Steven Bohlemann is going to Rio to play soccer.
The Atlanta resident made the final cut to represent the U.S. Paralympic National Team in the Paralympic Games, which follow the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in September. The men’s team has been practicing at Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University.
“There is nothing higher than representing your country,” said Bohlemann, who hails from Florida and recently earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech.
The team named its 14-member roster on Aug. 1. The team is expected to practice again at Oglethorpe University on Aug. 10-11 from 9 a.m. to noon. Practices can be viewed by the public.
The Paralympic Games, organized by the International Paralympics Committee in Germany, is for athletes that have some form of physical disability to compete at the world level in a wide range of sports. The 2016 Paralympic Games will run Sept. 7-18.
To qualify for the soccer team, a player must be able to run and walk, and have a traumatic brain injury, have suffered a stroke or was born with cerebral palsy, said Coach Stuart Sharp, a Scottish native and former Brookhaven resident who now lives in Marietta.
“The team has players from all walks of life, from college graduates to veterans,” he said. “They’ve enjoyed training in Atlanta so much some say they want to move here.”
Players have come to metro Atlanta to train from as far as Colorado and California to represent their country. There are three veterans who were injured overseas on the team.
Bohlemann, 27, who played soccer in college, suffered a traumatic brain injury three years ago in a freak accident. He was jogging on a bridge in Charleston, S.C., when a bicyclist accidentally struck him on the descent portion of the bridge.
He suffered a fractured skull and spine and a subdermal hematoma in his brain. He was hospitalized for weeks and put on a breathing machine.
“The bicyclist was uninjured, but his bike was bent up and was not able to be ridden again – so 1 to 0, me,” Bohlemann said with a laugh.
Hard work and humor has paid off for Bohlemann as he recovered from his brain injury. He still suffers some side-effects, such as nausea, dizziness, memory loss and some balance issues. On the field, Bohlemann said he has adapted his game to become a top center midfielder.
“I know what I was before and after my ‘speed bump,’” he said. He prefers to call the 2013 accident a speed bump because it doesn’t sound as negative, he said.
Before his speed bump, he played defender and was able to race backwards and make quick turns. He is unable to do that now “because my feet don’t always go exactly where I want,” he said.
The U.S. team is heading to Brazil ranked eighth out of eight teams.
“We have set some targets for ourselves to achieve in Brazil,” Sharp said. “It’s not going to be easy competing against the top seven countries in the world. The one thing for sure is that we will not be going to the Brazil to accept anything less than fully committed performances – as a tight unit we have the belief that our team possesses the technical ability and collective desire to achieve the extraordinary.”
The U.S. kicks off Group A play against the fourth-ranked Netherlands on Sept. 8, followed by matches against second-ranked Russia on Sept. 10 and sixth-ranked Argentina on Sept. 12.
Group B teams are from Brazil, Great Britain, Ireland and Ukraine. The top two teams from each group will advance to the semifinals on Sept. 14, with the medal matches set take place on Sept. 16, Stuart said.
“I’m privileged to lead this team … and to give them the collective ability to represent their nation,” Sharp said. “It is a true honor to do that.”
For Bohlemann, playing soccer with a group of men who are not just teammates but friends and mentors is something he will never take for granted.
“My worst life experience opened the door to my best life experience,” he said. “I’m so happy to be representing my country, I can’t explain it.” Email SSharp@ussoccer.org and visit facebook.com/parasoccer for more information.