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NEWS | March 2, 2023

Safety is the Way to Roll in Wheelchair Rugby

By MaryTherese Griffin Army

FORT BELVOIR, VA - Wheelchair rugby is beyond fascinating to watch. The hits, the speed and the scoring are sure to make any fan cheer. The crème de le crème of adaptive team sports has come under fire for being too rough but at an adaptive sports camp, coaches hope to educate and incorporate common sense rules and injury prevention techniques.

“The purpose of this camp is to show that wheelchair rugby can be played safely and to teach the basics. The reason is that when you get to Warrior Games or even Invictus, people can get hurt because they don’t understand the basics. They don’t understand the game, they don’t know how to hit properly, and they don’t know how to fall properly. Some just want to get out there and play it like a combat sport but it’s not. It’s a very technical game,” said Assistant Coach Ross Alewine.

For three days at Fort Belvoir Soldiers from seven Soldier Recovery Units (SRUs) learned the ropes of wheelchair rugby. Specialist Colin Matthews knows these ropes can be a lifeline to his new normal after a rare medical diagnosis.

“I was deployed in August of 2021 and in April of 2022 I had a cardiac issue. They diagnosed me with chronic Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). Not what a 26-year-old wants to hear,” said Matthews. He was flown to Walter Reed and is currently in the SRU. So how does someone with AFib play a contact sport like wheelchair rugby safely? It’s all about technique, says Alewine.

“When you go to hit, you don’t lean forward you lean back and thrust your hips forward when you go to hit somebody, that way you don’t flip over the top, and you don’t flip out of your chair.” Alewine should know. The Team Army and Team U.S. Soldier athlete has years of experience playing it the correct way. He says this team sport also helps in the recovery process on many levels for Soldiers who are wounded, ill or injured. Prevention of injury is paramount.

Head Wheelchair Rugby Coach, Joel Rodriguez, also a Team Army and Team US Athlete, not to mention a professional wheelchair rugby player, agrees. He is keen on stretching your hip flexors. “Some may laugh and think ‘Oh I’m just pushing a chair.’ but your natural reaction is to get up and start walking. You have to stretch when you get out of the chair or the next day you will be hurting.”

Spc. Matthews spent the first day at camp learning about the myths that were dispelled and engaging in the hard facts of his new team sport. “I am surprised to learn the preparation that goes into wheelchair rugby. Also, the fact that size doesn’t matter here, speed doesn’t matter it’s all about how you communicate with your teammates,” said the Team Army hopeful.

Communication can win the match according to Rodriguez and Alewine. They stressed the importance of teammate awareness with a clear strategy. Alewine summed it up to reinforce the benefits for Soldiers wanting to recover and overcome.

“You have to be intelligent to play wheelchair rugby. It’s a mix between wheelchair basketball and hockey. It’s a lot harder than people think. You learn how to play the sport; it keeps you in shape and it keeps you engaged. It mentally challenges you and you’re out here with like-minded people having a good time building camaraderie. Best of all we do it safely.”