After going to college in North Carolina on an athletic scholarship, Seth Jahn thought he was done with soccer.
“It’s the beautiful game, man,” he admits. But he wanted something else. “I didn’t want to play a game to define my life,” he said.
But soccer, it turns out, was not done with him. Jahn is making his Paralympics debut in Rio as a co-captain of the U.S. seven-a-side soccer team.
To make it, he had to first overcome combat injuries suffered in 2010 while serving his final Army deployment to Afghanistan. He suffered severe damage to his ribs and spinal cord, as well as a traumatic brain injury, when the vehicle he was in rolled down a cliff and pinned him underwater. Doctors told him he would never walk again.
But Jahn shocked medical staff with his progress. Over two years, he re-learned how to speak, and finally reclaimed the ability to move. In a military rehab program, he was offered a tryout with the Paralympic soccer team.
“Having the opportunity to wear the crest and flag on my shoulder again in a different capacity was a significant motivation,” he said.
Using soccer to build bridges
Soccer also served him in the military. Training with a unit of the Afghan National Army got off to a rocky start. “There was a big disconnect — they didn’t trust us, we didn’t trust them, and we were there for a similar mission,” he said.
Then a teammate brought a soccer ball to the helipad. “The barriers just dissipated.”
It became a tradition. The first five-on-five matches became 10 on 10, then 19 on 19. Americans and Afghans started laughing with each other like brothers, Jahn said.
Within a week, one of the guys on the Afghan team, who would never have felt comfortable speaking with the Americans before then, warned Jahn of an impending surprise attack.
“Essentially, I can say pretty confidently that soccer may have saved my life,” Jahn said.
Making the Paralympics team in 2014, Jahn said that seven-on-seven soccer, his event in the Paralympics, is a lot faster than a standard 11-on-11 match. It’s played on a smaller field, and the ball cannot travel more than a meter off the ground.
In Rio, Jahn, now 33 years old, said he is looking forward to playing the phenomenal Brazilian Paralympic soccer team.
After the Paralympics, he plans on tackling Mount Everest. He has already climbed two of the “seven summits” (Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Elbrus), both after his injury in 2010.
“Everything worth having requires sacrifice,” he says.
Find out more about Paralympic athletes like Jahn on Twitter at #WithoutLimits. In Rio, the seven-a-side soccer tournament will take place from September 8 to 16.