I've never claimed to be remotely talented at land sports. In fact, I pretty much shun all land sports and only do them as they are a necessary evil for cross training. Oh sure growing up, I played volleyball, softball, basketball and dabbled in track for 2 weeks until I understood that all you did was run. Mostly I spent my time trying to find the most comfortable position on metal folding chairs or hard wooden/metal bleachers. (Note: my extensive research has lead me to believe that there is no such position and we should bow down to our parents, siblings, etc that endure these things all in the name of support) All these memories came flooding back as I met the wheelchair rugby coaches.
I had the unique opportunity to meet Coach Ed, Coach Gumbie and player Will Groulx on Thursday. Not knowing much about wheelchair rugby, also known as murderball, I was just super psyced to meet them. Over the next 2 hours, I learned so much about the game and the organization. Will, with his "arresting good looks and level gaze," took time to answer every question. Funny I saw similarities between their body demands and marathon swimming. It all just seemed to make sense to me, except doing the Seattle to Portland cycle event as cross training. That is just crazy, Will.
The thing that didn't make sense, is unlike other sports, wheelchair rugby doesn't have an over arching governing body. This means in the non-olympic or world champion competition years most of the athletes and teams are scrapping by. I couldn't fathom these athletes not receiving some sort of compensation for the time that they put in training and as advocates for the sport. It is only recently that the IOC lifted the regulation against fundraising. I hope that this helps raise the awareness and support for one of the few sports available to quad athletes. If interested in learning more about how to donate, please let me know and I can get you in touch with the coaches.
This meeting for me couldn't have come at a better time. Lately things have been stressful, which in turn made everything feel like a slog. I have been struggling to make it to my regular cross training sessions and taking my swim training as seriously as it demanded. Coach Ed, Coach Gumbie and Will helped to bring the enthusiam and passion that I've been sorely lacking these last few weeks. I felt as if I finally was able to take a deep breath and was ready to move forward.
And move forward I did. I received an email from the meeting organizer about how grateful Coach Ed, Coach Gumbie and Will were for the opportunity to meet with us. The email went on to invite us to attend and watch the wheelchair athletes training session and scrimmage on Friday. Since I got so much out of just 2 hours with them, I knew I wanted to make the scrimmage to see the sport in action. (Note: I haven't seen the documentary Murderball, so I wasn't sure what I was in for.) At 3:30pm, I met the team at the local YMCA. The team went through their warmup; all pretty routine stuff – a stretch here, a few sprints, ball handling drills, breaking into teams, etc.
The teams circled up for the tip off. Then all HELL broke loose. I'm sure that my jaw was on the floor. I have never seen such speed, agility, strength and collision up close before. When I say collision, I mean ground shaking, teeth chattering, holy hell that's gotta hurt collisions. Coach Ed calmly sat next to me explaining the details of the game. In my head all I could think was "Are you fricking kidding me?!"
One by one, I see the other Ability Network team members enter the game. I begin to notice the line between me and the game is getting shorter and shorter. Coach Gumbie calmly strolls up and says "You're going in next…Right?" Again I'm thinking "Are you fricking kidding me?!" Thus began the negotiations:
Me: I don't do land sports.
Coach G: But your sitting down.
Me (stomach growing increasing knots): But I could still fall and hurt myself.
Coach G: You're only 3 feet off the ground.
Me: I've done a long swim this morning and have another tomorrow am.
Coach G: This is good cross training.
Me (shoot I think I'm losing ground): I don't know what to do.
Coach G: We'll teach you.
Me (resigned sigh): Ok.
Now I just waited my turn to be the sacrificial lamb in what is I've come to think as appropriately named Murderball. My days of riding pine were over and it was time to get in the game. As I learned how to get into the equipment and gloves were being duct taped to my hands (yes, duct taped), Coach Gumbie gave me my game plan. "Go after whomever has the ball and hit them. Hit them hard!" Um…ok.
Will gave me some more advice as I got into the game. "Try to free yourself up from the defenders. When you get the ball, put it into your lap immediately and go towards the goal. Oh and pay attention to the other players." While this is all well and good, did I mention that I was a bench warmer? Maybe I would get people water. Often I was probably picking my nose or staring off into space. The guys all circled up to welcome me into the game. I stupidly asked them to take it easy on me. DUMB IDEA! If you ever get into a game of murderball, do not…I repeat…DO NOT ask them to take it easy.
Time for the tip off. Yep me in the center of the circle for this one as I was the tallest. Thanks Mom for the oranguatan arms. Well I successfully got the ball to one of our players. And then I became possessed. Not just a little possessed. I mean crazy eyes, head spinning possessed. Coach Gumbie told me to hit them and hit them I was going to do. After my first real contact, I felt a little like Kirsten Dunst from Interview with a Vampire after her first taste of blood…"I want some more!" I did have more manners though as I did often apologize after making a hit. I was informed that this was not necessary and actually a little counter to the game. I can see how "Oops sorry" doesn't quite ring true as you just accelerated as fast as you could to ram someone. Oh well.
I found the best technique for me was an opposing arm push of the chair vs the normal double arm approach, but it seemed to work for me. Often when I wanted to go left, I went right and vice versa, but goodness I was having fun! I scored a few goals with the help of the team…ok they may have been taking it easy on me some and I made some blocks.
Did you know that if you block someone and your chair gets stuck to their chair play does not stop? Yeah, I figured a whistle would blow and we would get a chance to work ourselves apart. No such luck. Want to know how to get apart? I'll tell you. You call over a team member and have them ram you hopefully causing enough jarring action to pop the chairs apart. One hit not enough, no worries they will keep backing up and rolling in for a hit. Way Fun, ok not always.
In my time on the court, I also did make a pass to the referee vs one of my team members, but hey I was a rookie. Before too long the buzzer sounded and my quarter was over. Noooooo – I was having fun. The guys were teaching me stuff. And I felt like a million bucks. Talk about stress relief!
As I watched one more quarter of the scrimmage, I was floating from the experience. I now could understand what the coaches were explaining. I could appreciate even more the athletic prowess of the team. While aggressive, it is still a game of strategy, skill and teamwork.
Sure I have bruises up and down the inside of my arms from elbow to armpit. Sure, I have ripped off part of my thumbnail. Sure, I could barely make it through my 4 hour training swim the next day. Sure I'm still hardly able to bend over and tie my shoes, but I would do it all again. In fact, I'm sure that these are signs of a really good time!
To the rugby players, thank you for letting me in the game, taking time to teach me, giving me an open lane to the goal and pretending that my hits actually had some force.
To Coach Ed and Coach Gumbie, thank you for the gentle prodding to get in the game in more ways than one.
Lastly, thank you to the Ability Network for making this whole adventure a possibility.
And the photos – Thankfully none of me right now in my possessed state.