“For people who don’t know about it, I tell them, it’s four-on-four on a basketball court and it’s a combination of basketball and hockey rules,” says Portland Pounders coach Ed Suhr. “From there, it’s bumper cars with a ball.”
Suhr is referring to the basic elements of wheelchair rugby, and his team has been dominating the competition in the Northwest for years. Now Suhr and some of his Portland Pounders players — Will Groulx and Seth McBride — are in London to complete in the 2012 Paralympic Games. The wheelchair rugby competition begins on September 5th.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was founded in 1989 with the goal of “developing sports opportunities for all people with an impairment from the beginner to elite level.” Paralympic athletes complete in everything from sports designed to emulate “traditional” activities to games uniquely designed to challenge disabled athletes. Wheelchair rugby falls somewhere in between.
Wheelchair rugby — which has also come to be known as “Murderball” thanks to the 2005 critically acclaimed documentary that chronicled the lives of several top-rated, international players, including some of the Portland Pounders — is known for its sometimes brutal collisions and high-octane spirit.
“A lot of people who have never seen the game played come expecting it to be slow and boring and kind of gentle,” says Gordon Johnson, who has the challenging task of managing all the equipment for the Pounders. “[But] every time you look up and see their faces … they can’t turn away.”
As equipment manager, Johnson routinely repairs the specially designed wheelchairs that suffer quite a bit of damage during the matches. He also happens to be the father of Kip Johnson, one of the Portland Pounders players.
“My son’s chair, he’s had for six or seven years — I have hacked that chair up, it’s been converted 10 times … He’s actually in the process of getting a new chair, but we’re getting it made exactly like his old chair.”
And that will not be an inexpensive proceeding. Part of the reason Johnson is so valuable to the Pounders is that he can keep athletes up and rolling without them having to buy new chairs as often as they otherwise might. The chairs themselves all look different, but share certain elements depending on the position and ability of the player.
A perennial medal winner during international play, since the Atlanta games in 1996 the USA Paralympic Rugby Team has taken home the gold in all but one Olympic year. And this time, Suhr is confidant they’ll be back on the podium, as is McBride, who will be traveling to his second Paralympics.
“It’s the highest level of competition in our sport — it’s the thing that every team in the world trains for the last four years,” says McBride.
Since the last Paralympic Games, tournaments and a rigorous training schedule have kept McBride’s skills sharp and his confidence high.
“We’ve been really precise in our preparations this past summer and we’ve got a lot of really good things going on. We have one of the most talented teams in the world by far, so I think if we play our game, there’s no other team in the world who can beat us.”
The U.S. Team’s opening game is against, of all opponents, the host team, Great Britain.
“I’m really excited about that,” says McBride. “Rugby is such a big part of the culture over in ‘G.B.,’ and they really embrace para-sport and wheelchair rugby in particular. It should be an awesome scene inside the arena.”