‘Quads’ get back in the saddle
Dave Nicholls may be in a wheelchair, but this weekend he will be out for blood. And when he wheels out onto the court at Park City High School at the quad rugby Division 3 National Championships, he will be changing any preconceived notions people have about quadriplegics.
Formerly known as Murderball, this sport, that’s as violent as it sounds, originated in 1977 in Canada and combines the rules of basketball, hockey and traditional rugby in this "quads-only" competition.
"It’s not for paraplegics. They have a lot more strength and agility in their hands, and it would make the game uneven," Nicholls said. He says quads can’t play games like wheelchair basketball because it requires more dexterity than many quadriplegics have. Some quad rugby players can’t even open and close their fists.
The game is played on basketball court and a score is made when both a player’s wheels cross the line of the key with the ball in his lap. While players who commit fouls and violations end up in the penalty box, it is still a contact sport, with hard hits and players being knocked from their chairs. And there is little mercy for a man down; unless a player out of his chair is in danger of being hurt, play does not stop. The sport transforms people who are often viewed by society as helpless into aggressive, capable athletes.
"Our sport is really about smashing stereotypes one hit at a time," Nicholls said "I don’t think of myself as disabled anymore when I’m out there on the court."
Nicholls was a ski racer who competed in the downhill and GS events on the World Cup FIS circuit. He instructed skiing at Bear Mountain in Southern California and was injured during a training clinic in 2003.
Skiing with other instructors, he says he was "hit from behind by an out-of-control boarder." His C7 vertebra was smashed into his spinal cord and, upon hitting the ground, he also broke his back. Fellow instructors tried to chase down the boarder but he stopped farther down the hill and then rode off.
"Its amazing how your life can change instantaneously like that," he said.
Nicholls had been an active athlete, sailed his boat, drummed in a band that played gigs in Hollywood and owned his own travel company. His accident affected his ability to do so many things he loved in life.
It took him months before he would leave his house in a wheelchair, but motivated by the necessity of keeping his business running, he got back to his life. At an abilities exposition he discovered quad rugby, which was "a turning point in my life."
A man approached Nicholls and, despite his hesitancy, convinced him to sit in a wheelchair specially designed for quad rugby. Then he rolled a protesting Nicholls onto the court.
First someone threw the ball "so hard it almost knocked me over." Then he was hit by another player and ended up face-down on the gym floor with the wind knocked out of him. Mike DeYoung, the man who had baited Nicholls into this unpleasant situation, told him to rest for a few minutes.
While sitting on the sidelines, Nicholls said his competitive side, which had vanished after the accident "started bubbling back up." Recalling the incident, he laughed, saying, "I’m not happy. I’m mad. No, I’m really pissed. So I rolled my ass back out on the court and hit that guy [who hit me] so hard."
DeYoung was the captain of the Northridge Knights, a local quad rugby team, and invited Nicholls to come to their next practice.
"I was just so scared and had no clue. I guess until you actually do it or try it, you don’t have the confidence in yourself that you can actually do it," Nicholls said.
Nicholls moved to Park City last September and was recruited by the Salt Lake Scorpions, who will be competing this weekend. Nicholls is also involved with disabled bobsled racing. He said sports help him and his teammates become more capable in everyday situations.
"It brings the spirit out of you and brings the life out of you," he said.
It is obvious from his positive attitude that quad rugby has boosted his self-esteem.
"I’m either tied with or am the fastest player in the country and I don’t have a problem telling you that," Nicholls laughed. He recently made it through two of the three cuts for the U.S. Olympic team.
Because the severity of each player’s injury is different, they are given a point rating based on a physical examination of their abilities by a physical therapist or doctor. The point ratings range from .5 to 3.5 in half-point increments. Nichols is a 3.5 because he is a "partial quad" and retains some function of his hands. Next year, he looks forward to what he calls "the old-man discount." Players over 45 and women have their scores reduced by half a point.
Point values are significant because each team has four players on the court at a time and the total of their point values may not exceed 8. Point values also distinguish a player’s role on the team. "High pointers" like Nicholls handle the ball and carry it down the court.
"Guys that have lower classifications, called ‘low pointers,’ help block and provide a screen for ‘high pointers’ to run the ball," Nicholls said, explaining the strategy of the game with sugar packets and a salt and pepper shaker during an interview at Good Karma on Sunday.
Equipment is expensive, with chairs costing $4-5,000 and the wheels alone priced at $350. In addition, referees, tournament fees, and travel costs make the sport a "luxury." Nicholls said they are thankful for the community support they receive.
This weekend Good Karma will be providing meals for players and The Spur Bar and Grill will be hosting a party on Saturday night. Fans with questions are encouraged to attend and meet the players. Games go through Sunday, with Nicholls promising close scoring and fast-paced action, coming down to the last few seconds of each game.
The Salt Lake Scorpions are a 501C non-profit organization and donations are tax deductible. To volunteer at the event this weekend or in the future, or to make a donation, contact Tim Daynes at (801) 864-3644.
Check out the competition this weekend at the Park City High School Gymnasium
All games last one hour
Friday, May 16
9:30 a.m. — Utah Scorpions vs. Sin City Skulls
Noon — Utah Scorpions vs. Denver Blue
3 p.m. — Northridge vs. Sin City Skulls
Saturday, May 17
10:30 a.m. — Northridge vs. Denver Blue
1 p.m. — Northridge vs. Utah Scorpions
3 p.m. — Sin City Skulls vs. Denver Blue
Sunday, May 18
9 a.m. — 1st seed vs. 4th seed
10:30 a.m. — 2nd seed vs. 3rd seed
Noon — championship game
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Park City officials are expected to present information about upcoming work on the Treasure acreage designed to guard against a wildfire, as well as a series of other City Hall projects and programs, at an open house that is scheduled next week.