“Men do good things in garages,” says Bill Balles. And good things do happen in Balles’ garage.
On a weekday, the garage is all about Balles’ business — the business of making signs and logos. Weekends and evenings, however, find the garage transformed into a busy workshop as local power soccer players drop by with their state-of-the-art power wheelchairs for Balles to tweak and repair.
The double duty nature of Balles’ garage serves him well. As the home of Xtreme Image Signs in Carpinteria, Balles’ garage makes an ideal workspace to print out computer-generated signs and logos, both large and small.
“I work on the designs on the computer in my office and then I send them through to the printer in the garage,” Balles said. “My office is right off the side of the garage so I can roll right through into the garage space.”
Balles remembers the exact time of day, the month, and all the details of that fateful evening when, at age 17, life took an unexpected turn. Running around forever ended for Balles and rolling began.
“It was 9 o’clock on a September evening,” he recalled. “I was playing hide and seek with some high school friends. We were playing around an apartment complex and I had jumped off the roof into a fenced enclosure around a pool. Somehow my buddy got inside the pool enclosure, too, and started to chase me. I decided to scale the fence to get away from him.
“I was just about to leap over. I had all my weight on my hands on the top hook when the hook snapped and it pitched me head first over the side. I’m 6’2” and weigh 230 pounds and when my head hit the ground I felt my body go limp.”
Balles was hospitalized for six weeks, followed by five months of rehab. But he did graduate with his high school class the following year. “Which is what I wanted,” he said.
“Life can bring you unexpected things,” Balles said, “but you have to deal with what it gives you; you have no choice. I am a quadriplegic but I made a partial recovery and got back some of my fingers and hands. So the sign-making business is good for me.”
Then life bought Balles another unexpected thing: Power Soccer.
The competitive team sport was developed specifically for power wheelchair users with disabilities that include quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and others. The game is played in a gymnasium on a regulation basketball court with two teams of four players attacking, defending and spin-kicking a 13-inch soccer ball.
“I saw a two-minute clip online about the sport and knew I wanted to do it!” Balles said. “I put together a local team and that’s how the Rollin’ Gauchos got started.”
While the Rollin’ Gauchos have their eyes on the national championships, Balles has set a personal goal of playing internationally.
“Team USA is the only soccer team in the world to have won World Cups back to back,” Balles said proudly.
Balles flew to Indiana to try out for Team USA, only to have an engineering problem, not his skills, dash his hopes.
“When I got there the batteries on my wheelchair had begun to die,” he said. “I did get to try out, but couldn’t really show them what I could do because I spent most of my time sitting on the sidelines recharging.”
Sitting out the tryouts waiting for his chair to charge, Balles vowed that this would never happen to him again. He would build a power soccer wheelchair that wouldn’t let him down. And he has, not only for himself but for all his Rollin’ Gaucho teammates.
He returned from that disappointing trip, found a discontinued line of chairs, and set to work in his garage modifying them into formidable state-of-the art Power Soccer chairs. This is the reason that most weekends you will find Balles’ garage crowded with Rollin’ Gaucho soccer wheelchairs in various states of repair as he readies them for the next game.
“Power soccer chairs must adhere to strict rules in order to create a fair playing field,” Balles explained. “But guys do things to get an advantage, like shifting the motor around so that it widens the wheel base.
“At events, players are keenly interested in the modifications to other players’ wheelchairs and it’s all very top secret stuff.”
Balles starts up a chair and moves it across the garage.
“Hear that?” he asks of the faint hissing sound. “That’s the air coolers for the motor.
“Quite revolutionary stuff,” he added with a big smile. “We aren’t above tinkering to gain an advantage. It’s all part of the game!”