Gabriel Rapier could really use a roof. Nothing fancy, just a simple shelter so the kids he coaches in Seattle’s Central District can come play at Judkins Park, rain or shine. He swears they only need it for the rain, but watching the kids guzzle water on a sweltering summer day, it was clear they could use it for the shine, too.
But Rapier won’t let a little inclement weather stop him from making positive change in his community. He’s resourceful. Recognizing a need for an affordable alternative to expensive youth premier soccer leagues, he co-founded Puget Sound Futsal 10 years ago. Futsal is a sport similar to street soccer, but with a heavier ball on an enclosed hardtop. It can be played indoors or outdoors, and has short, narrow goals and five players per side.
“Futsal was an answer to lack of field space in urban places like Brazil, places like Madrid. In Tokyo they play futsal on freeway underpasses. They play on rooftops in Venezuela,” Rapier says. “Now we’ve brought urban sports here to Seattle.”
Rapier has always had natural athletic talent. By sixth grade, he could dunk a basketball. Soccer was his true passion, but it was too expensive. So he honed his skills at Stevens Elementary near Volunteer Park and grew into a basketball star at Garfield High School, earning an athletic scholarship to college.
Despite his elite journey, Rapier believes that sports are for everyone — not just those with exceptional abilities. That’s what he loves about futsal, which appeals to kids of all levels. With smaller teams and a less-bouncy ball, there are more opportunities for each kid to be a part of the game. In futsal, technique wins out over size, speed and strength.
In this spirit, Rapier worked with the city of Seattle to convert the rarely used Judkins Park tennis courts into a futsal court that doubles as a bike polo court. When the Seattle bike polo team propped up wooden boards around the base of the court, Rapier invited a rotating team of local graffiti artists to spray paint them with original designs. Now each week there’s a fresh work of art, enriching the space with a cultural identity.
Community engagement is Rapier’s gift. For 15 years he served as the librarian at Seattle Public Library’s Columbia City Branch, interacting with hundreds of people of various ages, races, religions and abilities in a single shift. The experience taught him how to gauge people’s needs, how to appreciate differences. After his two children were born, he moved on from the library into coaching team sports and leading afterschool enrichment programs at local elementary schools in order to spend more time with his kids. They share Rapier’s love of physical activity, but their interests are a bit more, as he puts it, “artsy-fartsy” than the hoop dreams he had at their age. He’s enjoyed watching them become their own people.
“Kids need cardiovascular activity,” says Rapier. “It’s not about winning or becoming an elite athlete. It’s about health, having fun, learning some new skills and gaining confidence.”
Many Seattle parents agree. This summer, Puget Sound Futsal partnered with local nonprofit Families of Color Seattle to bring three weeks of futsal sports camps to children of color, transgendered youth and GLBTQ families. On the second-to-last day of camp, a few parents arrived early for pickup and chatted under a shady tree as their kids scurried onto the court for a final scrimmage.
One parent, Mohamed Said, knows Rapier through the Puget Sound Futsal adult league. He’s proud of the progress his son Sulaiman has made under Rapier’s mentorship.
“Coach Gabe gives kids exercise and teaches them social skills,” says Said. “They learn how to lose and how to play as a team. Learning these things at an early age will make it easier for them in life.”
At 6-foot-5 with the animated energy of a superhero in a Pixar movie, “Coach Gabe” commands attention. The kids circle up around a Hula Hoop to hear his instructions. Occasional fidgets aside, the kids hang on his every word. Rapier lives for these moments. In a world of video games and touch screens, he understands what he’s up against when it comes to getting kids to focus.
“Kids need to be cycled through things faster because they get bored quicker,” Rapier says. “So we might play rugby for 10 minutes, then do flag football, then transition to futsal, then urban baseball, tag games, wallball, four-square, and we’ll play all of those games within an hour.”
Rapier says his beginner students are often apprehensive about playing team sports. But after they learn the games and build confidence, they have a blast. Many kids are surprised to discover how much they sweat. “It’s my job to awaken bodies via kinetic activities. It’s my job to channel energies in a constructive and productive way,” says Rapier.
FOCS executive director Amy Pak sent her 7-year-old son to attend the sports camp this summer. She was enamored with her son’s newfound love of sports, ability to focus and refined athletic skills. As a community organizer, she admires Rapier’s ability to bring diverse children together around a shared activity.
“Coach Gabe’s acuity with guiding young children to do their very best, including his own two beautiful little ones, is a powerful vehicle for social change, especially for black and brown children,” writes Pak via email. “Coach Gabe is an institution in Central and South Seattle for educating and engaging children. Everywhere he bikes and moves, children know and love him.”
Coach Gabe will be teaching a class that covers futsal and other skills at four elementary schools through the YMCA's Powerful Schools Extended Learning Program. He offers a futsal drop-in for elementary-age kids at the Meredith Mathews YMCA. He is working with the city of Seattle and nonprofit agencies to expand his program citywide. Contact Rapier at Puget Sound Futsal: psfutsal.com/contact