Joy Rondeau smirks, raised her arms, and grabs the ball sailing by her. Without pause, she tucks it away and charges for the goal, Chance Sumner guns behind her—the chase is on. But Rondeau is ready for Sumner, a vast chunk of mountain power, and a fellow star of the Denver Harlequins, Denver's elite, competitive wheelchair rugby team. As a bonafided badass, Sumner is a champion with vast, inked shoulders, isn't about to let Rondeau take away his prize. Rondeau spins and with that sly smile, wings one into the goal.
Not bad for the team's only girl.
"I didn't really think if it was a girl sport, once I found out about tryouts I went. Plus, when people tell me no, it just motivates me more," Rondeau says.
The Denver Harlequins hadn't had a female on the team for more than eight years until Rondeau joined in 2005. However, her teammates quickly took an immediate shine to her, and before she knew it, she had a gang of big brothers watching her every move. "They're overprotective and nosey," she says, grinning as she tapes her gloves before practice.
"Just wait till you start bringing some dates around," says Reiger matching Rondeau's wide smile. He's known her since she was a teenager when she participated in the Harlequins' youth camps.
The Denver Harlequins is part of the United States Quad Rugby Association that encourages people to join the fastest growing wheelchair sport in the world; one played in more than 25 countries worldwide. People are under the big misconception that quad means total paralysis, many players say. The Quad team players have both upper and lower extremity impairment that is assigned a point value that range from 0.5 (the lowest class who have limited function of arms and hands) to 3.5 (the highest class who have much greater function) – and all those in between.
In efforts to encourage more women to play, the USQRA last year mandated that teams competing on a national or international level forgo the usual 12 members to 11 unless a woman joined the roster.
"We've always been a co-ed team, but there just aren't a lot of women in the sport," says Reiger. "It could be the fact many spinal cord injuries affect men more than women or that women just aren't attracted to the sport, but we're sure glad to have Joy."
Wheelchair rugby, aka Murderball, first developed in Winnipeg in1977, when paraplegics decided to create an alternative to wheelchair basketball. Athletes play wheelchair rugby with on a basketball-sized court with a volleyball in an amped-up combo of basketball, football and handball.
Players hold the ball for 10 seconds then they must either pass or dribble. They're not allowed to touch each other; however, ramming the modified chair into another player's chair is great for blocking or for both defensive and offensive moves. The chairs weigh about 35lbs and cost around $3,000. They're built to take the brutal, repetitive beating of the game.
The team bi-weekly practices consist of conditioning and situational plays and during a scrimmage Sumner, 31, and Rondeau, 20, typically play against each other. Sumner wheels after her without mercy; banging and ramming into her as they traverse the court. And like most of the players in the sport they're uncompromisingly tough.
"He's been trying to knock her over for years,' says Reiger.
"Why should I not try and knock her over?" Sumner asks as he gasps for breath after the two-hour practice, "It's a good play."
Usually Rondeau doesn't seem too phased after colliding with one of the bigger members on the team. When she gets hit, she just hits right back.
Sumner, one of the most boisterous voices on the team, is determined during practice and games.
"I just wanna be the best at what I do - even If I'm watching dishes, I'm gonna have the cleanest plate," he says. "Its just who I am."
Sumner came to the sport after fracturing a C7 disk in 2002 after he was thrown off a mechanical bull.
Reiger, who plays, captains, and coaches the team, knows a thing or two about Murderball. Like Sumner he also won a gold medal in Beijing with the US Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team.
He broke his back in 1997 during his senior year of college.
Most of the Harlequins participated in sports before they became injured - all have the drive of champions. The wheelchair hasn't given way to their ingrained competitive nature.
"If I could I'd be playing soccer. I loved soccer. But I can't, and that's where wheelchair rugby comes in and fulfills who I am as an athlete," said Reiger.
Rondeau has never known a life without her wheelchair, she was born with cerebral palsy but her disability has kept her quite active like participating in sports like basketball, wakeboarding and skiing. It was a skiing accident a few seasons ago when she suffered a T5 injury that will require a spinal fusion scheduled this year. It's that surgery that made her decline the highly regarded invitation to tryout for Team USA. "It sucks not to go, but I gotta take care of my health first," she says.
Before her surgery she'll be able to play when the team hosts The Mile-High Massacre, a 6-team invitational tournament this month at Craig Hospital. The number of people drawn to the sport has increased and the Harlequins are eager for mainstream recognition in the near future.
"It would be nice to get some more support, like a bigger gym and inner tubes. Sometimes during the tournaments we'd have people crowed on the sidelines and out the door," said Reiger. "But the biggest thing we need is money," he says. The Harlequins travel across the country at their own expense to compete in tournaments across the country.
"This [quad rugby] isn't for people to say, 'Ohhh look what the poor crippled kid in the wheelchair can do', said Reiger. "This is a sport played by people with broken necks. It's fast, it's hard and it smashes stereotypes."
And maybe, a couple of wheelchairs.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
E. Brown (BrnWriter)
Feb 10, 2009
Sep 8, 2010 09:57 PM UTC
The sport's original name was murderball; in the United States, it is referred to as quad rugby. All wheelchair rugby players are quadriplegic, as the rules require that they must have a disability that affects all or a portion of both the upper and lower extremities. Wheelchair rugby is a mixed sport, with men and women competing on the same teams. Wheelchair rugby is played indoors on a hardwood court.