"We want to show that the concrete jungle can be a really huge playground."
Juan Roberto is Chile’s national Freestyle Football champion, an advertising art director and the founder of Movimiento Ataka, a sports education organisation that is inspiring and enabling freedom of expression through alternative sports. Challenging his own physical disabilities caused by a rare condition called Phocomelia, Juan has risen to become one of the leading and inspiring figures in Freestyle Football in Chile and is now on a journey to change how the sport is perceived by adding different art forms like breakdance and art to it. We had an absolutely moving conversation with him to document his experiences and lessons that have made him the man he is today.
You can follow Juan Roberto on his Facebook.
You can follow Movimiento Ataka on their Facebook and Youtube.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Juan Roberto and people call me Juanro. I am 28 years old. I live in Santiago, Chile. I studied advertising and worked in an agency for two years as an art director. It was really hard to work with the idea of art director because I have to use my feet instead of my hands. I remember when I first sent them my portfolio, I was worried of them accepting because then I was wondering how I’d fit in and how people would react. They were really friendly in the interview and throughout my job. I didn’t have any trouble at all.
I define myself as a happy, positive person. I love making friends. Some people think those with disabilities are introverted but I don’t think they’ve met me yet. Haha! I love going out and meeting new people. I’m loving that I’m talking to you guys from the other side of the world. I love inspiring people and showing that everything is possible if you put your mind to it.
What is your medium of sending out this strong message?
For me, the medium of spreading that inspiration is thorough sports. I’m the current RedBull freestyle champion in Chile. That was really hard as I started practicing 10 years ago and there has been a really tough challenge from the new generation that has caught up to the sport. I’m getting old and they’re getting really good. Haha! I didn’t know if I’d ever win the tournament because the last championship, I got injured 1 month before the event and wasn't able to compete.
I love Santiago but a lot of people don’t like it (just like any other big city). But you got to find the good things everywhere and I’m really comfortable here. The interpretation and utilization of public spaces makes this city very unique. You could either walk on the concrete path to the subway or you could break dance or even freestyle on it. People can make any place interesting.
I love music. The last 4 years, I’ve been listening to a lot of old school hip hop because of practicing breakdancing. I like the movement because it is really similar to freestyle football.
"I realised that I was different very early and embraced developing different skills."
What was it like growing up in Santiago?
I have this condition called Phocomelia. It’s an extremely rare condition. The blood doesn’t reach my arms and doesn't develop any fingers or hands. Because of that, I have just a shoulder on one side and the other arm has only three fingers.
The good thing while growing up has been that I realised that I was different very early on. And the moment I realised, I embraced developing different skills. I started playing games with my feet and I was really good at it. All my friends were stunned that I was really good at even playing video games with my feet. Hell I can even drive a car! I think the way I use my feet has been a great way to break ice and remove barriers of perceptions with people. I adapted in a way that I could do most of the things normal people did. If people drew in art class with their hands, I used my feet to do it. If people cut wood in another class, I used my feet to do that too.
Having a positive mind allows you to actually change your actions. Maybe you do things differently but you do it nonetheless. My parents and my sister have been very supportive and have been with me throughout. I’ve been very fortunate to have parents who believe in my abilities. They have always pushed me to do everything I wanted to.
“Freestyle lets me express myself in a way some sports don't. It lets me communicate the way I want to be heard.”
That’s really great! Have you ever faced negative stereotypes while growing up?
When I was little, I was really concerned about how people would look at me differently. I remember going to the beach practicing body board and I always kept it close to my shoulders so that people wouldn’t notice my arm. But I realised how stupid an idea it was and that it was pretty obvious that I didn’t have one arm. Haha! I have no idea why I did that.
I think that a lot of people in Chile judge people by the way they look. If you’re fat, if you’re a foreigner who doesn’t fit the regular description etc. In that sense, we are a little bit underdeveloped and I hope that attitude changes. When I was 16 I think, I really started losing my fears about perceptions. For the first time then, I stopped wearing sweatshirts and started wearing shirts normally. I realised that I can’t keep hiding and I have to be myself. Maybe people look at me differently but that’s only because I don’t have one arm and not because they feel sad for me. I’ve always kept it that way because I’m always doing things (and sometimes a lot of things at the same time) and have always been joyous.
Freestyle also helps me a lot to express myself. When I started practicing at the age of 16, it really helped me look away from my disabilities and start looking at what my capabilities were. I haven’t looked back ever since. I have proved the naysayers wrong through sports. Maybe it took a while but I got around. Now when I go to the beach I go without my shirt and just freestyle.
Everybody is unique, different and some a little more unique and different than others. And we need to embrace it all. I owe everything to this ball. Haha!
How did you get into Freestyling in the first place?
When I lived in the USA, I remember Nike’s ad campaign with Edgar Davids, Ronaldo and everyone. I realised that freestyle is actually a sport. I used to juggle the ball very well. In my school, all the kids used to juggle 100 and I used to go 1000! I also liked how the mind can actually control the ball. It’s all about discipline and practice.
I asked my best friend if we can start practicing freestyle together and both of us absolutely got in to it. It took a Nike commercial to get me to it. It used to be a lot difficult to learn because people knew a maximum of 3 or 5 tricks. Now it’s a fully developed sport here. We learnt it all ourselves so it was a good thing because it taught us to be self driven instead of depending on Youtube. You have to be your own inspiration.
