Many students spent Sunday afternoon watching televised sports from the comfort of their living room couches. But a handful of braver students got the chance to play murderball, also known as wheelchair rugby.
Students Take on Paralysis and the University Mentorship program co-sponsored a wheelchair rugby game yesterday at the Sports Coliseum with the Great Lakes Storm, Michigan’s only wheelchair rugby team.
Brian Sheridan, co-captain of the Bay City area-based Great Lakes Storm, is the founder of Michigan Sports Unlimited, an organization with recreational programs for people with disabilities. He said wheelchair rugby was started in the early ’80s in Canada as a sport for quadriplegics, because sports like wheelchair basketball have been predominantly for amputees and paraplegics. Sheridan said that with the addition of a sport for quadriplegics, wheelchair rugby has become the “world’s fastest growing wheelchair sport,” with teams in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and China.
“We call it rugby because it’s a full-contact sport,” Sheridan said. “These players are athletes just like any other athlete – they’re just using wheelchairs.”
Wheelchair rugby players must be quadriplegics – that is, have four limbs affected. “When you think of a quadriplegic, you think of Christopher Reeve,” Sheridan said, adding that most people assume quadriplegics are completely paralyzed and cannot use any of their limbs. Sheridan explained that quadriplegics are classified from 0.5 to 3.5 points according to their ability to function. “A rugby team cannot have more than eight points on the floor at the same time,” he said.
Sheridan gave the onlookers a short introduction to wheelchair rugby before the game started. He said the players use athletic wheelchairs, which have large, angled wheels that allow users to turn more quickly. Players can carry the ball in their lap but must dribble it every ten seconds. A team scores by taking the ball across the goal line, and the most common defensive strategy is to form a barricade of wheelchairs in front of the goal line to prevent the offensive team from scoring. Offensive players try to break through this wall of defense, and Sheridan said, “When they see us smashing chairs and flying into each other, people say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a real sport!'”
Spectators were given the opportunity to try wheelchair rugby with Storm players, but quickly realized how difficult the sport is.
LSA sophomore Steve Smolenski said he came to watch the game because he plays on the club rugby team and wanted to try wheelchair rugby. “I could hang with it for 15 minutes, but then I felt like my arms were going to fall off,” he said.
As Sheridan promised, the students found that wheelchair rugby truly is a full-contact sport. Mark VanKempen’s wheelchair tipped over due to the force of a hit by a Storm player. “Getting knocked out of your wheelchair is fun, it’s kind of like in a NASCAR race when a car falls over,” the LSA freshman said.
STOP president and founder Jeff Kominsky, an LSA sophomore, calls wheelchair rugby players “the epitome of resilience.” He said STOP, a non-profit student organization, sponsors events like yesterday’s game to help students become “more socially aware of other types of people and how they overcome adversity.”