Minnesota high school soccer star using his cerebral palsy as inspiration
Rochester high school senior Chileshe Chitulangoma has not let his diagnosis slow him, on the pitch or in the classroom.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Chileshe Chitulangoma runs with a slightly crooked left arm and a weakened entire left side of his body.
The Mayo High School senior has cerebral palsy, a diagnosis first given him when he was 2.
Tim Jennings is the first-year coach of the Mayo boys soccer team in Rochester. He knows about Chitulangoma’s condition but spends little time thinking about it. That’s because Chitulangoma also happens to be one of his top and most versatile players on a strong Spartans team.
“I don’t think that (cerebral palsy) is a big problem for Chile,” Jennings said. “That’s a compliment to him. He does have some things to deal with, but not anything that we have to think a lot about. Chile has grit and he’s always willing to put in extra work and effort. He made the team based on his abilities. But his having cerebral palsy has not been an issue that’s come up.”
Nothing makes Chitulangoma happier than knowing that Jennings loses track of his condition. What he has forever wanted is to simply be a “player” and to be regarded as “able.”
He’s certainly both. Along with the forever help of his mother, physical therapist Jillene Chitulangoma, he’s done everything he can to make sure of it. There have been countless surgeries through the years, weight training, balancing exercises, stretches, and on and on.
“I’ve worked a lot on my left-footed balance,” he said. “I’ve gone from not being able to balance on my left leg for even a second, to sometimes balancing on it for 10 to 15 seconds now. And I used to not be able to do a real pushup. Now, I can do 15 to 20 of them.”
Chitulangoma has an unwavering love for soccer, which is a family thing. Older brother Daliso, a Mayo graduate and former Spartans soccer star, and his brother Kymani, a sophomore at Mayo, cling to the game just as Chile does.
But his mother places her middle son in an unmatched category. She imagines no one Chitulangoma's age knows soccer better than him, with all of the time he’s put into watching it, studying it and working at it.
Chitulangoma picks things up quickly, which helps explain his wizardry in the classroom (a nearly 4.0 grade point average), where he’s relentless.
But soccer, there is nothing more special to him.
“I love being around the game,” said Chitulangoma, who got his soccer start in the third grade. “I’d like to be around soccer in some way for the rest of my life. Since the days that I played (for the Rochester Youth Soccer Association), it’s been my main passion.
“I try to be as smart in the game as possible. I’ve watched a lot of soccer, so I’ve picked up a thing or two. Anything in my power to compensate for my cerebral palsy, I do that. That’s always been my mindset.”
These days, Chitulangoma also has a new mindset. It's to stretch well beyond himself. It’s to reach out to others who have cerebral palsy, or as he puts it, “anyone who has any disability or even those without a disability.”
Chitulangoma is done being quiet about what he’s dealt with. In fact, he’s now determined to embrace it, to talk about it and to even give thanks for it.
Starting with this story, he says he’s on a new mission: To reach out to anyone he can by letting them know more about himself and his journey with cerebral palsy.
“I’ve not been open about it for most of my life, and I think most people don’t even know I have (cerebral palsy),” Chitulangoma said. “But my being quiet about it doesn’t do anyone any favors. If I can be inspiring to kids who have cerebral palsy, or anyone, I want to do that.”
His first step there is to stop hiding his condition, but rather to embrace it.
Chitulangoma credits cerebral palsy for helping shape him. He wants to get that out there.
“It’s made me a stronger person,” he said. “Having cerebral palsy is not something that I can change, and it’s not even a bad thing. There is no reason for me to be quiet about it anymore."