Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Soccer player used to overcoming the odds

Haithwaite's big heart makes up for small stature

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In his 18 years, Evan Haithwaite has overcome tremendous odds many times and he's preparing to do it again.Haithwaite, a forward/midfielder, has been selected to the pool of players for Canada's national cerebral palsy soccer team and is one step away from making the team. All that's standing in his way are things he can control.

"Evan is very keen and he understands the game of soccer very well, so the only thing holding him back right now is his size and strength," said Drew Ferguson, the head coach of the team.

"When we play Russia or countries like that, there are players who are 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. But he's still very young and he's committed to a program to get stronger... he's grown a lot already. When he gets himself physically stronger, I'm sure he'll just walk into the program."

Haithwaite is about 5-foot-4 and weighs about 115 pounds. So he and his parents, Rob and Sandra, asked Jeff Fisher, the former trainer for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and a bodybuilding champion, to train Evan at Elite Performance.

"I haven't been able to compete on high-level teams because of my disability. So I thought it was so exciting to be this close but, also that, man, it sucks that I'm just not close enough," said Evan, who has some physical limitations on his left side.

"But this is a men's team and I know I have to work hard at getting stronger so I can compete at the international level. Now I'm really pushing because I really want it. It would mean a lot to me to be able to represent my country."

His parents marvel at the many amazing things Evan has accomplished by deciding he would be defined by what he can do, instead of what he cannot.

When he was 12 years old, he pitched and caught with one arm to help his baseball team win a city championship. A couple of months ago he placed second at a three-point basketball shooting contest at school. He kept playing soccer through his early and middle teens and, as his skills continued to improve, was invited to train with Rob Gale and the provincial under-18 team.

"Evan was born to be awesome," said Rob, who is also the Manitoba Junior Hockey League referee-in-chief.

"We are so proud of him just for who his is, his personality. With what he's had to go through and overcome, we just wanted him to be included. Now he's not just included, he could end up getting an opportunity that most kids can only dream about."

Evan nearly died at birth when he was born with omphalocele -- internal organs such as the liver and bowels were on the outside of his body -- and he had severe breathing problems and a hole in his heart. He was hospitalized for his first six months and had 13 surgeries before his first birthday.

Those problems were corrected, but Evan was then diagnosed with cerebral palsy. After his early physical battles, Evan was unable to eat or digest regular food and was tube-fed until he was nearly five years old, which significantly affected his growth. A feeding program through St. Amant's Centre taught Evan to eat.

"We used to joke that he's going be taking a 20-gallon drum (of liquid food) to university (if he didn't catch on to eating solid food). At some points, you had to laugh, it's just how you get through," Rob said.

Evan's older sister Meghan, 23, became an occupational therapist after she was inspired by assisting him through the years and seeing him thrive.

Fisher, who trains elite athletes from the amateur through professional ranks, said he was eager to work with Evan.

"Evan makes people here work harder. He is so focused, he's not taking this for granted and he eats up the training as much as other people eat up the game," said Fisher, who only takes clients by application.

"There's no difference between Evan and another athlete, aside from that he and I have better conversations."

Often misunderstood, cerebral palsy is a physical condition and does not affect a person's cognitive abilities.

Evan, who recently graduated from Westwood Collegiate, has been on the honour roll each of his four high school years.

He will attend the University of Winnipeg this fall and has been awarded academic scholarships by the U of W and the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba.

Evan has travelled to five different American cities for camps over the past two years with Team Canada and was most recently training in Las Vegas in March.

"When I've been away for camps, some people at my school have asked me where I was going, so I told them I was with Team Canada, and they've said, 'man, that's so exciting, I wish I could do that.' That was pretty cool," Evan said.

Evan's national team dream could take flight as early as this fall when Ferguson, who said he's pleased with Evan's progress in six weeks of training with Fisher so far, plans to evaluate Evan again.

"We're competing in Holland in the World Championship in October," said Ferguson, who would be remembered by local soccer fans, as he played for the Hamilton Steelers of the defunct Canadian Soccer League.

"It would be great to take another look at him and see if he's ready for this."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2009 C4

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