USA Wheelchair Rugby: Paralympic Rugby at Its Finest

March 7, 2017

USA Wheelchair Rugby: Paralympic Rugby at Its Finest


Photo: USA Wheelchair Rugby 2017 National Training Squad

Doug Coil

There are number of variations in rugby. Although the standard game is rugby 15s, rugby 10s and rugby 7s are also played. The latter, was played at the Olympics in 2016. There are other variations in the sport, such as, mini rugby, American flag rugby, tag rugby, touch rugby and beach rugby. Even American football is an adaptation of rugby.

Wheelchair rugby represents a rugby adaptation for those with certain disabilities. Even variations of wheelchair rugby exist, such as The Invictus Games, where wheelchair rugby is played with servicemen and women having a broader range of disabilities.

I spoke with the USA Wheelchair Rugby High Performance Manager, Mandy Goff to gain a better understand of the structure of the sport and issues athletes face.

In terms of the organization structure, Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama is an Olympic and Paralympic training site and the home of USA Wheelchair Rugby. Lakeshore Foundation serves as the High Performance Management Organization (HPMO), for the USA program and has since 2003. National selections and training camps are held at the facility, some of which have incorporated injured military. National team staff members have also had nvolvement in both the Invictus Games and the Warrior Games.

The 2017 USA Wheelchair Rugby staff consists of head coach James Gumbert, who has been coaching the team for the last eleven years and on staff as an assistant years before. Sue Tucker has been an assistant coach for the last five years, prior to she served as an assistant for the development team. The team’s High Performance Manager, Mandy Goff, is employed by Lakeshore Foundation as is Jen Remick, Director of Communications and serves as the Press Officer for the National Team. Jim Murdock has served as the certified athletic trainor (ATC) since 2004 and the bench staff, Gary Pate (with the program for almost 10 years) and Chuck French (in his fifth season with the team) round out staffing for the program. The team is currently in the process of replacing their strength and conditioning coach.

Photos: USA Wheelchair Rugby (Upper) James Gumbert, Sue Tucker, and Mandy Goff, (Lower) Jim Murdock, Gary Pate and Chuck French

USA Wheelchair Rugby is one of two organizations for wheelchair rugby in the United States. The other is the United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA), which is responsible for wheelchair rugby league play in the U.S. leading to national team selection and international competitions, which are the responsibility of USA Wheelchair Rugby. The USQRA is recognized by the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) as the member organization for wheelchair rugby in the U.S. USA Wheelchair Rugby is managed by Lakeshore Foundation as the High Performance Management Organization under contract with the USOC.

In the United States, there are 43 clubs that are part of the USQRA. These clubs compete for a national championship in two divisions and have established a medical classification system that differs slightly from the international standards. For example, Chuck Aoki, is a 3.5 athlete by USQRA standards, but classified 3.0 internationally.

Each athlete receives a medical classification that is based on the following criteria:

  • Spinal cord injury that affects at least 3 limbs
  • Amputation in 4 extremities
  • Neurological impairment in 4 limbs
  • Physical impairment in 4 limbs to include hands &/or feet
  • Combination of any of the above

The United States Quad Rugby Association is divided into eight regions, with the top ranked wheelchair rugby teams currently being in the West. Of the 43 teams in the U.S., they compete in two divisions in regional and sectional competitions that lead to the National Championship Tournament. This year that tournament will be held April 20-22, 2017 at the Ability 360 Sports & Fitness Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Tournaments, such as these, provide the opportunity for national recognition of athletes and are a source of recommending athletes for national team tryouts through a discretionary invitation.

USA Wheelchair Rugby conducted a national team camp in January, 2017 in which 25 athletes participated. After the camp 16 athletes were selected for the national training squad for the upcoming 2017 tournaments. The training squad will be narrowed to 12 athletes for three different competitions this summer, but all 16 will train together at the six camps. Seven of the athletes are part of the training squad that earned a silver medal at the Paralympics in Brazil in September.

The major emphasis for 2017 is preparing for the American Championships, which serves as the first opportunity for automatic qualification to the 2018 IWRF World Championships. To prepare for this qualifier, the team will participate in the Tri Nations tournament at Lakeshore Foundation in May and then in Chiba, Japan later that month.

