Winnipeg soccer player headed to Peru for big international tournament for little people

·3 min read
Winnipeg's Vivek Bhagria played in the last Copa America de Talla Baja in 2019 in Argentina, but had to wait three years to return, after the annual event was cancelled because of the pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)
Winnipeg's Vivek Bhagria played in the last Copa America de Talla Baja in 2019 in Argentina, but had to wait three years to return, after the annual event was cancelled because of the pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)

Vivek Bhagria has his sights set on gold as he prepares to represent Canada at a prestigious international soccer tournament in South America.

He'll be the only Manitoban at the Copa America de Talla Baja, which roughly translates to the Americas Cup for Little People, in Lima, Peru this month.

"It's going to be a great experience to play against people your own size, represent your country, I just feel really honoured to be selected for Canada," said Bhagria.

He competed in the annual indoor event in 2019 in Argentina, where the North American team placed fourth of nine. The tournament then went on a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

Now, he'll go shoulder to shoulder with the best players from Canada and the United States against top talent from Mexico, Morocco and all over South America.

"We wish to bring gold back home," he said.

Tyson Koschik/CBC
Tyson Koschik/CBC

At four-foot-one, Bhagria said he has faced obstacles getting to this place — including bullying from his peers. Now, the 27-year-old said he's eager to show off his talents again on a world stage, and show what's possible for anyone with dwarfism.

"You can do anything in life, as long as you try and you keep going at it, no one's going to stop you and life goes on, you just keep going and touch the sky," he said.

Bhagria has achondroplasia — a condition that stops his legs and arms from growing. The Winnipegger, whose family is originally from India, began playing soccer at five years old.

He quickly discovered a love of the sport and possessed a natural skill, but there was no one else that matched him.

"I grew up with taller people and I didn't get the chance to be on the same level of skill and compete against people my own size, same ability, same legs same power, same accuracy … so it's a great honour," he said.

Tyson Koschik/CBC
Tyson Koschik/CBC

He said participating in the Copa America is like going to a village of people like him..

"You get to see people with dwarfism, their problems, you get to talk to them, their daily lives. We're going to have stools when you go to the washroom if you can't reach, everybody's going to have the same ability there as we don't really have here when we go places," he said.

The striker has been working out on his own, doing drills every day and playing with friends at South Winnipeg Community Centre, where he works, to prepare and get in shape.

Team Canada, which is combining with the United States, will be up against teams from Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay and Morocco. Bhagria said the games, which run May 20-24, will be livestreamed on Facebook, to the excitement of his friends and family.

'Don't listen to the haters'

But although it's a thrill to be chosen and an honour to play, Bhagria said he's doing this for others.

"I want to create awareness for people growing up with dwarfism," he said.

"It's hard growing up because of our height and we get bullied once we were kids and I just want to create awareness for the next future of kids coming up that you can do anything. Anything's possible, don't listen to the haters, just don't listen to bullies, just keep working hard."

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