This article was originally published in The Daily Cougar. To viewthe original story, click here. There is also a photo gallery for this event that may be viewed at the link provided.
This year’s Undergraduate Student Organization of the Year, Adaptive Athletics, hosted a four-day wheelchair rugby camp at the Wellness and Recreation Center from June 26 to June 29. Those who did not have their own wheelchairs were provided with one. These chairs were loaned to Adaptive Athletics by the TIRR Texans wheelchair tennis program, a community program co-funded by the city of Houston and TIRR (the nationally ranked rehabilitation hospital housed in Houston). The Frank and Martha Piller Endowment fund offered $1000 to the camp for housing while the UH Activities Funding Board gave $2500 to pay for coaching fees and breakfast meal cards.”
The goal of this four-day camp was not only to provide wheelchair rugby players with a chance to practice and learn new skills, but also to raise awareness of wheelchair sports and influence positive change.
Wheelchair rugby is not a sport for cowards. It’s intense, high-impact, and often quite violent. Often described like football without the pads, rugby is the only full-contact wheelchair sport. The object of the game is to score more points than the other team within the eight-minute long four quarters by bringing the ball into the enemy’s goal line.
“It’s not called murderball for nothing,” said Eric Ingram, a new engineering graduate student at UH who has played rugby for nine years. “It’s gladiator-esque. I mean we’ve got chairs that are built up like tanks with armored plating and we’re just running into each other as hard as we can. That will get rid of some stereotypes real quick. You go out and there and you see it and it’s intense. The name really evoked the intensity of what wheelchair rugby is.”
The intensity is what many consider to be the best part of the game.
“When I play, I feel free, you know?” said Houstonian and camp participant Justin Scott. “When I’m pushing as fast as I can and slamming into people, I feel an amazing feeling. It’s good times.”
“It’s kind of a weird thing to say, but I don’t feel like I’m in a wheelchair when I play wheelchair sports,” said assistant coach and Paralympian Chuck Aoki.
Aoki plays because it makes him remember that he’s an athlete above all else.
“It just feels like I’m an athlete, you know? I’m on the court and I’m just an athlete like everybody else. And it gives me a chance to really compete at the highest level — for my country, world championships, and at Paralympic events,” Aoki said.
During the four-day clinic, beginners and veterans from all over the country came together to play and practice their rugby skills. The three coaches were all former Paralympians, so the clinic gave players a chance to learn from the best.
“I’d like to say that they’re making me a better rugby player,” said Austin native Reece Whitteker. “Also, they can help you off the court as well. Any issue you may have — the coaches will talk to you about it.”
The camp was definitely not a vacation. Aoki explained it was meant to be intensive and that the coaches “work them hard.” The players enjoy it, however.
“I think intensive training for the players is key and gives us a lot of ideas to bring back to our hometown for our teams individually,” said camp participant Ben Meyerhoff. “Most everybody here is US-QRA and is on a team actively. And those that aren’t are pretty serious about figuring out how to get onto one. It’s important because it’s community in the off-season.”
Not only did the camp offer a chance to better themselves, but it also gave them great opportunities to help other players do the same.
“One thing this camp offers is the ability for some quadriplegics to see what other quadriplegics can do for themselves,” said Josh Whitaker, who has been playing wheelchair rugby for four years. “Some of these folks out here — this is the first time they’ve ever been on their own. And they see other quadriplegics that are doing things, and they look at themselves and say, ‘Well, if they can do that, maybe I can do that, too.’ So it helps to be around these folks to let them know what is possible.”
“New talent can come from anywhere. And they don’t have to start from the bottom. They can already be quite talented for starters,” said camp participant Daniel Pitaluga.
Players often encounter ignorance about the sport. Many able-bodied people don’t understand that the disabled are quite capable and independent. Players like Muhammad Khan attest to the fact that being viewed as a heartwarming inspiration can be frustrating.
“We’re athletes and I don’t think people realize that,” Whitaker said. “People who have spinal cord injuries or are considered a quadriplegic — they’re not as fragile as people might think. Out in public, when somebody sees somebody in a wheelchair, they think automatically, ‘Oh, they need to be gentle and just be careful.’ If rugby shows anything it shows that we’re not that fragile.”
“I skydive,” Mason Symons said. “People in wheelchairs are not homebound. We live independent lives. A lot of people think it’s a feel-good sport, like the Special Olympics. No. We trained as far as the able-bodies in their sports and we’re out to compete. Our primary goal is to go out there, play, and have a good time — live our lives.”
University of Arizona is currently the only university that has a collegiate wheelchair rugby program. Department of Health and Human Performance assistant professor Michael Cottingham hopes to change that by having UH become the second university in the country to have a program. This camp has the ability to make that happen.
“I think exposure is a big thing — just getting it out there for people to see it. Not many people know about it at this point,” Ingram said. “It’s pretty exciting to watch. I imagine if you got a big gym where you could fit a couple hundred people and did advertising to build it up, no one is gonna leave there without having had a good time and just having their minds blown. Exposure is going to breed excitement, and excitement breeds acceptance.”
The players all seemed quite pleased with the camp overall, especially with those involved.
“Just the outpouring of the volunteers, the willingness to help, and to spend the time they have on the weekends to spend helping us,” Whitaker said. “That always amazes me for some people because it’s just such great generosity. Everybody here involved has been great.”
Both the University and the players share a bright future.
Kevin Crombie, along with Symons, Ingram, and others will be traveling to Switzerland in July to play in the Switzerland Preparation Tournament with Team Force. Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Finland, and Switzerland will also be playing in the tournament.
“We’re all on the USA developmental teams, which is basically where the USA team feeds off of to get that next generation of players to make that step into the national team,” Symons said.
The average age for U.S. players is about 30, while the average age for Team Force is about 20 to 24 years old.
“It’s just that stepping stone you’ve got to make to get that experience at the next level,” Crombie said. “So yeah, we get to go to Switzerland and represent the United States and hopefully win the gold medal and show every country out there that even though we’re the B-team we are still going to be the best!”
For more information on wheelchair rugby and the United States Quad Rugby Association, please visit usqra.org.