In a wheelchair since age 4, Connor Biggerstaff of Ventura is now an avid player in power wheelchair soccer, usually referred to as power soccer, and a member of the Santa Barbara Rollin’ Rebels, where he has learned teamwork and made many good friends.

“If you’re willing to make a commitment to the team, you will have a lot of fun,” said Biggerstaff, 25, who has been part of the evolving power soccer group in Santa Barbara since the autumn of 2006.

Biggerstaff has a mitochondrial disease, an energy metabolism disorder.

“My specific form of mitochondrial disease is Leigh’s Syndrome,” he explained. “It affects my eyesight, speech, fine motor skills and mobility, but cognitively I am unaffected. I have been in a wheelchair since age 4 and a power chair since I was 10.”

Power soccer is the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users, said Rae van Seenus, director of marketing for United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) WORK, Inc. UCP WORK is a sponsor of the Rollin’ Rebels Power Soccer Team and provides transportation to games, power soccer wheelchairs and coaching.

Team photo from left to right: Team Captain Brian MacLaren, Ulices Arreola, Brian Crews, Gus Albertsen, and Genevieve (who no longer plays on the team). Top left, Connor Biggerstaff, Coach Dan Weiner, and Gustavo Ritterstein.

The organization is the largest nonprofit in the tri-county area serving adults and children with developmental and/or physical disabilities. It offers field trips for special education classes from Ventura County schools to accessible places such as the pumpkin patch, Brandin’s Village playground in Calabasas and the Santa Barbara Zoo. UCP WORK also sponsors programs such as children’s and adult yoga and nutrition services, as well as the power soccer team.

“This action-packed sport combines the skills of the wheelchair user with the speed and power of the chair itself to create an extremely challenging game — very similar to soccer,” van Seenus explained.

The players have a wide array of disabilities, she said, including cerebral palsy and other disabilities that may have been acquired due to a traumatic brain injury or other diagnosis. They are both male and female, ranging in age from 14 to 55, and coached by Dan Weiner, who has 22 years of experience coaching Special Olympics and is the former Life Skills Coach for UCP WORK.

When asked why he chooses to coach a power soccer team, Weiner said, “It’s because the game gets players that wouldn’t otherwise be in competitive sports to get out there and play, plus it gives players with disabilities complete independence.”

The sport involves two teams of four power chair users that attack, defend and maneuver an oversized soccer ball in an attempt to score points on a goal. The ball, which is 18 inches in diameter, is manipulated by formed soccer guards mounted on the front of each player’s chair.

“The sport is co-ed by design with male and female athletes,” said van Seenus, adding that the game is usually played indoors in a gymnasium on a regulation-size basketball court.

“The sport was developed more than 20 years ago, but is now exploding on to the public scene,” van Seenus said.

For instance, the United States, Canada, Denmark, England, France and Japan currently field teams and tournaments, and the National Disability Sports Alliance recently welcomed power soccer as an official sport on its roster.

Gustavo Ritterstein of the Rollin’ Rebels.

“This is an extremely competitive game, and it builds self-confidence and a sense of being part of something far bigger than yourself,” van Seenus emphasized. “In addition, the program creates lifelong friendships.”

Historically the Rollin’ Rebels have lost most games due to antiquated equipment, but this is expected to change in the light of a $40,000 grant the team received from a private donor. The gift funded four new Strike Force power wheelchairs. The Strike Force is known as the Ferrari of the sport and is said to outperform every other power wheelchair on the market. It’s designed with a low center of gravity, wide wheelbase, and a customized center mount joystick, and is able to “spin kick” with more power.

“All other power soccer teams are using these Strike Force chairs and our team has antiquated equipment,” van Seenus said. “The new chairs allow team members to finally be highly competitive on the court, where in the past they lost games due to old equipment.”

Biggerstaff is especially excited to compete in a new chair.

“I’m looking forward to this new season because we have new chairs specifically designed for power soccer that were gifted by our benefactor,” he said. “We are excited to see how much they improve our game.”

On Oct. 20, Weiner and his team started practicing every Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the gymnasium at Carpinteria Middle School. The public is encouraged to watch and stay up-to-date on game schedules found on the Rollin’ Rebels Facebook page.

Port Hueneme resident Ulices Arreola, who plays all positions on the team, said many games have been played, “but not much luck on those games because of the old chairs.”

Now that they have the Strike Force chairs, “The team is expected to do a lot more, have competitive games and more games expected to be won,” said the 14-year-old. “Now we have to focus on practice, practice and more practice.”

The teen hopes to eventually make it to the level of a conference team, which would allow him to play the sport all around the United States.

“I’d like to invite all those people with any kind of disability to become active in sports . . . to get out and find resources of what they can do,” he said. “We are not alone and there are many good people out there that can help.”

Taken outside the old WORK, Inc. building on State and Gutierrez in 1975, we recognize one individual, Joel Lansman who passed away 14 years ago (he is standing next to the person in a wheelchair).

The team can always use community support in the way of donations, van Seenus said.

“Travelling to games outside of our area is very costly,” she said. “For example, we need to utilize several wheelchair lift vehicles and drivers for California games, plus food, lodging, etc.”

Additionally, if the team travels out of state, “it is extremely expensive and in essence cost prohibitive, because we need to ship these chairs, find suitable accessible transportation and lodging,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we could create a scholarship fund for athletes who are unable to handle the expense involved in away games.”

Wheelchair power soccer is a wonderfully athletic sport that takes great skill, she added. It also provides camaraderie for people with disabilities who historically may live “very isolated lives.”

“Team members receive a lesson in teamwork and being part of something far bigger than themselves,” van Seenus said. “The program also creates long, supportive friendships.”

UCP was originally founded as W.O.R.K, Inc., in 1968, after Kiwanis of Santa Barbara surveyed the community about what it wanted in services and the response indicated a vocational training program for people with developmental disabilities. W.O.R.K., Inc. (Workshop Organized for Rehabilitation by the Kiwanis) came to be with the help of a local physician who worked in rehabilitation.

W.O.R.K. Inc. had a staff of only three teachers and served 15 participants. The workshop focused on vocational skills training in machine operation, landscape and grounds maintenance, mailing and packaging services, electronics assembly and mechanical assembly. By 1974, the center was steadily serving on average 90 participants annually. During this time, it was blessed with a well-equipped machine shop, a woodworking facility and a complete offset printing operation.

On July 2, 2001, United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties (UCPLA) became the parent organization to WORK, Inc. The merger with UCPLA has enhanced WORK, Inc.’s capacity to offer services throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

UCP WORK, Inc. will be celebrating its 50th golden anniversary event on Thursday, Nov. 8, 6-10 p.m. at El Paseo Mexican Restaurant, 813 Anacapa St., in Santa Barbara. Tickets available at www.ucpworkinc50.eventbrite.com. RSVP required. For more information, email donate@ucpworking.org or visit wwwucpworkinc.org/ways-to-give.