by Andrew Garda
For Montclair Kimberley Academy rising junior Shea Hammond, all the usual hurdles for athletes — fierce opponents, long practices, packed schedules — were nothing compared to the one he has had to overcome since birth.
Hammond has cerebral palsy. That didn’t stop him from making the US Paralympic Soccer Team, though.
A stroke occuring when Hammond was in utero left him with hemiplegia — a partial paralysis down his left side. He doesn’t have any natural muscular formation on that side and subsequently, any muscular growth he accomplishes through his work in the gym fades daily unless he works out continually.
When he was 13, Hammond discovered the Paralympic national team and his father wrote to the head coach. The coach asked for video of Hammond’s play and before they knew it, the Hammonds were shipping him off to California to train.
After that, he worked to make the full-men’s squad, something he finally accomplished this year. At 16, Hammond is now the youngest member of the team, playing with the squad in Barcelona already and could be going to Copa America this fall.
“I love being the young guy. I get to learn a lot more,” he said on a phone call Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve been to 12 camps now, [and] one trip to Chile where we played them twice and one trip to a tournament in Spain.”
The frequent training camps have allowed Hammond to have a lot of chances to work on, and improve, his soccer game.
All the while he’s had a lot of help from his teammates.
“It’s been great in terms of learning more about the game from other players, in particular one of my teammates Nick Mayhugh, who is one of the best players on the team and is helping me develop a lot more,” Hammond said.
Hammond works hard in the gym as well. During the school year, when he isn’t with the Paralympic team, he goes straight from MKA soccer practice to the gym, usually at Parabolic Performance & Rehab in Little Falls.
He hasn’t always been that eager to be in the gym, according to Hammond’s father, Ashley Hammond, who is also Montclair High School’s girls soccer coach. When he was doing physical therapy at Optimum Orthopedics (now Professional Physical Therapy) in Montclair, it was was Hammond’s mother and his physical therapist, Kevin Duffus, that got him hooked on the workouts, said his father.
“[Shea’s] mother was always diligent about being with him and was so good with him,” his father said. “And Kevin Duffus was that rock for him. If it weren’t for those two originally, he wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is now.”
That’s just one example of the support structure around Hammond. Another took place when he injured his knee during his freshman year.
“I tore almost every ligament in my right knee and I thought ‘this could be it,’” Hammond recalled. “But it was really nice to have the support of my whole family, my therapists and everyone, including my teammates at MKA and the Para team. All of them helping me through that. Everyone reaching out to me and saying ‘hey, let it heal, you’ll be good and ready to go again.’”
That support continues, especially around schoolwork.
As Hammond misses classes, his teachers and the school make sure he has the tools he needs to catch up when he isn’t on the road.
Not only is he playing soccer on the US Paralympic team, but he’s also a member of the Cougars’ varsity soccer team. Since entering the program his freshman year, he has done nothing but impress MKA varsity soccer coach Rob Leather.
“Last year, he made varsity as a sophomore,” Leather said. “He didn’t start, but he rotated in, scored some important goals for us and was an important part of the squad.”
Leather said while the team and school have certainly been a big source of support for Hammond, they’ve learned a lot from him as well.
At one point, Hammond did a presentation for the high school on what it was like to have cerebral palsy, his struggles with everyday life, as well as the hurdles he has had to overcome to get to where he is today.
“We have this thing called Monday Meeting where the whole school gets together to hear announcements and other things. And at the end, occasionally there’s this thing called a student share,” Hammond said. “At the beginning of my sophomore year, I spoke in front of the whole school about my journey. It was very tough because it was in front of about 400 or 500 people there, just talking to the entire school about something I’ve been growing up with and my goal for most of my life, really. “
As difficult as it was for Hammond, it left an impression on the student body and the faculty, Leather said.
“I’ve heard the captains reference it and I certainly think that they’re fully aware of what he’s gone through, not just from the physical perspective, but also psychologically,” Leather said. “It’s difficult to cope with some of the things that Shea’s had to go through. So I think they definitely take a lot of inspiration [from him].”
It’s Hammond’s tenacity on and off the field, especially with his dedication in raising awareness of CP, which impresses Leather.
Those off-the-field efforts include a non-profit the Hammonds have set up called CPSoccer.us, which helps train kids all over the country who have CP to play soccer.
“About a year ago a man named Eli Halliwell reached out to my dad and me because his son Levi has CP,” Hammond said. “And they had been following me a little bit over the course of the summer when I went to Chile and stuff like that.”
Halliwell reached out hoping that they could put something together giving kids with cerebral palsy advice on playing soccer.
“We started about a year ago now, and we’ve been holding practices for kids with CP. We held a camp earlier this summer at Clemson University, where we had a bunch of kids come from all around the country to play. It’s been really great and we’ve been growing a lot and growing in new places,” Hammond said.
Hammond returned from California early Tuesday morning, and after a brief rest, will get back to work with the Cougars, while also continuing to work with the Paralympic team.
While he’s accomplished a lot, he still has some pretty lofty goals.
“My long-term goals are to become a regular starter with the team, traveling with the them as much as possible, and going to as many tournaments as possible,” he said. “There’s the World Cup and Pan American games next year. Basically, I just want to compete and train and play with the team as long as I can and make my mark on US soccer.”