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'I'm a competitor': One-legged soccer star defies expectations in new video

The most frustrating aspect about being born with a missing right leg and hip, Nico Calabria says, is the reaction he gets from others.“People doubt me, and constantly will sprint 45 feet across a hotel lobby to open a door for me,” he said. “People expect that I want sympathy or pity or help all the time, and it’s quite the opposite.”The 19-year-old soccer player who uses carbon fiber c
Nicolai Calabria, one-legged soccer player, and school teammates on Sept 19, 2013.
Nicolai Calabria, one-legged soccer player, and school teammates on Sept 19, 2013.Today

The most frustrating aspect about being born with a missing right leg and hip, Nico Calabria says, is the reaction he gets from others.

“People doubt me, and constantly will sprint 45 feet across a hotel lobby to open a door for me,” he said. “People expect that I want sympathy or pity or help all the time, and it’s quite the opposite.”

The 19-year-old soccer player who uses carbon fiber crutches received such an offer of assistance even as he got to his hotel Thursday in New York, where he had arrived for a screening of a video he stars in for Powerade, a two-minute montage of his active life.

The irony was not lost on Calabria, who calls himself “someone with a difference in ability,” rather than someone with a disability.

Calabria, of Concord, Mass., graduated from high school last year. As a senior, his remarkable debut goal for the varsity soccer team drew national attention, and he was co-captain of the varsity wrestling team. He is heading to Colorado College later this year and is a member of the U.S. national amputee soccer team training for November’s World Cup.

He takes pleasure in showing doubters they have misjudged him.

“When I step onto the soccer field or the wrestling mat, they think the reason I’m there is because someone was sympathetic to me,” Calabria said. “Once the match starts or the whistle blows, they learn pretty quickly that I’m a competitor.

“I really enjoy proving people wrong in that regard,” he added.

Calabria has been able to do so with the practical, yet firm encouragement from his parents.

“They instilled a work-hard mentality in me, and tough love,” Calabria said. “Even though I was born with one leg, there’s no changing it, so you might as well do the best you can.”

Nico Calabria and school teammates on Sept 19, 2013.Today

His parents counseled him to approach life with a positive attitude. “That has seeped down into my deep personality,” Calabria said.

He began playing soccer as soon as he could walk, though the game wasn’t out of the ordinary for Calabria: it was part of life in his family, which includes siblings Kyle, now 21, and Maya, 14.

“I did anything that my older brother did, starting with soccer,” Calabria said, adding that their father, Carl, plays as well. “I was just trying to fit in.”

Sports helped him fit in elsewhere, too.  

“I just love playing soccer,” Calabria says. “I love being a teenager and being normal. That’s why athletics have been such a big part of my life. It’s a normalizer in a lot of ways.”

The video, “Powering Through — Nico Calabria’s Story of Defying Expectations,” aired Thursday night at the Kicking + Screening Soccer Film Festival. It shows Calabria as a toddler first learning to walk and later playing basketball, on ice skates and roller skates, and playing soccer.

As a boy, he also played tennis and volleyball, he swam and did gymnastics, all either while hopping or on crutches. He had a prosthetic leg from ages 3 to 5, but chose to stop using it in favor of crutches because they gave him greater mobility.

Calabria said his accomplishments are the combination of hard work, a good attitude and the support of his family and friends. If people wonder how does it, he has a matter-of-fact response.

“When people say, ‘Is it hard having one leg?’ I have no clue,” Calabria said. “I never had two legs. It’s all it’s ever been.”

"I love being a teenager and being normal," says Nico Calabria.Today

Calabria hopes the video will inspire people who are doubting themselves or are down on their luck, no matter what kind of struggle they are facing.

“You can’t change what you can’t change,” said the aspiring motivational speaker, teacher and coach. “What you can change is your attitude and how you approach a situation, the mentality you bring to it.

“Everybody has challenges, different types of challenges,” he added. “It’s not really about the challenges. It’s about how you deal with the ones that you have.”

His mother, Jeanine, was shocked when her second child was born with one leg, a congenital amputation. But she and her husband decided early on they were not going to “create a second handicap for Nico” by coddling him.

Her son, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at age 13, does have a trait her other children do not. “He’s a very stubborn young man,” said Jeanine Calabria, 51. “It has always been a battle of wills.”

That streak, and grit, has propelled him, she said proudly.

“He’s always just accepted it, and it didn’t keep him from doing what he wanted to do,” she said.

There are times, plenty actually, when Calabria felt bad for himself.

“Most of the time, my parents wouldn’t really give me that much sympathy for it,” he said. “They just tell the truth. There’s nothing you can do about it, get over it.”

Those words sting “pretty much every time,” he said, though he appreciates the parental push.

“Absolutely,” Calabria said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam