A camera zooms in on Nico Calabria. His father asks a simple question: “What do you think you’re going to do today?”
“Uh, play,” Nico says.
His answer is as simple as it is powerful. The 19-year-old was born with no right hip or leg, yet he plays soccer, wrestled in high school, grew up practicing gymnastics, and at age 13 raised more than $100,000 for charity by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He made his varsity soccer team at Concord-Carlisle High in Massachusetts, where he once scored a goal that ended up drawing nearly 2 million hits on YouTube. Now Calabria is starring in a Powerade commercial that debuted at the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival at Tribeca Cinemas in New York on Friday; it will also air during the 2014 FIFA World Cup this summer.
“It’s still just, ‘I want to play,’ to me,” he says. “And that’s what it will always be.”
Calabria says that ever since he started playing soccer at age 5, he’s been dreaming of playing in the World Cup—as an able-bodied player, of course. He says he was naive then. But it’s not really naiveté that’s fueled Calabria. He’s always had a realistic view—his family’s made sure of that. His brother picked on him the same way any older brother would. His parents didn’t coddle him or allow him to make excuses. “My parents always instilled in an attitude of, ‘Hey, tough luck, man. You were born with one leg. Now make the best of it.’”
Calabria’s mother, Jeanine, says that from the start, the family made sure to focus on what he did have rather than what he didn’t. Instead of saying he had one leg, they’d say he had a left leg. Growing up, after having been “judged for having one leg,” Nico would go to his parents for sympathy. His mother would console him; his father wouldn’t. “We get it, it’s a bummer, but there’s legitimately zero you can do about it,” Carl Calabria would say. “So what now?”
“I think that attitude isn’t specific to having a disability,” Nico says. “It can apply to everything.”
And that’s the message behind Powerade’s Powering Through campaign, which features snippets of Calabria on the soccer field and in the gym doing handstands and pullups. It’s the same message Calabria hopes to continue sharing as he pursues his dream of teaching, coaching soccer, and becoming a motivational speaker.
Calabria also serves as a field tester for SideSix, a company that creates high-performance sports crutches. He said he’s destroyed each model in every conceivable way, which has spurred the company to make their products “Nico-proof.” Calabria graduated from high school in 2013 and recently completed an internship with SideSix. In November, he’ll represent the U.S. at the Amputee Football World Cup in Mexico.
“It’s surreal,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, really. I never expected to be in this situation. It’s just an honor.”