Reshaping Boundaries with USA Para Athlete Chileshe Chitulangoma

It is rare you find a football player, even among the successful, whose story is not marked by obstacles, failures, and shortcomings. It is less common, however, that you find a player, excelling past the obstacle of a serious medical situation.

Chileshe Chitulangoma was announced as a new addition for NPSL side Med City, based in Rochester, MN, on March 9th of 2022. The announcement was notable given that Med City are a competitive side whose every move could affect the NPSL North Conference race, but also because the young star, graduating from high school this year, had a unique background amongst the NPSL crowd.

What’s so unique on his resume? The Mayo High School soon-to-be graduate, who has cerebral palsy, is a capped international and member of the United States Men’s Para National Team.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains cerebral palsy as thus, “cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. CP is the most common motor disability in childhood… CP is caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his or her muscles.”

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Symptoms vary from person to person, with some requiring more intensive forms of assistance while others may be completely independent. Cerebral palsy is further split into three different forms: spasticity, dyskinesia, and ataxia.

Chitulangoma’s sports journey came with some serious asterisks, including a medical procedure early in his life that proved key in making his athletic dreams a reality. Upon finding himself able to play sports safely and effectively, the floodgates were opened.

“I started playing soccer when I was in third grade. I was always interested in playing sports but obviously having cerebral palsy, it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for me when I was younger,” Chitulangoma explained. “The summer going into third grade is when I had a major surgery and I was wheelchair bound for essentially that entire summer but the surgery helped my condition enough to the point where I could play sports comfortably. Obviously i still had to do a lot to compensate but the surgery definitely helped my ability to walk and run as close to comfortably as possible. After my surgery and after rehab, I decided I wanted to give sports a try.”

While American football was an early passion of Chitulangoma’s, he eventually found himself focused on soccer, a sport passed down to him through his Zambian father.

“In Zambia, soccer is the number one sport, it’s very popular there, so that’s how I originally got into soccer… I started as a goalkeeper, mostly because of my height, but through my dad, who was my first coach, I learned a lot about the sport. I learned how powerful the mental side and tactical side of the sport can be… I started out playing rec and eventually did travelling soccer. When I figured out that I could be a successful travelling player, that’s when I decided I wanted to do high school soccer.”

Chitulangoma playing for Mayo High School. Courtesy of Mayo High School.

Before he was joining a top club league and representing his country, Chitulangoma was attending Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo High School, a chapter in his life he’s still working on finishing up as this article is written in March of 2022. It all started when he became part of a Mayo C Squad that would go undefeated in his first year.

“I started high school soccer when I was in eighth grade… I played on Mayo’s C squad team, I made it there through the tryouts for that team. It was a very exciting year for me as a player because it was the first time I was able to play with players who were much better than me. It was the highest level of soccer I had ever played at,” Chitulangoma continued. “The following two years of high school I played JV soccer because my brother had previously been on JV when he was younger and I knew how much he enjoyed the coach there… it was definitely a step up from the C squad but I also ended up finding out more about where I fit in the system… that’s when I figured out how effective I could be as a central midfielder.” 

The climb up the high school soccer ladder would continue as each year approached, as more and more of Chitulangoma’s soccer ambitions became realities.

“Things for me really got kick started as a junior. I started my third year on JV, but this year I was pushing to be on the varsity team and eventually, after captaining the JV team and proving my worth to the coaches on varsity, they gave me an opportunity to train with the varsity team and eventually I made my varsity debut later that season… That was a very special moment for me because at the time that was my biggest goal in soccer, was just to be a varsity player eventually.”

Chitulangoma’s side would finish fourth in state the following year when he was a senior. That year, he would play his usual center midfield position, in addition to center back and attacking mid roles.

“Every year my high school career got better and better and to end it off with making it to state for the first time in five, six years I think, and to finish equal to our school’s best ever finish in state, that was definitely a magical moment.”

Perhaps the most poignant note on Chitulangoma’s high school journey, is that he rarely discussed the detail that made it so unique with those around him. As the Mayo High School midfielder explained to Sota Soccer, the topic of cerebral palsy was never at the forefront of his image at the time.

“I wasn’t really open about having cerebral palsy until literally this fall, my senior year… I believe I had maybe mentioned it to some coaches in the past but it was never a big thing. I never had to negotiate with any coaches, I never talked about my CP, they just saw that I was a solid soccer player and they wanted me on their team.”

Chitulangoma in the starting seven against Scotland for the USPNT. Courtesy of US Extended National Teams.

