Poema Sandoval is four feet and eleven inches, but a tower of power. Actually, a tower of empowerment. Sandoval is a coach of disabled young adult soccer players who knows how to make her message known without being the loudest person on the field.
Last summer Sandoval was asked to help coach the Chula Vista Pumas V.I.P soccer team for disabled players ages 16-24. Players have a wide range of disabilities such as autism and Down Syndrome. She unexpectedly became an assistant coach of the team a day later. Her learning curve was steep.
“The first day was interesting,” she said. “They tried to flirt with me.”
After boundaries were set, she said, players learned to treat her with respect.
Sandoval’s conditioning techniques were a big adjustment for a group players who have played together since most were eight years old.
Head coach Ernesto Gutierrez said he knew from the beginning that Sandoval would be perfect for the job.
“They absolutely love her,” he said. “ She was stern, clear, but had compassion.”
An architecturel major and treasurer for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Club, Sandoval said she struggles to balance work and coaching. She is also taking child development classes to better understand her players.
“The first days it was hard, really hard,” she said. “I was doing way too many things, but for the most part I’ve balanced everything.”
Educating young adults is challenging, but can be joyful. One of her autistic students picked up a feather and began to examine it. Young adults with autism usually have expressionless faces, but her student smiled as he watched the feather glide from side to side until it hit the floor.
“I learned so much from them,” she said. “These are my kids.”
Even parents of the soccer players such as Cristobal Medina were surprised by how easily Sandoval was able to communicate to their children.
“Us parents were worried, but she is amazing,” said Medina. “I’m very happy with her.”
Soccer has been known as a sport of adrenaline and speed, but for the Chula Vista Pumas it is more than that. Communication skills and coordination are being built for those who struggle with it and sticking true to her name “Poema,” meaning “poem” in Spanish, Sandoval creates true poetry every time her players enjoy what they are doing and know that they are being treated as equals.
The Pumas’ season will not start for another seven months, but Sandoval can hardly wait to step onto a field filled with grateful soccer players.
“Out of everything I do, this is what I enjoy the most.”