Kuhnel helps propel USA para team to gold

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The U.S. para women’s national team claimed the gold medal at the inaugural 2022 International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football World Cup for women in Salou, Spain, on Tuesday, May 17, by defeating Australia 4-2 in overtime.

The U.S. team finished competition with a 4-0-1 record, outscoring opponents by a wide margin of 39-3 in the five games. In IFCPF soccer competition, matches are 50 minutes in length, and are played with five players on a side. 

One of the 10 U.S. players is Jesslyn Kuhnel, the youngest player on the team, and a rising senior on the Port St. Joe girls soccer team. 

Although listed on the program as being 17, “I’m actually 16. U.S. Soccer got it wrong on their website,” said Kuhnel, who will turn 17 this July. 

“It was a fantastic experience, getting to be there representing the USA and getting to see so many other countries, and just having a fun time but also getting to play in competitive games of soccer,” said Kuhnel. 

Featured in the May 5 edition of The Star, Kuhnel scored two goals in the gold medal match, putting her team ahead twice, once at 2-1 in regulation, and then 3-2 in overtime. 

For her efforts, Kuhnel earned MVP honors for the final game, in addition to being named to the all-tournament team as the most outstanding forward. 

“My coach (Tricia Taliaferro) told me that I am the best FT1 player in the world,” said Kuhnel. The IFCPF classifies players as FT1, FT2, or FT3, with FT1 being the most disabled classification. 

Kuhnel, who woke up one morning in 2015 unable to walk, has overcome her undiagnosed condition through a combination of physical therapy, rehabilitation, grit, and lots of horseback riding. 

In the initial game against Spain on Thursday, May 12, Kuhnel contributed to the 16-0 win by scoring a “natural” hat trick in the second half, kicking in three goals in four minutes, at the 41st, 42nd, and 44th minute marks. 

A natural hat trick occurs when the scores are consecutive without being interrupted by any other player scoring. 

The following day, May 13, Kuhnel added two goals, in the 19th and 26th minutes, as the U.S. cruised to another easy win, 14-0 over the Netherlands. 

Although Kuhnel did not score in the 1-1 tie against Japan or the 4-0 win against Australia, she saved her most dramatic efforts for the gold medal match against Australia.

With the score tied 1-1 in the second period of the 50-minute game, Kuhnel “scored one of the best goals of the tournament to give the USA the lead, thundering a shot with equal parts placement and power into the upper right corner of the goal,” according to SoccerWire.com. 

Tied 2-2 after regulation, the teams played an overtime period consisting of two eight-minute halves, and once again the young Port St. Joe midfielder scored to put her team ahead 3-2, with an assist from Joey Martin of Smyrna, Georgia, the second-youngest player on the U.S. squad. 

This proved to be the game-winner. “The ball managed to be in the right place, and I was right there so I took the shot and made it,” said Kuhnel of her game-winning score. 

When the game ended with her team winning the first ever para women’s gold medal in soccer, “it was a really surreal experience,” said Kuhnel. “I was just sharing with my team that we had won.” 

Kuhnel’s family also enjoyed the experience from the stands. “It was absolutely incredible to be able to sit with other parents that understand, since we’re all in the same boat (because) all of our kids had issues,” said Kuhnel’s mother, Wendy. 

“To be able to watch them play, and play well, and to see Jesslyn shine was a very incredible experience and a very proud moment, and a very humbling moment as well,” Wendy said. “It shows what her ability is, but also what it could be as well. 

“She (Jesslyn) is a tough kid; she is a fighter. She has a fantastic attitude about everything, and to be able to see her so successful, it was almost a tearful moment as well,” she said. 

“When she’s playing high school (soccer), she’s playing against a bunch of able-bodied kids, (many of whom) are much more advanced in speed and sometimes ability. So to watch her play at an international level, and to see her be able to connect with her teammates and be able to knock in goals was an extremely proud moment.” 

“All of the players in that tournament are so inspiring,” said Wendy. “I’m hoping that maybe we can try to get something similar started in this area for kids with disabilities to get involved, so they can get the opportunity to play soccer and not get beat down.” 

Since returning home, Jesslyn said she still keeps up regularly with her U.S. teammates. “We have group chats, and we’re planning to have a Zoom meeting to catch up,” she said. 

She also had a chance to catch up with some of her high school teammates. On Thursday, May 26, the Sugar Shack hosted a welcome home party for Kuhnel that included her coaches, Justin Gerlach and Celeste Chiles. 

“It was a surprise to Jesslyn,” said Wendy Kuhnel. “She had no idea it was happening.”

Many of her Port St. Joe teammates also celebrated the gold medal win at a watch party, which Heidi Mueller helped organize at Sisters Bistro. 

Jesslyn expects being a part of a history-making team “will help get my thoughts together, and get me more in the zone for playing games” during her final season of high school soccer. 

Playing in this international event should also help her “be able to think fast enough. I think I’ll be able to bring to my teammates what I’ve learned and help us grow.” 

Kuhnel “filled holes for us all over the pitch (by) playing in at least five different positions” her junior year, said Coach Gerlach. “(She) has a willingness to do whatever the team needs.” 

That willingness, along with her knowledge and ability, allowed her to win the Port St. Joe Swiss Army Knife Award at the team banquet. 

Those qualities, and her track record of overcoming and defying the odds, should enable her to have a successful senior season on the soccer field.

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