Chitulangoma’s soccer career is perhaps most notable for its recent chapter as part of the US men’s para national team, a still young but growing branch of the US’ official national team network that represents athletes with cerebral palsy. The Rochester-native, however, wasn’t quite plugged into what it all meant when he first stumbled on to the team’s existence.

“I learned about the [para] national team through social media, just through having Instagram, I stumbled upon it somehow. I mean, growing up I always knew that there was something for me in regard to para sports, but I never really knew where to look. I don’t think I really found out about the paralympics until I was a bit older, like I knew they existed but I never really checked them out or watched them, so I wasn’t really in the loop.”

He would eventually find the para national team and quickly find there was an ever growing world of soccer opportunities designed specifically for athletes like himself.

“When I was sixteen, about two years ago, I stumbled upon the US extended national teams page, which is home to all the extended national teams, so that involves futsal, beach soccer, and para soccer… I realized I could be a part of this potentially, so I got in touch with the social media page and eventually I got in touch with the coach… Since that point I’ve been in their sort of pool of potential players they wanted to bring to camp, so when they had the first camp since COVID, which was in January, they invited me and I guess you could say I took my opportunity because they invited me to the next camp, which was in England. The whole purpose of the England camp is to prepare for the IFCPF World Cup.”

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The IFCPF CP Football World Championships, sometimes referred to as the IFCPF World Cup, is one of the two major para soccer tournaments alongside the paralympics and dates back to 1982 when the first edition was hosted in Denmark. The US men were recently announced as part of Group C at the next tournament, alongside Australia and Iran.

On another note, that British tour that Chitulangoma mentioned would result in a 1-0 loss to England and a 2-0 win over Scotland, with the Minnesotan starting both matches.

It must be noted that the version of soccer Chitulangoma is playing with the US para national team isn’t just an inclusive experience for differently abled athletes, it’s an entirely different, dynamic interpretation of the sport of soccer.

“For major rule changes, the biggest thing is it’s a smaller field, smaller goals. In addition to throwing in the ball, like typical soccer, you have the option to roll it in which I think creates more efficiency and could possibly create a more rapid, high speed game. In general I think the 7-a-side format makes the game faster paced. I think the biggest thing I’ve had to adjust to though is that there is no offside. When I was playing against England in the friendly, I was playing as a sort of holding mid… a lot of the time I was the last man and the way that one of the English players was playing was that he was the target man, but he was drifting so far away from his team that at times he was literally sitting right on our goalkeeper and I would have to stand next to both of them to mark him.”

As to how having so many minutes in two different forms of soccer affected his game, Chitulangoma compared the effect to that of a futsal player playing eleven-a-side soccer.

Chitulangoma in the starting seven against England for the USPNT. Courtesy of US Extended National Teams.

“I think it definitely helps in ways. When you have to switch back and forth between the two sports I think you become more creative and you see opportunities to do things you wouldn’t otherwise… It gets people creative in ways they wouldn’t be if they only played one version of the game and I think the same goes with futsal players. I think futsal players see eleven v eleven games slightly differently than their counterparts.”

There is yet another exciting chapter in Chitulangoma’s career on the way, as the soon-to-be high school graduate has signed on to play for the NPSL North’s Med City for 2022. Joining a high level amateur side known for its competitive history, and one that faced professional opposition last year as a guest in NISA’s Independent Cup, presents new challenges and goals for the midfielder.

“[Members of] the Med City coaching staff were actually my high school coaching staff… I’m coming out of high school, I have cerebral palsy, and this is definitely a big step up from the varsity games so I’ll have to prove my worth to the coaches again and to my teammates,” Chitulangoma continued. “My thinking in joining Med City was that the high level I’ll be playing and practicing in will just make me an overall much better player and feed into my successes with the national team. My ultimate goal is to just be the best national team player I can possibly be, and to hopefully win some trophies for the USA for the first time.

Chileshe Chitulangoma will also be joined on the Med City roster by brother Daliso Chitulangoma, who graduated from Mayo High School in 2020 and has previously played for Rochester FC in the UPSL. He currently attends and plays for Riverland Community College.

On a final note, Chitulangoma talked about the mission behind all his work on the pitch, a mission to help grow the world of para soccer, both in the US and abroad. On this topic perhaps the most, the young man’s exciting ambitions become crystal clear.

“That’s basically my number one goal, just to help build this game and expand it beyond just the small group of people who are aware of it… Maybe even, once I’m done with the sport, [I’d like to] become a global ambassador for it and help other nations get national teams. As I mentioned earlier, being of Zambian descent, I know that country doesn’t have a para national team, so a potential project for the future is to help them get this started or if they get one help promote that there. I think there’s definitely room to do that and that’s something I’d love to be part of.”

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