For years, two women have attended nearly every Air Academy High School boys soccer game, sitting together in the far south corner of the stands, away from the rest of the fans.
One is Jen Hanson, 44, a nurse’s aide and case worker for kids with special needs and the wife of the Kadet’s coach, Espen Hosoien.
The other is 23-year-old Stephanie Ciano-McGee, a 2007 Air Academy graduate who usually wears a shirt identifying her as an assistant coach. Known as Steph, she is blind, quadriplegic, suffers frequent seizures and uses a wheelchair due to her cerebral palsy.
Like other fans, the women cheer for the Kadets, boo bad calls and chat.
As much as they root for the Kadets, the women really cheer Espen, a 44-year-old burly Norwegian physical therapist who has paced the sidelines at Air Academy as head soccer coach since 2004.
At 6-4, 250 pounds, Espen resembles an NFL linebacker. His size and growl create an intimidating presence as he barks at players and officials.
There is nothing intimidating, however, about Espen when he’s with Jen and Steph. He reflects their admiration for him.
They are their own team. Steph clearly is the captain. Witness the smiles she brings to Espen and Jen, and there is no doubt about her stature with them. Doesn’t matter her speech is difficult to understand or that her intellect may not match her age or that she can do nothing for herself.
Espen and Jen joined Steph’s team about a decade ago. Jen did so voluntarily. Espen admits he was a reluctant member, at first.
They met when Espen was coaching Steph’s twin brother, Kevin, on a club soccer team. Steph and Kevin were in seventh grade at the time. Steph was sitting in her wheelchair on the sidelines with her mother, Kathy McGee.
“Kevin was this able-bodied kid, playing soccer and loving life,” Espen said. “I saw Steph at a couple of his games.”
Jen saw Steph, too, and introduced herself. The connection between them was almost immediate.
“I developed a friendship with her,” Jen said. “I started taking her places with me. It’s just a bond that sometimes people have whether they have special needs are not. People are people.”
Espen said he was drawn to Steph, also. But he was scared when Steph’s mom, Kathy, asked him to work with Steph as her physical therapist.
“He turned me down,” Kathy said. “He said: ‘It’s not for me.’ He was uncomfortable working with kids with special needs.”
It was a matter of size and strength, not the disabilities, that worried Espen.
“He’s enormous and she’s so tiny,” Kathy said, laughing at the memory. “He said: ‘I don’t want to break anyone.’ But I kept asking him.”
Espen admits he was worried.
“In the beginning, I always wondered,” he said. “I was used to working with knee, back, neck and shoulder patients who were able-bodied. I’m a pretty large guy. Some of these kids are pretty skinny and fragile. That’s not a good combination.”
Finally he agreed to work with Steph and learned something about her and other special-needs kids.
“Steph is a pretty tough cookie,” he said. “I was careful in the beginning. But now some of the exercises we do are pretty hardcore.”
Espen discovered Steph was able to do much more than he ever dreamed.
Kathy credits Espen’s aggressive therapy with improving her life and helping her avoid multiple surgeries. She was so impressed that she hired Espen as a physical therapist at her Nursing and Therapy Services of Colorado company in 2005.
“He is just amazing with the kids,” Kathy said. “He treats them like athletes, gets them on the treadmill, lifting weights, stretching, doing leg extensions, leg curls, hopping through hoops.”
Jen followed Espen to NTSOC in 2006, abandoning her own career and business as a skin therapist and makeup artist to become a caseworker for special needs kids at the facility.
And as Espen and Jen worked with Steph, they became more than just friends. They came to view each other as family.
Interestingly, Kathy was not sure how to react to the growing bond.
“At first it was very difficult,” Kathy said. “I didn’t know how to accept kindness.
“I’m Steph’s mom. I know how difficult a job it is, dealing with her. I wasn’t used to people doing things for me unless I was paying them.
“It was hard for me to accept someone doing for Steph and me simply because they love us. And they did it so effortlessly. They did it without expecting anything in return.”
Steph started coming to Espen’s practices and games, courtesy of Jen.
And Espen began using soccer to motivate Steph in her therapy sessions.
“I would tell her my soccer players have to stretch and walk and would get her going,” Espen said. “If the players are doing it, toughing it out, she figured she needed to, too.”
He also used Steph to motivate his soccer players.
