For many fans and players, soccer is an escape from everyday life. For Cooper and Anna Leigh, it’s a gateway to one.
The two siblings from Lexington, Kentucky were both diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age and have faced many medical challenges since. But the siblings were able to find a sport and a passion through Cerebral Palsy Soccer, an organization that runs a nationwide soccer league and summer camp for children with cerebral palsy who would otherwise be unable to play on a team.
Cooper, 13, was diagnosed with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, a form that primarily affects his legs, at age two. At age nine, he began to play CP Soccer for the first time and found camaraderie with children who understood his limitations. After an intense leg surgery, with a two-year recovery period, Cooper began to relearn how to walk—and most importantly for him—participate in virtual training sessions with his CP Soccer team.
Cooper’s sister, Anna Leigh, 7, was diagnosed with hemiplegic cerebral palsy due to a stroke on the right side of her brain, along with an autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy. She defied odds and learned to walk with the aid of orthotics, but still struggled to speak because of her autism. When Cooper began virtual training sessions with the CP Soccer team, Anna Leigh was only 4, but eager to keep up with her big brother. She practiced every day and started being able to speak to members outside of her family.
Soccer became an escape from medical procedures for the siblings.
“Soccer helps with my motivation, my confidence and my working skills, said Cooper. “I feel like I’m more confident and I can do more things that I want to do, because I’m doing more physical activities and feeling better about myself.”
“After an hour or two of playing [my legs] start hurting but you just have to get through it,” said Anna Leigh. “[Soccer] keeps me going.”
Anna Leigh and Cooper received a personal invitation from the U.S. Women’s National Team starting defender Kelley O’Hara through CHAMP to become virtual player honorees during the U.S. Women’s National Team match in Kansas City. As massive soccer fans, the news was a dream come true. On October 21st, Anna Leigh and Cooper were virtually transported into the center of match-day action.
CHAMP, a telepresence robot developed by Volkswagen in collaboration with OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley-based robotics company, allows young soccer fans who are unable to attend matches in person the ability to interact with players, participate in activities on the field and enjoy the gameday experience.
CHAMP was positioned field-side, allowing the siblings to watch the U.S. and South Korean teams warm up for the match. Through CHAMP, the siblings were able to partake in a private meet and greet with O’Hara as well as a privately guided tour of the WNT locker room. Both Anna Leigh and Cooper were shown custom lockers with personalized nameplates and jerseys in the locker room during their tour. CHAMP enabled Anna Leigh and Cooper to be on-field during the National Anthem and be part of the pre-match ceremonies.
“The determination those two kids have and how they handle it is incredible,” said Kelley O’Hara, WNT starting defender. “And they are little warriors and fighters and for me so inspiring. CHAMP gives the experience of being in the stands and seeing the fans to any kid…I’m excited to have them on the field with us.”
Taking design cues from the Volkswagen ID.4 electric SUV, CHAMP is engineered to mimic the appearance of a physical player honoree using a “head” screen that projects the user’s face and a 3D-printed body on wheels. Users can take the life-like robot on a variety of surfaces—from the concrete of the stadium locker room to the turf on the field. The video feed is then transmitted back to the user’s device so they can see and hear everything that is happening at the stadium.
CHAMP will attend future Women’s and Men’s National Team matches providing children the opportunity to be a virtual player honoree throughout 2021 and beyond. And to help other children like Cooper and Anna Leigh, Volkswagen of America has given a financial donation to CP Soccer. To learn more, visit ussoccer.com/vwchamp.