Freestyle lets me express myself in a way some sports didn’t, it let me communicate the way I wanted to be heard/
Where do you see freestyle football 10 years from now?
A lot of freestylers hate when people think it’s soccer or football. Being a freestyler is not necessarily equal to being a footballer and the same is true the other way round. I think education about the sport to people is more important. Freestyle is actually far from football and much closer to dance. People like to keep it a bit underground because it’s such a personal expression. I’m not sure if many people like taking this artform too mainstream. It needs to, and should grow organically. It would make me happy to go to the ground and see 1000 people doing freestyle but at the same time I feel it would kind of lose it’s personality. I never want to see it become as big as football. I think there is a conflict of keeping it pure and yet see it grow and become more popular.
There is a Freestyle Football Federation now that looks at growth of the sport and a lot of sports brands are investing more time into it. I do hope to see a lot of alternative sports get attention from TV.
“What advertising really taught me was the art of surprising. Surprising people with a new message in between the monotonous”
Some ads Juan worked on during his advertising days.
Do you see any synergy between your art direction and Freestyling?
There are two types of Freestyling. One is that requires a lot of strength, speed and agility and then there is a community that marries freestyling with dance, movement and creativity to the sport. I was concerned about these clash of ideas but I always had an inclination to the more creative side of this sport than the intense one. Also, I do not have the physical strength and certain abilities to do intense tricks. But that’s not going to stop me.
I think that’s where I see Art Direction gave me a heads up. What advertising really taught me was the art of surprising. Surprising people with a new message in between the monotonous. Advertising is all about breaking patterns and that has definitely influenced my sport too.
A lot of my inspiration in my freestyling comes from different dance forms. Especially breakdancing. Just like how a lot of my art direction is inspired from paintings and funny videos on Youtube. Just like how artists have a style, so do freestylers. Every move is owned by someone.
Can you tell us a bit more about Movimiento Ataka?
Movimiento Ataka is a movement to inspire the youth and make them explore different kinds of urban sports. In my case, freestyle. Yes we do teach the children skills in terms of style and creativity related to the sport but we’re equally concerned about implementing the ideas of discipline and teamwork and mixing it with freestyle. It’s a value based sports education set up. We conduct speeches, workshops and create alternative urban sports content.
We do shows and tours to reach schools and educational institutions. Kids love watching and learning from us. It’s a very fulfilling thing. We conduct speeches about discipline, determination, dedication and finding motivation through sports.
We are starting a full fledge freestyle school. There are hardly any and it is very unorganized as of now. With my years of experience, I want to teach the new generation but through the value system that has founded Movimento Ataka. It took me 10 years to become Chile’s national champion. I want to try and reduce that time significantly for others.
We want to show that the concrete jungle can be a really huge playground.
"To create change personally or generally, the community is as important as the self."
What is that one moment that really changed how you looked at yourself?
I think it was through freestyle when I was little. When I started seeing the feedback I got from people. Both in terms of my art skills and my juggling skills, it started to change my perspective about myself. Feedback from the community is very important. Especially to those who need it. If we nurture communities based on positive and encouraging feedback, we’ll see less struggles in our society. Both from friends and family. Personally, it gave me confidence to believe in myself in spite of obvious limitations and was able to turn it into my advantage. I realised that more than anything I was transmitting a motivating message to people and I never wanted to give that up. I’m grateful that by changing myself for the better I’m able to inspire people around me to start their own journeys.
To create change personally or generally, the community is as important as the self.
What was the toughest challenge for you to get in to Freestyling?
The first thing was balance. I even specialised in tricks sitting down on my ass in the beginning. Haha! Obviously I have some physical limitations but I make up for it with tricks using my legs instead of hands. In a way that’s kind of cooler! When I first started freestyling, it was only about strength and really intense stuff. After I came to terms with my injuries and some chronic problems in my knees and all that, I realised that creative tricks were the only hope for me to compensate for the struggle with strength based tricks. Adding creativity and an element of surprise to tricks was my turning point. It’s been a crazy, fun filled and challenging journey.
What has this journey taught you?
Haha WOW you have these really deep questions!
I think all these years have taught me to value yourself more than you think, that you have to believe in yourself and your skills. That you can always go for more.
When you perceive something as ‘really difficult,’ it becomes even harder. But the second you change your attitude to think that it could be easy you end up nailing the tricks. Something happens in your brain, I don’t know what or why, but everything just ends up becoming easier.
"Mind first. Body last."
If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?
I think the most important thing is positive attitude towards life in general. When you do this, you first lose your fear and then you start to express yourself as who you truly are.
In Freestyle there a lot of people who are better than me in Chile, but when you have a positive attitude and you put all this intensity and energy into your session, that changes everything. I think that is more important than skills in general.
Mind first, body last.
If you could have one super power, what would it be?
Haha this is crazy! When I was little it was to be invisible and go to the girls lockers and see them naked (Oops! Sorry. Teenage). Now the only superpower I want is to make everybody smile.
What does success mean to you?
Well success is different for every person, as you know very well. For me I suppose success is not just about achieving your goals but about truly appreciating the journey that you took to get there. Everytime I feel I have achieved something the first thing that I do is to take some time to reflect on the journey that brought me there. Whether it was tough, beautiful, serendipitous, it doesn’t matter, all that matter is that I experienced it. That to me is true success.