again. That’s really cool to be a part of, and now it’s international.”
He also checked off four of the five goals he set for himself at the beginning of this dream. He was accepted for Team USA tryouts. He made the cut there, and then the cut that followed to get down to the active eight. Then he was named to the top-four, a starter for Team USA.
But there’s still one missing, and there is little doubt as to if he plans to keep chasing it down.
“There is still one to be true, and I think that will be the best one,” said Mayer of winning the World Cup. “I’m already working for the next one. I took a couple of weeks off then I’ll be getting back in the gym for the next one. Got about 1,600 days until the next World Cup.”
The plan is the next World Cup will be held between summer and fall of 2021. Mayer hopes to again be on Team USA, representing the Red, White and Blue, and bringing a championship back home from wherever the event may be held.
Just as importantly, he hopes his story, one of committing to a goal at seven years old and spending 12 years busting his butt to reach it, resonates with athletes everywhere.
“What I did to make this team, it doesn’t just apply to power soccer athletes. It applies to all athletes. If you want something bad enough, and you work hard for it, and you just really keep at it – you can never say you didn’t try for it,” said Mayer. “Just work hard for what you want. The chips will fall where they may. It doesn’t just apply to our sport. Whatever sport, whatever activity, just work hard at it. And hopefully the dreams and goals you set for yourself will come true.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]