For the first time in history, the United States will field a women’s para national soccer team to play in international World Cup competition, with the matches taking place between May 12 and 17 in Salou, Spain, a resort town along the Balearic Sea coast about 90 minutes southwest of Barcelona.
One of the 10 players chosen to represent the United States on the U.S. Women's Para National Soccer Team (USWPNT) is Jesslyn Kuhnel, a rising senior on the Port St. Joe soccer team.
Kuhnel, who woke up one morning in 2015 and “couldn't walk,” has had problems with her right leg ever since, and “had to relearn how to walk, how to run, and how to do all sorts of things involving movement,” she said.
Her recovery and rehabilitation enabled her to get back to playing soccer after months of “physical therapy and just working my way up from there,” Jesslyn said.
“Eventually, I picked up horseback riding, which really boosted my movement and ability to play,” she said.
“When this happened (in 2015), she was on a travel soccer team and was also dancing two days a week, so she was really active,” Jesslyn’s mother, Wendy, said. “It really threw things into a tailspin, (but) she kept going the best she could.”
But because Jesslyn “could not make her legs do even the most basic things, she dropped dance and picked up horseback riding and that seemed to help her,” said her mom, noting that doctors have not been able to pinpoint an exact diagnosis.
“I still have a lot of tightness and a lot of pain with walking after I work out,” said Jesslyn. “Sometimes I take an ice bath or an epsom salt bath. Past that, I just let it do its thing.”
Not letting her leg doing its own thing slow her down, Jesslyn has excelled on the soccer field.
“I’ve known Jesslyn for a few years, seeing her at various camps and training sessions in the area,” said her Port St. Joe coach Justin Gerlach. “If you watch her for even a short period of time, it is apparent that she has put a lot of work into the game and her skills.”
“She’s a player (who) knows the game, but is very coachable and eager to learn more, (so) I was excited when she decided to come play for Port St. Joe,” said Gerlach.
“She filled holes for us all over the pitch this (past) season, playing in at least five different positions,” he continued. “That willingness to do whatever the team needs is just a small part of what makes her great and also why she won our team’s ‘Swiss Army Knife’ award this year.”
For Jesslyn to make the transition from a Port St. Joe Tiger Shark to one of the 10 players to represent the U.S. in the first international women’s para competition involved a combination of a mother’s persistence and good timing.
“I had been looking around back in the summer (2021), to see if there were leagues for kids like Jesslyn,” said Wendy. “I discovered that U.S. soccer had a men’s paralympic team, but not for women at that time.”
As Jesslyn, who is homeschooled, got busy with her junior year and her soccer season, “I just let it go,” said Wendy, but she resumed the search after Jesslyn received her award at the April 2 soccer banquet.
The following Monday, April 4, Wendy found out a training camp had been held in January for a women’s national para team, so she contacted CP Soccer in Atlanta, an organization for women with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, and strokes.
“We wanted something that would be a challenge for her, so she could keep advancing against girls with similar situations,” said Wendy,
After receiving Jesslyn’s information, CP Soccer sent Wendy the contact information for Ashley Hammond, the U.S. Soccer director of disabilities.
That same night Hammond telephoned the Kuhnels to say Jesslyn would be a possible fit for the new women’s para national team that was being organized, and that “he needed some video of Jesslyn within 48 hours, because they were going into camp the next week in California,” said Wendy.
Wendy immediately texted Gerlach, explained what they needed, and he arranged for senior Kristen Bouington to meet Jesslyn at the soccer field on April 5, so Wendy could video a workout.
“We sent (the video), and about three hours later, we heard back from Hammond that he felt good about her chances,” said Wendy.
The following day, the invitation came along with forms to fill out, including a physical.
“We got it all worked out,” said Wendy. “Her primary care doctor, Dr. Kimberly Rittman, was fabulous to get her in for the required physical” on such short notice.
“That Sunday (April 10), we were flying out to San Diego,” she said.
Upon their arrival in San Diego, “we went to the hotel and she went to the camp,” said Jesslyn’s dad, Bruce. “We didn’t see her until we got back to the airport” to come home April 14.
“I loved San Diego,” said Jesslyn. “I was really nervous at first, but the moment I met the other girls, it was a fantastic environment. Everyone there was super positive, probably the best group of girls I’ve ever met in my life.
“Throughout the camp, (the coaches) gave us an idea of what (position) they thought we would be playing, and we found out our actual positions when the roster came out,” said Jesslyn, one of the midfielders on the team.
At 16 the youngest player on the squad, Jesslyn’s teammates include girls from California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, and New Jersey.
The history-making team will be coached by Tricia Taliaferro, director of technical development for the girls soccer program of the Tampa Bay United Rowdies.
Of her new team’s coaches, Jesslyn said “I liked them. They were all super understanding of us. Anything that we needed, we could go to them and ask.”
Jesslyn and her parents will be flying to Spain on Friday, May 6, joined by older sister Alyssa, who graduated April 30 from the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama.
The U.S. team is scheduled to face Spain on Thursday, May 12, followed by consecutive matches against the Netherlands, Japan, and Australia from Friday through Sunday.
Placement games will take place on Monday and Tuesday, May 16 and 17, with the championship set for Wednesday, May 18.
All matches will be broadcast live and free through ESport+, available at esportplus.tv/home or via the ESport+ app on the App Store or Google Play Store.
“We may not have access to her during the week, the players will be cordoned off,” said her dad Bruce.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Jesslyn, of her being part of history. “It’s probably going to hit me in the airport the moment we land in Spain.”
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