Wheelchair Rugby Stars on Road to Rio

By | Sport
Photo: Alison Couldridge

Great Britain’s wheelchair rugby team may not have won a gold at the Paralympic Games, but the event has left a new crop of stars hungry for Rio glory.

Wheelchair rugby was the first Paralympic event to sell out in the summer. Those with Olympic Park day passes queued for hours to catch a glimpse of the only full contact disability sport.

Great Britain may have finished fifth, but waiting in the wings of the elite team were the GB development squad — most of whom had court-side seats to cheer on their team mates, and often heroes, against the best teams in the world.

The squad have been training away from the London 2012 team for the past year. They returned last weekend from their first international tournament, Rugbymania in Prague, where they finished a respectable fourth place.

They won their first four games to top their group, which included The Rebels, one of the best teams in Europe. Their inexperience only became apparent when they lost their crossover game to the Danish Falcons and missed out on bronze when they were faced with The Rebels again.

The mood of the players was far from deflated, as a first chance to play for their country was more than enough.

Luke White plays for London Wheelchair Rugby Club. He started last year, after watching Murderball, the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary, about the sport.

“Being at London 2012 was massively inspiring for me, not only watching GB, but experiencing the whole spectacle,” White tells The Positive. “I started to understand what it might be like to play at the pinnacle of the sport. Seeing people I’d trained and played with participating made it more real to me that I might do the same in four years’ time.”

Luke’s club and GB teammate Chris Ryan took up wheelchair rugby after being introduced to the sport while in hospital recovering from a spinal cord injury.

“It made me feel really proud to be chosen for Rugbymania,” he says. “I felt ready for that level of play so I was really excited. London 2012 helped me keep up an intense level of training; I saw the size and scale of the event they were playing in and I wanted a piece of it. So I got myself to the gym immediately!”

The reasons given from players for taking up wheelchair rugby contain one common theme: the desire for a challenge.

Development squad member Luke Twizell remembers when he first saw the game two years ago: “I watched my local team, North East Bulls, and I thought: ‘is this legal?’ They were smashing into each other so hard it was as if they wanted to knock each other out of their wheelchairs. I loved it immediately.”

After watching their idols compete in London and having had a taste of the international game themselves, the GB elite squad is certainly their aim.

“I definitely want to make Rio 2016,” Ryan continues. “Ideally, I would like to break into the squad earlier so that I can gain international experience and not be overwhelmed by the occasion. I want to go there to medal, not just to get the kit.”

Reaching the Paralympic Games will never be easy, but players seem determined and willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

“I’m now working part-time to accommodate my training,” White reveals. “I’ve accepted I’ll effectively have no money for the next four years, but it is a rare opportunity I have and I feel the sacrifice is worth it.”

Coach Justin Frishberg has nothing but praise for his young team. “They were very hungry to play, but then they were hungry throughout the year to learn, to train, and to become elite athletes,” he says. “I am certain some will reach that level for the major tournaments, including Rio.”

The development squad now join the elites as the journey to Rio begins. This is where the competition and learning really start, and by the sounds of it, they can’t wait.

To learn more about wheelchair rugby, visit the official British wheelchair rugby website: http://www.gbwr.org.uk/main/how_is_it_played.php

Follow Alison Couldridge (@Alibear1980).

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