Quad rugby arrives in the Twin Cities
Sprinting toward the end zone, muscles straining for that last ounce of speed, deftly juking around a defender before blasting triumphantly across the goal line to score. If you think those days are over for people who use wheelchairs, you haven’t seen quad rugby!
The players use specially built chairs, with sheet metal disks covering their spokes, bumpers made of welded tubing, and metal plates that keep the wheels from hooking together. These modifications are essential because quad rugby isn’t a contact sport—it’s a collision sport!
At last month’s Abilities Expo in the Minneapolis Convention Center, I watched the Minnesota North Stars of the United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA) as they crashed chairs with demolition derby intensity—and this was only an inter-squad exhibition.
“You can tell by the look on their face the first time they get hit if they’re gonna wash out,” said North Stars’ Coach Jody Mines, a former Rolling Gopher and 13-year veteran of wheelchair sports. Mines pantomimed wide-eyed fear, then a menacing grin that said, “I got your number and I’m gonna get some payback!” When Mines sees that expression, he knows a new player is hooked.
Matthew Serfling is one such newcomer. “I live at the Courage Center and went to see a Wednesday night practice—I just went there and they [immediately] put me in a chair,” said the young rookie. “This is only my 2nd or 3rd time out,” Serfling added, “This is a great group of guys. They help you get set up and teach you how to play.” Serfling pointed out a lanky, 40-ish para-athlete transferring from his game chair to his street chair, saying, “There’s the guy you want to talk to.”
“The guy” turned out to be Todd Kemery, another former Rolling Gopher with 14 years of competition experience. “These chairs have a very low center of gravity,” he said. “If you do get knocked over you just tuck your arms in and weeble-wobble until they flip you back over.” Kemery, who is also the Sports Director for the Minnesota Paralyzed Veterans of America, says there is a tendency to put people with C-level spinal injuries in power chairs to avoid shoulder injuries. “I’ve seen many guys go from electric to manual chairs,” said Kemery, who encourages anyone who can push a chair to do so.
Kemery spoke of seeing people’s depression lift as they get into wheelchair sports. “They come alive,” said Kemery. “The Rolling Gophers turned into the Minnesota Ice. This is our 1st year as North Stars,” Kemery explained. The North Stars have developed from three players last year to ten this year. Pointing out a handsome, raven-haired kid whose speed and agility made him an obvious star, Kemery said proudly, “Chuck is sixteen and he’s going to the Paralympics.The southern teams will be recruiting him; they’re the Division I guys, and they’ve got more resources,” said Kemery. “They’ll set you up with a roommate and a job.” Kemery has no resentment about possibly losing Chuck to a Division I team, saying, “I want to see him go as far as he can.”
Kemery explained the playoff system for Division I and II teams, with 38 to 45 teams nationwide competing in the regionals and sectionals leading to the nationals. “Women are welcome to play too,” he added with a smile. Nor are wheelchair sports limited to those who use manual chairs, Kemery was quick to point out. There is also power soccer. “Those guys hit,” said Kemery.
Power soccer chairs are equipped with either plastic guards or tubular metal bumpers mounted in front of the footrests so players can push the oversized soccer ball. The metal tubes are gaining popularity because they’re better for hitting. “People in electric chairs have aggression to work off, too,” said Kemery with a knowing grin. The power soccer exhibition featured players from perhaps 10 to 60 years old competing wheel-to-wheel. Some of the power chairs zipping around seemed faster than typical street chairs; the top-speed head-on crash makes most people wince.
For more information, see the United States Quad Rugby Association or go straight to www.usqra.com. This great Web site covers the sport’s history (“Murderball” was a original name of the sport and is the name of the award-winning movie), includes links, contact info and lots of action shots. The USQRA’s motto is, “Smashing stereotypes one hit at a time.” Excitement? Despite the fact that the Convention Center had the Vikings game on a gigantic TV screen behind the rugby court, the audience only checked the screen during breaks in the rugby action.
From courtside a viewer can see the expressions on players’ faces and practically feel the chairs collide. Ever envied a quad? Check out the Web site and you’ll see what I’m talking about. If you’re a sports fan you’ll want go to a game—and you won’t have to shell-out half a week’s pay for nosebleed seats at the Dome either!