A decade ago, the crowds of thousands Seth Jahn stood before in South America caused him to reevaluate his life.
A strong collegiate soccer career at St. Andrews University, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program in North Carolina, granted him the opportunity for a brief professional career in Ecuador.
He had spent his whole life focused on athletics — sit-ups in his Bradenton bedroom as a child, 10-mile runs as a middle-school student, skipping parties during high school and college — and this was a pinnacle he felt he reached.
Tens of thousands of Ecuadorian fans danced and sang and cheered for or against him inside their stadiums. For them, it was a 90-minute diversion from their day. For Jahn, it finally brought an epiphany as he stared into the crowd.
“I just got the worst sinking feeling in my stomach,” Jahn said. “They leave there and they go do meaningful things with their lives and I’m kicking around a ball for a living.”
This is where Jahn’s journey took its first sharp turn, but years before it began in Bradenton, where he attended Bradenton Christian School and spent his childhood playing soccer, basketball and boxing. He still has family in Manatee County, although he attended high school at George W. Jenkins High School in Lakeland and now lives in Tampa.
His path took him to a second career as an EMT and paramedic with Tampa General Hospital and then to the Middle East. In 2003, Jahn enlisted. Thirteen years and three injuries later, he is once again in the spotlight because of soccer, only now it’s fulfilling. He spent the past two weeks in Rio de Janeiro, where he became a star for the United States’ seven-a-side soccer team in the 2016 Summer Paralympics. Although the team failed to advance past group play and only scored six goals, Jahn scored twice and assisted two others.
Jahn is relatively able-bodied as far as Paralympic athletes go. The seven-a-side version of soccer is designed for athletes with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries or those who have had a stroke. Aside from the number of players on the field, seven-a-side isn’t demonstrably different than the sport played under normal circumstances, the athletes are just a touch slower to react or slightly less coordinated. They take an extra step to hit top speed, Jahn said, and an extra step to stop.
“To the untrained eye it just looks like a normal player — an elite-level player,” Jahn said. “It’s very small things they’re looking for.”
Jahn found himself in the Summer Paralympics after a pair of life-threatening injuries while serving in the United States Army.
The first was the most severe. In 2010, his third and final tour of duty came to an abrupt end. After a five-hour firefight in Afghanistan, Jahn and his fellow servicemen chased insurgents into the night until the ground gave way beneath. Jahn’s vehicle was thrown off a river and Jahn was pinned in the river below. The final diagnosis for Jahn: five spinal-cord injuries, phrenic nerve damage, sixth months of hemiplegia and a traumatic brain injury.
The first three doctors Jahn met with told him he would never again walk without the help of an assistance device. He spent two months in a hospital relearning how to walk.
With his military career over, Jahn went to Europe where he became a government contractor. For the first time since his professional career ended, soccer became part of his life again. He played for club teams as a hobby in Switzerland and Germany, playing and excelling against fully able-bodied opponents. Somehow, the United States national team got a copy of game film. They wanted to bring him in.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what they first reached out to me,” Jahn said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m not even going to be eligible for it because I’m perfectly fine.”
They put him through the rigorous five-hour test for prospective seven-a-side players. They scoured his medical records. They tested all his joints. They put him out onto a field to track his movements.
Their beliefs were confirmed. His gait was unorthodox. His reaction time was slow. He didn’t turn perfectly. His spatial awareness was off. Nothing was obvious to a casual observer, but it was enough to qualify him.
“Holy crap,” Jahn said. “I never felt more disabled.”
In 2014, Jahn was back in the Middle East where he was injured in another, smaller explosion. Shrapnel from an enemy rocket punctured a lung, ruptured an eardrum and exacerbated his traumatic brain injury. There was now no question he would qualify for 2016.
On Sept. 7, Jahn was once again in a South American stadium, standing in front of dozens of thousands spectators at Maracaña Stadium. This time the atmosphere was different. It was evident whenever he walked into the gyms at the athletes village to glean inspiration from the athletic feats of those who were even more crippled than he.
More than a decade after the soccer burnt him out, Jahn once again found inspiration.
“It was emotional for me,” Jahn said. “Just walking into that stadium, Maracaña Stadium, with the flag and 50-60 thousand people-plus just screaming and cheering for these athletes, who have overcome incredible adversity throughout their lives to perform at an elite level was awe-inspiring.”