The USA Wheelchair Rugby Program receives financial support from the U.S. Olympic Committee. This support includes financial support to cover costs included in the UWAWR High Performance Plan (HPP), such as training camps, competitions, team equipment, coaching and staff stipends. Additionally, the program also receives Direct Athlete Support (DAS) which gives every qualifying athlete a quarterly stipend to help offset training expenses.

The USAWR athletes must fund the cost of their rugby chairs, which run upwards of $6,000 and are usually replaced every two years. This may be accomplished by finding sponsors or obtaining endorsements.

It is common for athletes to work part-time, coordinating work with their training schedule. parent funding and crowd funding (Go Fund Me) are also sources of support. Additionally, each athlete receives a quarterly stipend from the USOC through Direct Athlete Support (DAS) and this may be used to offset training and equipment expenses. This amount differs for every sport and even for each individual athlete.

Another source of funding during Games years is through Operations Gold. Monetary rewards are made for attaining gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympics, Paralympics and at the World Championships. However, there is a disparity in the awards. For the Olympic Games, a gold medal earns $37,500, a silver $22, 500 and a bronze medal $15,000. Paralympic rewards are considerably less, as rewards for gold are $7,500, for silver $5,250 and for bronze $3,750.

Military athletes have become actively engaged in adapted sport over the last 10 years through programs supporting recover and reintegration through sport. Servicemen and women, when they are injured, return to the U.S. and are quickly integrated in an adaptive sports program at military hospitals such as, Walter Reed or Fort Hood or at other installations providing adaptive sport opportunities.

Servicemen and women are not only affected by their physically or psychologically, they experience a social loss of team and this is where the adaptive sports program helps to reestablish this sense of team. Wheelchair rugby is a new sport being offered through the VA’s adapted sports program and USAWR has hosted a few camps over the last few years through both VA and USOC grants. Born out of these adapted sports programs for injured military are two major sporting events; the Invictus Games and Warrior Games, which is a U.S. hosted event.

The Warrior Games began as an event hosted by the USOC in collaboration with the Department of Defense (DoD), but is now endorsed and sponsored by the DoD and each year a different branch plays host.

The Invictus Games were held in London in 2015 and in Orlando in 2016. The competition lasts for seven days, included 14 countries, in 10 sports and had 485 athletes participate. Wheelchair Rugby was part of this competition and will be moving into the Games being hosted in Toronto in 2017.

Athletes participating at the Invictus Games and the Warrior Games are classified differently than for wheelchair rugby. There are three categories that are used. They include athletes having lower extremity injuries, upper extremity injuries and an open category that could include injuries such as post-traumatic stress (PTS).

Other variations of wheelchair rugby that are being played across the world include wheelchair rugby 7s and wheelchair rugby league.

In January, the USA Rugby held its National Development Summit in Baltimore, Maryland. USA Wheelchair Rugby head coach James Gumbert and team captain Chuck Aoki were invited as presenters. Unfortunately, a foot injury precluded James Gumbert from attending, but Chuck Aoki conducted a very effective presentation.

After the presentation, I had the opportunity to interview Chuck Aoki and the interview may be viewed by clicking here. I had hoped to see both James Gumbert and Mandy Goff at the USA Sevens and add interviews with them to the DJCoil Rugby You Tube Channel. Unfortunately, our schedules differed and this will be a future goal.


Photo: Chuck Aoki

The fact that Wheelchair rugby was represented at this Summit acknowledges that rugby has many variations and that mutual support and cooperation is essential to the growth of the sport. Past USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville and current CEO Dan Payne enthusiastically endorse the inclusion of all variation of rugby.

The Wheelchair Rugby presentation at the Summit included discussed the rules of the sport, strategy, and the fact it is a co-ed sport. To encourage more women to participate, women receive a half point deduction from their medical classification. This is important as there are four athletes on a hard court surface at any time for a team and the classification of the athletes can’t exceed 8.0. Athletes are classified from 0.5 to 3.5.

Wheelchair rugby in the Unites States is growing as a sport, is inclusive, has passionate athletes and promotes a tight knit sense of community. As in any sport, it can improve in both its recreational and competitive structure, and help to grow the sport.

It is hoped that the mutual support and inclusion of USA Wheelchair Rugby and USA Rugby at each other’s events will continue in the future. It will help grow rugby and its many variations.

For more information about USA Wheelchair Rugby and USA Rugby click on the organization for the link.



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North American Rugby News With A USA Slant