Joe Chavez was born with cerebral palsy, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Tougher than nails, driven like hail and focused as a laser, Chavez is not one for excuses or “woe is me” stories. Instead, he is an Olympian, a revered student leader and role model.
“I feel like I’m just getting started,” said the feisty 24-year old Chula Vistan. “I just want people to know that they should feel comfortable in their own skin. Maybe my example can help motivate them in knowing they can do so much more with their ability, despite their disability. They should take out the dis and look at their ability.”
Chavez played a myriad of sports at the Chula Vista Boys and Girls Club. He had his patella realigned when he was 10, making his soccer prowess that much more astonishing.
At 15 he attended a wheelchair sports camp and was given a flyer to attend a soccer clinic at the Olympic Training Center. Chavez accepted the invitation. On the morning of the clinic, he competed in a half-marathon at the Silver Strand in a hand cycle. Exhausted, the opportunity almost slipped his grasp.
“I remember starting at 7 a.m. and crossing the finish line in the afternoon,” he said. “If I had just gone home, this never would have happened. Honestly, just that split-second decision changed my life. I’m very blessed that I chose that path.”
Chavez caught the attention of the coach and was off to Carson, home of the L.A. Galaxy, for a tryout with U.S. National Paralympic Soccer Team.
“I’ll always remember that first tryout,” he said. “It kind of felt like being on a reality show, you never know if you’re going to get cut. That was always in the back of mind, but I knew I wanted to do more and I made it. I got to join that brethren.”
In 2006 Chavez traveled with the team to Rio de Janero, Brazil for the ParaPan American Games in an attempt to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“The only ones wearing that red, white and blue were teammates and coaches,” he said. “Honestly it was scary. I was very homesick, but you are there for a reason, to play soccer and represent your country.”
The team’s will to win was not enough to punch its ticket for Beijing, but Chavez’ appetite grew.
“The Olympics is every four years, but each and every one of us on the team knows it’s not,” he said. “My season never ends. I train every day to get better, to get that gold medal.”
Next were the 2010 Para Pan-American games, this time in Argentina. Chavez said he played with a torn meniscus but kept it to himself.
“If you saw me, you would think there was nothing wrong,” he said. “I never let the pain show. What matters is playing for your country and I didn’t want to give that up.”
He missed the 2012 London games. Rehab, he said, was grueling.
“It was a long process, but I’ve done this so many times as a little kid that it’s just gotten easier,” he said. “I knew that I would come back faster and stronger.”
On campus Chavez is a gold medalist. A kinesiology major, he studies the art of physical rehabilitation. He became the youngest President of Abilities Beyond Limitation through Education Club (ABLE), where he created the Walk-n-Roll Marathon.
“It allowed people to get in a wheelchair, roll around the perimeter and get a sense of what it’s like for those who have a disability,” he said. “It helped to keep things growing, expand that awareness throughout the community.”
More impressively, perhaps, Chavez helped to lead an effort to raise funds to purchase a van capable of transporting students in wheelchairs. Chavez was awarded SWC’s first-ever Student access Award last year.
Dr. Malia Flood, director of Disability Support Services, who was the ABLE Club advisor during Chavez’s presidency, said he was truly amazing.
“The club got bigger when he was president,” she said. “He would not just have an idea, he created the energy to get things done with tireless enthusiasm and commitment. He has been a great champion for access.”
Karina Mendoza, a former ABLE Club president, said she was inspired by Chavez’s actions.
“Just seeing what he did made me think I could do something for the school,” she said. “I witnessed a kid in the student center having trouble getting in and out of the restroom. That’s what led to me working real hard to get the wheelchair accessible doors and I was able to get three.”
Current ABLE Club Advisor Robert Valerio said he remembers a soft-spoken, hesitant Chavez.
“He was a very quiet guy when he started,” he said. “Little by little he started learning the process of how clubs work and how to present in front of the club, doing big presentations in front of the campus during college hour, which is amazing because I was able to see that firsthand.”
Through the ABLE Club Chavez met Dominic Cardenas, who would become his best friend.
Cardenas, a recent SWC graduate with a degree in film editing, modernized the ABLE Club website logo and was recognized for his video work with Drug Abuse Resistance Education, (DARE). They have shared numerous escapades, but Cardenas recalled one in particular.
“I think the coolest one was when he raised $10,000 for the disabled van,” he said. “That was a great thing he did. I feel like Joe was the voice of that club. The school really needed someone like that. It might be used by a small percentage of students, but it’s a small percentage that matters.”
Cardenas said he is thankful he met Chavez and that he is the embodiment of prosdiorismós, seizing life’s infinite possibilities.
“If you take more opportunities in life, more will happen, the more outcomes that will transpire,” he said. “Joe is an example of that,”
Their kinship grew over the years, but one conflict made them brothers. At 21, Chavez discovered he was adopted at birth.
“I’m proud to be adopted,” he said. “It gives me more strength and motivation. Reflecting back, I understand why (my adopted parents) didn’t tell me until later. I didn’t know because I was so camouflaged with love and that’s one of the biggest things I couldn’t have expected. They treated me as if I was their own and that’s the thing that really matters to me. They were always there for me through surgeries and complications. I’d give my whole life to them and now I dedicate my life to them.”
Cardenas shares a similar past.
“When you’re adopted you feel like you don’t have an identity, you don’t feel like people want you,” he said. “I was left at a fire station by my mother. My parents were heroin addicts. That is why I have auto-processing disabilities, because they fucked up my egg growing up.”
Their friendship was also strengthened through their love of soccer and they began to train together, said Cardenas.
“He works harder than he should,” said Cardenas. “He goes that extra mile to the point where it’s exhausting to watch. That’s why he wears the uniform. He represents his red, white and blue. I respect that.”
Cardenas said they coached girls soccer together.
“The most important thing for us during that was having fun,” said Cardenas. “I would always be the mean one and Joe was the nice one. Joe would say ‘Come on man, loosen up, it’s a nice day. Who wants to go for ice cream?’ It made Joe and I better people because they taught us to be more responsible. It learned to be better with my motor mouth and be more reserved. After that season, I was more patient.”
“And I became more aggressive,” Chavez chimed in.
After months of rehab on his knee, Chavez was finally ready to return to the practice field and his soccer family was there to support him, said Cardenas.
“All the girls came out for a scrimmage game with signs to support against Canada,” he said. “That’s when old Joe came back. He needed that.”
After everything they have been through together, Cardenas said they are best friends.
“We watched the whole World Cup together,” he said. “We play pool, go gamble together. Joe would give me his buffet wristband and while I was waiting for him I’d set up my laptop and eat all the lobster and cheesecake with my stretch pants on.”
Chavez is training daily for his next run at gold at the Chula Vista Futbol Club. Trainer Raul Reyes said Chavez’s attitude is rubbing off on the team.
“We are hoping that these players grab a little bit of what Joe has,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to encourage. Joe, the way he is, he can do everything in the world, so you can too. Nothing’s impossible.”
With a third place finish in the Copa América tournament in Toronto, Canada, The U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team continues its quest to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janero, Brazil.
Chavez has also hit the ice and picked up the pads to begin training for the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team. He is a member of the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey Team and will be training with U.S. gold medalist goalie Steve Cash, in Indiana.
“I want people to feel comfortable in their own skin,” he said. “Not to care what others think of them or the people who tell them they can’t. When I was little the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to walk. I’m proving them wrong and it’s powerful. The possibilities are endless. I had a dream and I didn’t know how far this dream would take me. Never stop believing, never give up and you can do anything, just put the work in.”