Boyle spent most of his youth playing basketball in Wayzata. He came to soccer late after catching the “soccer bug.” And despite this late start — or perhaps because of it — Sean threw himself headfirst into the sport.
After starting Orono High School, Boyle eventually moved to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, one of the two US Developmental Academies in Minnesota. As Boyle describes it, he devoted the last four years or so of his life to pursuing his soccer dreams and Shattuck was precisely the staging point for that kind of success.
It was at Shattuck that Sean came under the tutelage of Tim Carter, then director of the school’s academy, who was just announced as the director of Minnesota United FC’s new development academy. Carter says that what struck him about Sean first was that “because [Sean] started late, he really had a tremendous desire to improve… What I saw at that time [was] “raw” athletic talent. Good size, strong, and courageous. And that courage extends into him now.”
Carter says that Sean always knew the extra hurdles he had to overcome because of his late start and he saw the young player dedicate himself to getting better. Boyle might, for example, come out of a match having made a mistake and, Carter says, “He might get down on himself, but he never let it bury him.”
From Shattuck, Boyle went to Hartwick College in Upstate New York, but very quickly he knew he needed a transfer (he had been red-shirted upon arrival). He moved out to San Jose, and in 2015, he began preseason training with the San Jose State Spartans.
Then a numbness in the tip of his thumb began to spread to his arm, shoulder, and eventually his chest. It started to feel like someone was coiling a rope around the right side of my body,” Boyle recalls.
The preseason had gone fantastically, Boyle says. He moved quickly from the number three goalkeeper to number two. But after a few weeks, he says he started to feel lethargic. Then a numbness in the tip of his thumb began to spread to his arm, shoulder, and eventually his chest. It started to feel like someone was coiling a rope around the right side of my body,” he recalls. After an MRI, doctors discovered a ventricular cavernous malformation (VCM) around his brain stem.
Sean went into surgery knowing that the long-shot at becoming a professional goalkeeper was gone. But what was supposed to be a brief two days in the hospital for recovery turned into three weeks after complications from the surgery.
During that three weeks, he says, “I couldn’t move, essentially. Being locked up in a place for three weeks is depressing as hell, it’s crushing. You go through a lot of mental and emotional stuff and you’re trying to figure out who you are.” Sean found himself disabled (he’s still uncomfortable with that term), with some limited mobility. During the last few years, he had devoted himself to becoming a better goalkeeper. “I ran around the country chasing it,” he says, “Ok. I can’t do that and what do I do now?”
A few months later, Sean was talking to Trevor Stiles, the CEO of Aviata Sports (where Sean was interning), who had represented the Canadian Paralympic team in the past. Stiles put Boyle in contact with US Paralympic coach, Stuart Sharp, who brought Boyle in for a tryout in March. By April, Boyle was on the team.
“By day four of camp, running in a straight line is hard, I can’t do lunges without falling over. My legs are super weak, I’m just a shell of the soccer player that I was. Coping with that, I spend a lot of time resting. Recovery for me is huge.”
Now, just ten months after his surgery, Sean Boyle is the starting goalkeeper for the US Paralympic soccer team. Boyle is still learning what his body can and can’t do. When he joined up with the team for camp, he says, he felt like 85 percent of what he was before the surgery. But he adds, “By day four of camp, running in a straight line is hard, I can’t do lunges without falling over. My legs are super weak, I’m just a shell of the soccer player that I was. Coping with that, I spend a lot of time resting. Recovery for me is huge.”
Boyle started both matches for the US so far during the tournament: a 2-2 draw against the Netherlands and a 0-2 loss to Iran. The goalkeeper says he is disappointed with the results, though he did tally 20 saves between the two matches. But the Yanks can find themselves advancing to the semi-final round with a win over Argentina on Monday and win for Iran over the Netherlands. It’s not an impossible task, Boyle says, since Argentina lost both its matches and Iran won both theirs. The US already beat Argentina 4-3 in a warm-up tournament in Spain. “We expect to win that game,” he says of Argentina.
Carter is filled with pride in talking about Boyle’s accomplishments. “He has courage. His mom and dad instilled in him, you always keep fighting and you always keep trying and you never let something keep you back. You just keep going forward. Certainly the injury was something he never planned on, but at the same time he had all these qualities that would help him get through that. I’m really happy for him.”
“I got a little emotional. I beat everything in terms of recovery and now I’m able to play for my friends and family across the US. Now I’m playing for everybody under one banner.”
And Boyle expresses a similar sort of pride. When asked about his feelings, he turns to something he heard his teammate Steve Bohlemann say: “As a kid you want to represent your country. Basically, through one way or another, my worst experience turned into one of my best.”
Emerging from surgery debilitated, Boyle says was extremely difficult. But from that intense period of his life, he finds himself not only playing soccer again, but representing his country. He reflects on that experience of juxtaposing worst and best experiences: “I’ve never played for something bigger. You play for your school, but that’s nothing compared to representing the US as a whole. It’s a minnow. I remember when I went out against Holland. I got a little emotional. I beat everything in terms of recovery and now I’m able to play for my friends and family across the US. Now I’m playing for everybody under one banner.”
Boyle doesn’t know what lies ahead for him when he gets home from Brazil (though he did say he was trying to angle an internship with Minnesota United FC), but he won’t be returning to San Jose State. Whether or not he helps the Yanks move into the semifinals on Monday, he will have achieved something truly remarkable.
You can watch the US take on Argentina at NBC Live Extra on September 12 at noon, CDT. You should also check out this primer on the rules of Paralympic 7-a-side soccer.