Quadriplegics kicking the crap out of one another in the name of sport? Welcome to the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Sweden. Maxim, November 2002 By Dana Shapiro
At first it seems surreal: A rugby coach is on the sideline screaming, ordering his players to beat on the guy in the wheelchair. “Pressure him!” yells Team U.S.A. coach Kevin Orr, his face redder than a stripe on the grand ol’ flag. “Jack him, Bryan! Jack him!”
The fans at Valhalla Sporthall in Gothenburg, Sweden are taking sides—U.S.A. or Australia. Either way, they want blood. On command, American Bryan Kirkland, 30, a hulking tough-guy-on-wheels from Alabama, plows into an opponent. The collision sounds like a bomb in a trash can. The thumpee from down under tumbles face first out of his chair.
“Bullshit!” screams Aussie George Hucks, wheeling for the fray, and a bench-clearing brawl nearly ensues. Only nobody’s jumping off a bench—everybody’s stuck in a wheelchair.
It’s the semifinals of the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. We started with 12 teams, and now it’s second-ranked Australia trying to knock the top-seeded Americans off their moving pedestals. Hard. “They’ve got the taste of blood in their mouths,” says Team U.S.A. player Dean Maccabe. “Australia lost to us by one point at the 2000 Paralympics. So, yeah, they’re gunning for us, man. Everybody is gunning for us.”
The fastest-growing wheelchair sport in the world, quad rugby was originally called murderball. Created by three Canadians, the sport was imported to the University of North Dakota in 1981 by a collision-crazy quadriplegic named Brad Mikkelsen. He formed a team called the Wallbangers and, to stop scaring off sponsors, changed the name from murderball. More than 45 teams have since formed in the U.S., with 20 countries now boasting national teams.
The game’s played on a basketball court, with four eight-minute quarters, using a volleyball and football-style end zones. The chairs look like tricked-out bumper cars, with bucket seats, safety harnesses, angled wheels, and grills to protect the feet. When they roll over, the guys go with them. The four players on each side are all quadriplegics (some impairment of all four limbs) of varying levels of mobility. They’re ranked in levels from .5 to 3.5, depending on their ability to move their upper bodies. Team mobility rankings cannot exceed a total of eight. The most mobile players handle the ball. The low-pointers act as human speed bumps.
Back on the court, time’s running out on the Aussies. American Steve Pate, 41, who landed in a wheelchair at age 24 after a life-threatening case of food poisoning, collects a loose ball and attacks. Defensemen try to head him off, arms flailing.
“Pressure!” Coach Orr screams.
As the crowd roars, Pate plows through the defense and crosses the goal line—his 11th goal in the fourth quarter alone.
Seconds later the buzzer sounds. Game over: 43–29. Team U.S.A. is rolling into the finals.
The border war
Australia was just a stepping stone. Team U.S.A. has a history with fourth-seeded Canada, their opponent in the championship game. Coach Orr throws some gasoline on the fire when he mentions the name of Canadian coach and former American player Joe Soares. “The only reason Joe went to Canada was to beat the United States,” Orr says. “It’s not buddy-buddy time anymore, guys.”
Soares, 43, was once an American all-star. After being cut from the 2000 U.S. Paralympic team, former teammates say he “became obsessed with beating the U.S.” Tomorrow the man some guys refer to as Benedict Arnold (others call him Dorothy because of his trademark shiny red shoes) will face some very pissed-off former teammates.
“An American player coaching a team on our northern border?” says Rob Krows, 31, a low-point player from Oklahoma whose neck snapped in a high school wrestling match. “The competition just got real personal.”
Mark Zupan, a red-headed Texan with mean tattoos and a matching attitude, is less political. “He’s just an ass,” Zupan says. “If he was on the side of the road on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him.”
The stage is set for all-out war—on Canada.
Game day. The Valhalla Sporthall is packed. The arena is standing room only, the sidelines crammed with wheelchair-bound athletes wearing jerseys representing Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and Sweden, the home team. In the pregame huddle, Coach Soares screams at his Canadian players—a tough bunch of quadriplegics with arms that resemble Emmitt Smith’s legs.
“This is it!” Soares says, trying to psych up his Canadian team. “We wanted them! We got ’em! It’s our time!”
Team U.S.A. is already on the court and wearing game faces. When the ref blows the whistle, the demolition derby begins—eight players crashing into one another like wrecking balls.
The first goal goes to the U.S., but the game stays tight, with each team scoring back and forth. Canada’s big gun, Garrett Hickling, pulls his team ahead momentarily with a spectacular goal. (Hickling was just 16 in 1987 when he broke his neck. After a bunch of beers, he was chased by cops off a 300-foot cliff.) The first quarter ends in a 4–4 tie, and at the half it’s still knotted, at 10 apiece. In the third quarter, American Steve Pate lays out Canada’s David Willsie, leaving him in a heap on the floor. The crowd roars, and in a split second the game threatens to turn into a riot. Going into the fourth, it’s still locked up, at 17.
As the clock ticks down in the final period, the teams trade more goals. In the last minute, an inbounded ball is deflected to Canada’s Hickling. With just eight seconds left, he breaks away and crosses the goal line for the game-winner.
The crowd erupts. The buzzer sounds. Team U.S.A. is shell-shocked, left at the wrong end of the sport’s greatest upset ever. The final score: 25–24, Canada.
Sex and booze
Later that night the hotel is gridlocked with buzzed athletes from every team. The beers are flowing. One Canadian wheels by carrying a bottle of Crown Royal and poses this probing question to teammate David Willsie: “What color did we win today?”
“It’s no color; it’s an element on the periodic table,” says Willsie. “And it is fuckin’ gold, baby!”
A waitress walks by, and one of the guys says, “Shake it, don’t break it.” The topic turns to sex. And the answer to your question is: Yes, they can.
“A lot of women actually like quads ’cause they feel like they’re in power,” says Brad “the Kid” Dubberley, a pumped-up Aussie with spiky hair who’s been wheelin’ after a hot Swedish girl all week. “A lot of guys can give a good thrashing in the sack.”
Speaking of thrashing, when Coach Soares of Canada rolls up, the Americans suddenly go silent.
“Do I need to buy you a beer?” Soares asks his former countryman Andy Cohn. “If we’d lost, I’d have been happy for your ass.”
Cohn simply shrugs. Then he pulls a U-turn and cruises away.
“How’s it feel to betray your country, man?” asks another American, Mike Gilliland, 26, a Phoenix-bred father who’s been confined to a chair by a muscular disease since childhood.
“I was born in Portugal,” Soares fires back with a smirk.
But as everybody gets drunker, the talk gets less testy. Marty, 27, Team U.S.A.’s hulking equipment guy, warns that his guys won’t take this loss sitting down. “The snowplow is comin’ in 2004 at the Athens Paralympics,” he says, standing tall, towering over a few teammates. “The U.S. is rollin’. Stay the hell outta the way. ’Cause it’s going to come crashing into your town.”