Early in Team USA’s opening match against the Netherlands in Rio de Janeiro last year, forward Adam Ballou (’15) streaked past a defender to receive the ball and proceeded to drill a right-footed shot in the top of the box for a 1-0 lead. Then, with time running out and his team trailing 2-1, Ballou again found the net, this time heading the ball off a defender and inside the post to give the Americans a 2-2 draw against the heavily favored Dutch.
Ballou’s two goals, a team-high during the 2016 Paralympic Games, helped the U.S. squad climb to No. 6 in the world rankings and secured the Virginia Beach native’s status as the U.S. Soccer 2016 Disabled Player of the Year. More than an individual honor, he says, “it’s a testament to those around me who have supported me and pushed me, and who have given me opportunities to succeed and grow.”
At the top of that list are his parents, John and Melissa, who went out of their way to ensure that Adam, who has cerebral palsy as a result of suffering a stroke when he was 6 months old, had every opportunity to live a normal, active lifestyle that included playing organized sports. “My wife and I were both very athletic, and we understand the value of sports, both physically and psychologically,” John Ballou says. “And we were adamant that we did not want to have couch-potato kids.”
Despite Adam’s disability, which required him to wear leg braces and left his body considerably weaker on his left side, his parents signed him up to play on his older sister Kelsey’s youth soccer team when he was only 3 years old. The experience sparked a lifelong passion for the sport.
Adam’s strength and coordination improved during childhood thanks to intensive physical therapy. When he was 8, Adam began receiving experimental Botox injections for stroke survivors, and he underwent surgery to attach part of one of his Achilles tendons to the top of his left foot. After sitting out that spring, the leg braces finally came off.
“When he found out that surgery would allow him to play without braces, that really motivated him,” John Ballou says. “I bought two soccer goals and set them up in the backyard, and he would run back and forth and practice for hours.”
“Soccer became my passion,” Adam says, adding, “I broke quite a few fences.”
He continued to improve throughout middle and high school and earned a reputation as being technically sound and an excellent passer. At 14, while playing for a local traveling team, Adam caught the attention of the coach of the Paralympic National Team and was invited to a tryout in Los Angeles. “It was like a dream,” he says. “There I was in training camp, working out alongside the Women’s National Team and seeing David Beckham,” who at the time was a member of Major League Soccer’s L.A. Galaxy.
When it came time to apply to colleges, JMU wasn’t on Adam’s radar. But his cousin, Meredith Wood (’13), a Student Ambassador at Madison, encouraged him to come for a visit. “I fell in love with JMU from the moment I stepped on campus. I said to myself that whatever happened with my soccer career, I was going to be a Duke.”
After his first semester at JMU, Adam was invited to join Team USA and prepare for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, and he took the spring semester off to train with the team full time. The results, however, were disappointing. “We didn’t do very well in London. I couldn’t wait to get back to JMU.”
A double major in international affairs and Spanish with minors in Business Spanish and Latin American/Caribbean studies, Adam became involved in campus life as a Freshman Orientation Guide and Student Ambassador. “It was my way of giving back and sharing the love that JMU gave me.”
Adam’s love of the Spanish language and culture also led him to participate in JMU’s Semester in Salamanca program, and he interned with the U.S. State Department in Madrid. All the while, he continued to play soccer at JMU, training and traveling with the men’s and women’s club teams.
“My Madison Experience was unforgettable,” he says. “I had so many impactful, loving people surrounding me, so many friends and mentors. … JMU was absolutely instrumental in creating stepping stones for me professionally.”
After college, Adam thought his playing career was over, but last year Paralympic National Team head coach Stuart Sharp tapped him to serve as captain of Team USA in the Rio 2016 Games. “Adam is a gamer … and a fine example of a player that has worked hard with what he has been given,” Sharp says, adding that since returning from Rio, Adam has given back to the community through coaching sessions and guest lectures.
Adam remains engaged with JMU. Last spring he was a featured athlete in Cathy McKay’s Paralympic Skill Lab in her Kinesiology 100 classes. His two younger sisters, Haley, a junior hospitality management major, and Courtney, a sophomore nursing major—both three-time All-State soccer players—followed in Adam’s footsteps at Madison. “I think they could see how much I loved JMU and how it changed me for the better.”
He is currently living in Puerto Rico while he awaits word on his application for a position with the State Department.