Rugby isn't just for athletes who can run and walk

01/13/12 Janelle Irwin
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A sporting tournament of a different kind kicked off Friday that gives people with disabilities a chance to show the world they can be athletes too. Wheelchair rugby brought teams from as far as Brazil and Canada to Tampa.

The sounds these hard hitting athletes make aren’t helmets smashing together or bodies thumping to the floor. They’re customized gladiator-style wheelchairs colliding at full force during a rugby match. Keith Marosek is the regional sales rep for Coloplast, a company that sponsors the tournament and manufactures catheters that many of the athletes need as a result of their injuries. He said the chance for these men and women to compete is often as life changing as the injuries they sustained.

“I’ve had plenty of nurses tell me that once somebody has a spinal cord injury, it’s pretty hard for them to resume their life as it was before. And this is can be very fulfilling. You’ve got the team camaraderie. And they say it’s like night and day once the patient starts playing the sport.”

Marosek said the public perceives wheelchair sports as slow, lackadaisical, boring even. But this sport is anything but. Players hit each other with full force; like bumper cars, but with wheelchairs. The sound is booming. Marosek remembered one player who broke his finger during a match.

“When he was sitting around telling some other players, they were joking around, but he didn’t know when they said, ‘oh, you don’t even need that finger, just cut it off’. He was like, ‘ok, maybe I’ll do that.’ He just wanted to fit in so bad. It is cool because you have all that camaraderie, joking with your teammates and it’s just fantastic to see them come out here and give it everything they’ve got.”

Justin Stark is a player for the Tampa Generals, the home team. He’s also the tournament director. He lost the use of his legs as a child after a shooting left him permanently disabled and took the life of his younger sister. Stark said he’s usually the minority, but at events like this one, he becomes part of the majority.

“It transcends what a lot of people talk about as far as overcoming things and just trying to live a normal life. A lot of times you may not be an athlete, but when you come here and watch these guys that have overcome some major obstacles in their life to just be normal, you know, it’s an inspiring story.” Ryan Lindstrom is one of Stark’s teammates. He suffered a spinal injury after he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed nine years ago. Lindstrom said it didn’t take him long to find out about rugby, but when he did it became a way to escape.

“What we really did was, it gives you the independence, it gives you strength to see that there’s a whole ‘nother world out there other than just, hey, I’m in a chair. It gives you a lot of things you could do. It makes you feel better because you’re out here playing a sport. You’re playing a hard hitting sport. It’s fast paced. It lets you take a lot of aggression out. Like when you’re pissed off, you can get out here and wreck somebody’s world and it makes you feel better about yourself.”

Sporting leagues for people in wheelchairs aren’t new. The rugby league has been around since the 70’s. And The International Wheelchair Games were established in 1948 and later evolved into the Paralympics. The Tampa Generals produce many of the Paralympic athletes. Ashley Bache’s husband, Clayton is one of the team’s newest members. He was injured in a car accident just one year ago. Bache said her husband learned about wheelchair rugby while in rehab and he’s been playing ever since.

“It made him feel less disabled. When he plays rugby he says he feels normal. That’s the only time he feels normal. It just got him back to everyday life a lot faster.”

Matches have become a family outing for the Baches. The couple’s three young sons watch their dad play and sometimes, they play too. But the tournament is more than just a way for people with disabilities to feel normal. It’s something that is taken so seriously, people from all over the world compete. Eduardo Mayr is the president of a league in Brazil.

“We came here to dispute this tournament as a high level of tournaments that we’ve been participating. Because, until now we’ve just participating in national teams – a tournament with national teams – the main area of rugby, I think is USA. So, different experience for us.”

This rugby league is designed for people with disabilities rendering them quadriplegic. That is, they have lost at least some of their abilities in their arms, not just their legs. The biggest thing the players hope to accomplish from these tournaments, besides having fun and more than just winning, is to show people how exciting the sport is. Tournament director Justin Stark said if people watched it in person they might have a lot more respect for people with disabilities. The tournament continues through the weekend at the All People’s Life Center on Sligh Avenue in East Tampa.

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