“I want them to realize how good they have it,” Espen said. “Steph and other kids I work with would kill to be out here and run around and play soccer. I try to get in their heads that they are the lucky ones.”
Espen’s players aren’t the only ones to benefit from Steph’s example. She has provided him valuable perspective in his own life.
“Before I started working with her, I could bury myself in the basement for days after losing a game,” he said. “Now I realize there are other challenges a lot more difficult, a lot harder than winning a soccer game.”
Perhaps it is Steph’s attitude that impresses the coach the most.
“Steph never complains about her situation in life,” he said softly. “I’ve never heard her complain or feel sorry for herself. She tries to do the best she can with what she has. She’s shown me it’s OK if you lose a game. Life goes on. It’s not the biggest thing.
“The biggest thing is she keeps me grounded. She’s a blessing.”
Jen echoes Espen’s view of Steph and the impact she has had on her life.
“She is really funny,” Jen said. “She has a great sense of humor and is very compassionate to others. Especially other handicapped people.
“I consider Stephanie to be one of my best friends. She has incredible insight into people’s emotions. She knows when I’m happy and she knows when I’m sad. She’s amazing.”
And like Espen, Jen says her life has changed thanks to Steph and the other kids at the center.
“Espen and I don’t have kids,” Jen said. “We look at Steph and the others as our kids. We think of them in that way.”
This is a full-immersion conversion for Jen.
“I was in the makeup business before,” she said. “I wonder what I did with my life before this.
“This has been such a blessing for me, meeting Stephanie. You meet people in your life and it happens for a reason. She opened my world.
“I think how difficult life is for these kids every single day, when I hear myself complain. This gives me a whole new look on life. I can’t imagine what my life would be without these kids.”
Their bond goes far beyond therapy and soccer.
Besides taking Steph to soccer games, Jen takes her to the mall, to dinner, swimming in the summer and into their home once a week for a sleepover. Well, not really a “sleep” over. Steph doesn’t come over with a sleeping bag and toothbrush. She comes with meds, oxygen and a guarantee of sleep deprivation.
“Because of her constant seizure activity, she doesn’t really sleep,” Jen said. “I take her to our house one night a week to give her mom a break.”
Kathy said Espen is equally devoted.
“Jen and Espen took her to every prom in high school,” Kathy said. “Even after she graduated. They would dress up. Espen would wear a tie that matched Steph’s dress. And they would go to dinner and the dance. Espen would even dance to ‘YMCA’ with her.”
Espen said he didn’t want Stephanie to feel left-out at school.
“We talked every year as her brother was going to prom or homecoming,” he said. “We decided why don’t we take her? And we’d been working in the clinic doing assisted standing and walking. We were doing the YMCA dance and using the prom to get her motivated in the clinic.
“It was great seeing her dressed up and being a part of what every other kid at the school enjoys.”
His determination to treat Steph like the other kids produced one of those magic, emotional, Hollywood moments at Air Academy’s graduation in 2007. And I was lucky enough to witness it.
As students paraded to the stage to receive their diplomas, Espen joined Steph.
He lifted her out of her electric wheelchair, put her feet on his feet and, together, they “walked” across the stage, just like my daughter, Anna, had and all the other kids.
It was a powerful image.
What I didn’t know was all the behind-the-scenes effort it took to achieve that moment.
“One of their goals was to ‘walk’ at graduation,” Jen said. “They worked hard for a year or more so she could stand with his assistance.”
It’s a cherished memory for Espen, one he rates in the same lofty space as the state soccer championship his Kadets won in 2010.
“Graduation was awesome for me, big time,” he said. “It’s not easy for a kid in a wheelchair and with her disabilities. To have the guts to do that was fabulous.”
As they slowly made their way to the podium, Espen said Steph became frightened.
“She wanted to turn around,” he said. “But she had the courage to go through with it. That was pretty special for me.”
Espen and Jen don’t talk about Steph because they are seeking any kind of praise. But Kathy makes it clear that their contributions are immense.
“They taught me how to enjoy Stephanie,” Kathy said. “I was working two jobs and coming home and up all night with Stephanie and I was tired all the time. She had become a job to me. I was just putting one foot in front of the other before they offered to help.
“Jen and Espen showed me there are ways to enjoy her. Now I feel I have a really great life and so does Steph. She’s happy as can be. Their kindness has taken on a life of its own. Our whole agency is built around it now. Everybody is there for everybody. But Jen and Espen were the first.”