Wicked wheelchair weekend
In a quiet gym in a small town nestled between some mountains, a group of wheelchair athletes got together over the weekend to see who could knock whom out of their wheelchair first or at least it seemed that way.
The organized chaos was the National Ability Center’s (NAC) second annual wheelchair rugby clinic at Treasure Mountain International Middle School. The clinic, which for the first time welcomed national players and an international competitor, was led by former Paralympic coach Kevin Orr of Birmingham, Ala., and was designed to give the new and experienced in the sport three days of instruction, scrimmages and camaraderie. It was also the first time women were specifically recruited to attend the clinic.
Also called murderball, quadriplegic rugby is an aggressive indoor game that draws competitive and colorful athletes. Murderball is unique in that it is the only wheelchair sport that is specifically designed for quadriplegics, or people who are paralyzed in all four limbs. Four-person teams compete against one another and try to put the ball in the thier goal located on either side of the floor. Players must pass or dribble every 10 seconds and they have 15 seconds to pass the half-court line, then time is limitless until the end of regulation to get the ball into the goal.
The athletes use modified demolition derby-style wheelchairs that can take a beating. Players are allowed to have chair-on-chair contact, and take it to the extreme by banging into their opponents, sometimes the point of knocking the chair over, which is a turnover for the team that hits the floor. Quadriplegics are classified by their ability level on a number scale and the four players’ ability level must equal a maximum of eight to maintain an even playing field.
Orr said the goal of the weekend was to focus on fundamentals with all of the players, and help them learn how to mentally prepare for competition. The players divided their time into three sessions. Blackboard and PowerPoint presentations were used for the classroom, and game strategies and various schemes were discussed. Then it was off to the gym, where the players completed drills. Orr brought the two together with scrimmages.
"Hopefully, it sinks in with one of those guys and they can take it back to their team," Orr said. "It’s getting them to understand it’s the mental preparation and execution that brings them the most success."
Orr was adamant about sticking to basics and correcting bad on-court habits. He said that in general, most quad rugby players want to scrimmage all of the time, but the drills and game-like situations are what will make them become better players.
Orr was assisted by Rick Draney, the coach of the National Ability Center Utah Scorpions, and was a former Paralympic medallist in both quad rugby and wheelchair tennis.
"Were teaching fundamentals," Draney said. "It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing, it’s always building on fundamentals."
Draney added that the intensity and variety of the weekend should help the Scorpions this next season.
"The more often the same message is heard, the quicker it sinks it," Draney said. "And it’s good to play against other athletes. It helps them be better players."
Scorpion Tim Daynes, who helped organize the clinic, said that the mix of Draney, the clinic and goal-setting has helped the young Utah team. Since last year’s clinic, they won key games, scored more and improved thier team dedication and hard work. They earned a No. 18 ranking in the nation. If they can rise to No.17 this season, can compete in the national tournament.
"It’s been really beneficial to work with Kevin Orr, arguably the best coach in the world. To have an opportunity like that is unique and rare," Daynes said.
Mind, body and murderball
To strengthen the players’ minds, Orr used Yogis in Service, a non-profit that travels throughout Park City and the Salt LakeValley teaching yoga for free.
"The mental is as important as the physical," Orr said.
Led by instructor Marla Berkow, the athletes were encouraged, if possible, to sit on the floor and perform a series of focusing and breathing exercises. Assistant yogis helped the quadriplegics hold their torsos up and complete the more challenging movements. Although some were apprehensive especially the men every one said that the exercises improved their mental focus and helped them learn techniques for relaxation and visualization that will aid them in their sport.
"The idea was they would have a relaxation time and a chance to rejuvenate," said Berkow, who added that it was her first time instructing a wheelchair class.
"I was impressed that they wanted to get out of the chair," she said.
Stories beyond the chair
According to Lauren Artesani, who organized the event for the National Ability Center, making the camp a national, co-ed event in just one year was a big accomplishment. It took generous donations, such as the use of the Treasure Mountain gym and publicity and networking effort to attract women players.
"We have women here and they’re athletic," Artesani said.
Out of the 27 people who attended the event, seven were women both numbers that tripled from last year’s event, which was strictly local.
Among the female ranks was Canadian National Team member Erika Schmutz, and top-level American players Rachel Cowan, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and Kerry Morgan of St. Louis. Also in attendance was Katie Samson, a graduate student at the University of Arizona who recently wrote a proposal accepted by the Quad Rugby Association requesting that women be moved down in classification points to make them more competitive with men.
Cowan says that it is important for female quad athletes to stick together. Seventy-five percent of quadriplegics are males, and only half of the remaining women quadriplegics are athletic, meaning very few women play the sport and often have to give up a lot to do so. For women, playing murderball can also sometimes mean dealing with male egos.
The women say that they hope to one day travel as a team and are already planning to make that happen.
"It took a year to get here," Cowan said. "We got one and we’ll go from here."
Schmutz says that being a role model for more women to join in the sport is very important.
"If no one knows and you don’t set an example, you don’t think it is possible," she said. "It’s by going to other places that raises awareness."
Another interesting attendee was David Richard Jr., a Hurricane Katrina evacuee who has since made a new home in Salt Lake with his wife, Mary. Richard, who is from New Orleans, played with the Jackson Jags in Jackson, Miss., before the hurricane hit and was happy to find a team in Utah. Richard, who has played murderball for 13 years, was a bronze and silver medallist in the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996 and a national champion in 14 disabled events. He brings experience, athleticism and skill to the Utah team. At the clinic, his knowledge and passion for the game brought a unique energy to the court.
Also in tow were quad assistants, there to help various athletes when needed, Scorpions equipment manager Karen Daynes, Tim’s wife, and some family members.
According to Martha Vasquez, an assistant from Phoenix, national gatherings are helpful for networking. The challenges of being both an athlete and a quadriplegic mean that many of the participants have unique stories and tips to share.
Robin Cowley, the mother of a quad rugby player from Salt Lake, agreed.
"I think the social aspect is the very best," Cowley said.
But perhaps the biggest success story of the weekend was two recently injured quadriplegics that came up from Brigham Young University to observe the camp. Karen Daynes says that just knowing that life continues and can be rewarding and enjoyable is a success story in itself.
"We are so grateful to have them here," she said.
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The Park City Ice Arena is expected to temporarily close later in 2021 to allow crews to replace the ice surface and perform other maintenance work, one of a series of projects City Hall plans to outline at an upcoming open house. It will be an in-person event.