Center City: Wheelchair Rugby Gets Physical
As the crowd looked on with growing curiosity, the Magee Eagles Rugby team demonstrated what it is like to compete in one of the toughest sports.
When you think of rugby, you normally think of the hard-hitting, gritty and physical sport, usually requiring all four limbs. Not in this case, as the Magee Eagles are part of a rehabilitation wheelchair sports program out of Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
Located in Center City, Magee Rehabilitation Hospital is a place where people with disabilities can receive both cognitive and physical rehabilitation services.
In order to increase its patients mobility and spirit, Magee created a community program that offers various wheelchair sports. This program is aimed at increasing independence and improving their patient’s quality of life, while also providing something for them to smile about.
Magee’s networks of athletes have competed in international, national and regional events and have even participated in the Paralympics. While some athletes do compete at a high level, Magee maintains that all individuals with disabilities are welcome as they strive to provide a recreational outlet for a healthy lifestyle.
The Magee Wheelchair Sports Program provides various sports including basketball, tennis, racing, and even rugby. Previously known as “murder-ball,” wheelchair rugby has taken off in the program.
“I went out to practice not even anticipating getting into a chair and playing, after watching they pretty much dragged me in,” said Heather Schultz, a longtime rehabilitation patient at Magee and a team representative for the Magee Eagles.
Schultz has been a patient at Magee ever since she was injured in a rare diving accident where she broke her neck upon entering the pool in 2006.
“The interesting thing about spinal chord injuries is that it is not a one size fits all type of disability,” said Schultz. “Everybody’s limitations vary depending on the level of vertebrae that you have broken.”
This is where wheelchair rugby comes in handy. Unlike other wheelchair sports, such as basketball and tennis, rugby requires less upper body movement, which may be hard for some patients who have upper body limitations as well.
“I have sort of an asymmetrical injury as my one bicep is bigger than the other and I can’t open my one hand,” said Jim Thompson, a veteran rugby player and Paralympian. “That’s why I don’t play basketball because I don’t really have the strength to get my arms up to throw the ball.”
Quad rugby is an intense, competitive and fast paced sport that is not meant for the faint of heart. Two teams of four race across the court with a volleyball in their lap as they battle into their opponents zone and across the goal line. While Quad Rugby is a full contact sport, no personal contact such as slapping, hitting, punching, etc. is allowed and penalties are enforced. While teams are limited to athletes with impairments to both their lower and upper limbs, during the Magee Eagles demonstrations, anyone is welcome to play.
To show just how intense wheelchair sports can be, Magee Rehabilitation provides routine demonstrations to entertain and educate university and high school students, as well as the general public. Not only do they show students how intense and competitive the sport of quad rugby is, the students are given the opportunity to experience the thrill firsthand.
As with any sports league, expenses can build up, and equipment for wheelchair rugby is not cheap. This is why fundraising is important for the Magee Wheelchair Sports Program. Every year in May, Magee holds a fundraiser called “Night of Champions,” which consists of a dinner, live and silent auctions, award presentations, entertainment, local celebrities and of course Magee Wheelchair Sports athletes.
“They raise a couple hundred thousand dollars in one night, or very close to it,” said John Benson, a team representative for the Magee Eagles. “That’s what funds us all year.”
Magee Rehabilitation Wheelchair Sports program has improved the lives of many, and has opened up new possibilities to those with physical disabilities.
“Magee has been my backbone ever since I got hurt,” said Schultz. “I’m just so happy and proud to be a part of the Magee Eagles and hopefully we can grow the program and be able to make a name for ourselves.”
As a team representative for the Magee Eagles, Schultz’s no longer has her eyes set on getting out of her wheelchair, but rather improving her life and the lives of others.
“We all do peer mentoring and we talk to newly injured patients so that they know that there is life after this,” said Schultz. “It sucks, we all know that, but its important for them to know that life does go on and whether they accept it or not, they need to see that. That’s the most important thing that I feel that we do.”
– Text, Video and Photography by Gwen Begley and Breland Moore