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Paralympic Rugby Athletes

Transcend Disability

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The Only Contact-Filled Adaptive Sport Came To The Phoenix Metro To Select The Team That Will Need To Win An Upcoming, Pressure Packed, South American Tournament


By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 24, 2015 — Last weekend, world class athletes from around the country sweated it out at the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living Sports and Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities (SpoFit) in Phoenix as they competed for spots on the USA wheelchair rugby team that hopes to take home gold at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next year.

Head coach James Gumbert and assistants Sue Tucker and Andy Cohn had the unenviable task of narrowing down the stacked field to only 12 team members by the end of the three-day training camp. In that short time, the coaches had to not only evaluate player skills but also determine which players worked best together on the court, said Gumbert.

“Selection camp is always tough,” said Gumbert. “The reason is every one of these guys has sacrificed and paid a huge price to have the privilege and the honor to wear the letters USA.”

The final roster following camp is Chuck Aoki of Minneapolis, Minn.; Clayton Brackett of Birmingham, Ala.; Jeff Butler of Austin, Texas; Ernie Chun of Phoenix, Ariz.; Chad Cohn of Tucson, Ariz.; Joe Delagrave of Phoenix, Ariz.; Rob Deller of Marietta, Ga.; Seth McBride of Portland, Ore.; Chuck Melton of Richview, Ill.; Eric Newby of Maryland Heights, Mo.; Jason Regier of Centennial, Colo.; and Josh Wheeler of San Tan Valley, Ariz.

The team’s next challenge will come in London when it competes in the BT World Rugby Challenge from Oct. 12 to 16. Then it will play in a qualification tournament in preparation for the games in Rio.

For those not in the know, wheelchair rugby, also known as quad rugby, is the only full contact adaptive sport. Four players from each team face off against each other on a basketball court and attempt to pass the ball over the opponent’s goal line to score. Players must also bounce the ball every 10 seconds to avoid penalty. Originally known as murderball, the sport was popularized by a documentary of the same name in 2005.

It’s not quite a mainstream event you can catch on ESPN quite yet, but wheelchair rugby is catching on around the globe with both athletes and spectators.

Much like standard rugby, players must battle through the other team to score. Utilizing modified manual wheelchairs outfitted with bumpers and wheel protection, participants collide regularly and face full contact from opponents.

In addition to being an entertaining sport to watch, wheelchair rugby is helping to change public perception about adaptive sports and the athletes who play them, due in large part to the physicality on display. When spectators see the athletes on the court smashing into each other, they realize that there is nothing fragile about them, according to Delagrave, a team captain.

“A majority of individuals out there are naive, and, unfortunately, it is just because of a lack of education,” said Cohn, who has played on the national team for 7 years. “People think that you’re dependent. Then they get out there and they watch it, and they realize that these guys are no different than anybody else.”

The sport also has a plethora of physical and psychological benefits for the athletes themselves, including giving confidence to the men and women who suit up and play, said Gumbert. Rather than putting limitations on the athletes, wheelchair rugby is all about saying yes and discovering new ways for them to accomplish their goals, according to the coach.

“Once you figure out that only limitations you have are the ones that you put on yourself, you just got your life back,” said Gumbert.

The sport also gives the athletes a chance to build camaraderie and really learn from one another.

“What you learn from each other, just everyday living, is invaluable,” said Cohn. “You’ll never learn that from any therapist or any doctor.”

According to Gumbert, anyone interested in participating in wheelchair rugby should reach out to resources in their area like SpoFit or a local medical supply center to find out more information about adaptive sports and teams. But, don’t expect to become a pro overnight. Like other olympic level athletes, members of the USA wheelchair rugby team have to show an unparalleled level of dedication in order to make it to the top of the sport.

“Back then it was more about getting out, physical fitness, meeting new people,” said Derrick Helton. “Now it’s turned into life. This is everything. This USA squad is my other family.”

Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine.
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