Penn: "I Consider Myself Lucky Every Time I Step on the Soccer Field"
KEENE, N.H. 10/27/09 - Just over 1,250 freshmen enrolled at Keene State College this fall. Many of these students brought to campus a special athletic talent that provides them the unique opportunity to play varsity sports.
Tyler Penn will never play soccer on the Keene State men’s soccer team, but few will argue that the freshman from Manchester, N.H., doesn’t possess the same drive and determination to excel in the sport. Born with cerebral palsy, a term used to describe a group of chronic conditions affecting body movements and muscle coordination, Tyler subscribes to the theory that he can do anything he sets his mind on doing.
Penn is currently fulfilling one of his goals as a member of the U.S. Paralympic soccer team. He is spending two weeks playing at the World Paralympic Games in Amsterdam. He said it was hard staying focused prior to leaving for the games, but pronounced himself fit and ready to go. “You don’t get a chance to represent your country too often, so hopefully I can make a contribution and make my team and family proud of me,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome, Penn doesn’t have to worry about pleasing his family: parents David and Donna, twin brother Kenny, and sister Elizabeth (a second-semester sophomore at Keene State).
“I’m just thrilled for him,” said David, a career member of the armed forces, who has been deployed to Iraq twice. “He’s just a great kid who doesn’t take life for granted.”
“Just to see the glow in his face when he wears the U.S. Paralympic soccer windbreaker is priceless,” said Donna. “For us, it’s an honor that he’s representing the country, just like his father.”
Tyler’s ability to overcome adversity was evident right from the moment he was born. Three months premature, he wasn’t expected to survive and was given last rites. “Everybody has to overcome an obstacle, and Tyler has certainly done that,” said Donna. “He teaches me something every day. If there’s a door shut, he will open it.”
Enduring countless hours of physical and speech therapy, Tyler, at the age 13, underwent major surgery. He had a rod put his left hip, turning his torso and extending his hamstring and quad muscles. “Through it all, Tyler has always been Tyler. He has never thrown in the towel,” said Donna. “He’s always been smiling, determined, and focused.”
“Tyler never feels sorry for himself because of his disability,” said David. “He looks at it as a challenge.”
Sports became an outlet for Tyler. If there was a game being played in the neighborhood, Tyler would jump right in. He also played recreational soccer in Manchester and tried out for the Memorial High School golf team. “I got cut, but it was a learning experience,” said Penn. “I took what I learned from that and became a better soccer player.”
Tyler and Kenny were both inseparable and highly competitive growing up. “I just tried to keep up with him,” said Tyler. “We pushed each other, and it paid off in the long run.”
Ironically, Tyler first heard about paralympic sports when he and his family were attending a “Last Comic Standing” show, and comedian Josh Blue, who was also born with CP, referenced the games in his routine. Returning home, Tyler hit the web to investigate and take his best shot at earning a tryout.
A surprised Penn got a call from paralympic coach Jay Hoffman, who later sent out a representative to take a look at him playing in one of his recreational games. They liked what they saw and invited him out to the Olympic training site in Chula Vista, Calif. Knowing that he would have to be in top form to make the squad, Tyler enlisted his recreation soccer coach Jay O’Halloran to get him ready. “Tyler doesn’t back down from anybody,” said O’Halloran. “He wanted me to pick it up a notch and push him like he was going to get pushed at the camp.”
A midfielder noted for his stamina, Penn likes to be creative on the field. “When the opportunity to score is there, I’ll take it,” he said. “But if someone has a better chance, I try to get him the ball. In my eyes, an assist is just as important as a goal.” After a series of tryouts and scrimmages, Penn earned a spot in the player pool and was eventually selected to be on the 12-man squad that traveled to Amsterdam for the World Paralympic Games.
One of just three members of the team attending college, Penn kept in shape at KSC by hitting the weight room and playing pick-up games. Penn frequently knocks on doors in his dorm inquiring if anyone wants to go out and play soccer. “I don’t tell them anything about me. It’s good training for me, because they are all able-bodied,” he said.
David says he gets daily updates about the championships from Tyler. Although the team lost its opening round games to Russia and Scotland and moved into the consolation bracket, he says his son is enjoying his stay in Amsterdam.
Tyler is the second Keene State student to represent Keene State at the Paralympic Games. Sabra Hawkes, a track runner, has competed in numerous international events, including the Paralympics in 2008.
Like Hawkes, Penn hopes that the Paralympic World Championships is just his first kick in international play. He understands that it’s a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity and doesn’t take anything for granted - whether he’s on the international stage in Amsterdam or just kicking the ball around the fields at Keene State. “I consider myself lucky every time I step on the soccer field,” he said. “People ask me ‘How do you go about living a normal life?’ They don’t understand. I might walk a little bit funny, but I’m just like anybody else. We can do anything they can do, sometimes even better.”