All about sports: #3 – Wheelchair Rugby

The Invictus Games will be held next year, from May 29th until June 5th, in The Hague. The competitors of the participating nations are busy preparing themselves for our beautiful event, they have had almost a year longer to train. Every competitor has his or her favourite sport. In the coming months we will be highlighting one sport based on conversations with Invictus competitors. For episode 3, which is about wheelchair rugby, we talked to Lenny Redrose (Australia), Aaron Matheson (Canada) and Travis Dunn (USA).

By Edward Swier

Of all the sports practiced at the Invictus Games, wheelchair rugby is the most spectacular. It is, with its powerful combination of speed, cleverness and a lot of strength, a real spectator sport. But what is it like? There is a lot of physical effort involved, say Lenny, Aaron and Travis. But, above all, it’s important to keep your head in the game. “It’s always good to be both smart and physical in rugby,” says Travis.

The aim of wheelchair rugby is simple. Bring the ball to the other side of the field. To score, you need to be behind the goal line with both wheels and in possession of the ball. A team consists of four players on the field, which can be a mix of men and women. The competitors are categorized. Depending on the physical or mental limitation of the player, points are awarded to him or her, from 1 to 3. A team may have a maximum of 10 points on the field. In this way an uneven physical strength difference between two teams is avoided as much as possible.

Love for the game

All three of them were introduced to wheelchair rugby when they came into the Invictus Games picture. “I had heard of it before but thought that wheelchair sports were not my thing. Until we played it at our Invictus camp. To my enthusiasm, because if a local team is getting together in my area right now, I’m definitely involved,” says Aaron.  The Canadian served in the Navy for a number of years and was involved in sonar and underwater activities. He was injured, out of service, but is still – in the company of his Invictus teammates – very enthusiastic about camaraderie.

Aaron enjoys the game. “If the opponent has the ball, and you can – by chasing after it – end their attack and take over the ball, that creates a great feeling.” Lenny also knows that feeling. “In wheelchair rugby you all have an important role in the path to success.” Because the field only consists of four players it is important to distribute the tasks well and to perform your task properly. “It’s a demanding sport, you really have to stay disciplined and focused. Within our team I have the role of the, for the opposing team, “annoying” and often also a strong incoming defender. I must and will stop the opponent. ”

Getting back into rhythm

Due to Covid-19 the training sessions were stopped for a while of course. “I’m trying to stay in shape myself,” says Aaron. The first few months the gyms were closed, so that made it even more difficult. But now everything is slowly opening up again and getting back into rhythm”. Aaron is doing particularly well training in the military gym. I always find a lot of support and help there, they also help me with special equipment.

Also Lenny and Travis try to keep their condition, but that is not always easy. “There’s not much training going on,” Travis admits. There hasn’t been any wheelchair rugby going on lately anyway. “But I do train every other day to keep my body and mind strong,” Lenny says. “Unfortunately, we can’t play rugby because of the restrictions. Before Covid-19 I trained at the Royal Talbot Spinal Cord Hospital, but that is not an option right now. “

Tough confrontations

Lenny Redrose had to get surgery in 2016. “I walked into my own surgery, but came out with damage to my spine. I suffered a T4 spinal cord injury. I can’t move my body properly up to my chest, and I have chronic pain”. Furthermore, he has no control over his intestines and bladder – which, according Lenny, has also led to unpleasant situations on the field. “I have to, so to speak, always keep my head in the game”, he says.

He has had to cope with the shock of paralysis. “The last two years I have been in training to shift my physical and mental limits, and thus reach my goals. I am known for my positive mindset, for my enthusiasm and my approach that I can do anything I set my mind to”.

The fact that he was going to play wheelchair rugby is proof of that of course. Wheelchair rugby is not the most gentle of the sports played at the Invictus Games. “The sport is rugged. And I love that, absolutely. I used to play soccer, I played it from my fourth until my late twenties every week, they called me the Pitbull. Where it wasn’t allowed then, I’m allowed to play ‘hard and heavy’ now”.

Aaron also has a lot of fun in the sometimes-tough confrontations. It’s sometimes wonderful to hit an opponent so hard that they are completely eliminated for a few seconds.

This may all sound harsh, rugby – even in the 7 or 15-player field variation – is known for its strict regulations. Yes, the sport is tough, but never mean.

Personal preferences

Travis, who became paralyzed when he was in the army and was injured by a gunshot, is especially enthusiastic about wheelchair rugby because it is a real team sport. “With an individual sport you get to see very clearly how hard you have trained personally, it’s you against the rest. But a team sport is really so much fun because you have to work together to make it a success. That’s why you really enjoy it,” says Travis, who used to play basketball and athletics in a wheelchair.

Lenny also prefers team sports to individual sports. “I really enjoy working with others to achieve a common goal. Rugby is my favourite sport because toughness and discipline are needed to be competitive. Lenny wants to continue to develop himself at the same time. “It’s almost becoming an obsession,” he laughs. “I want, within my capabilities, to become the best athlete possible. That fits in with my winner’s mentality, which I’ve always had”.

Aaron honestly admits to being more attracted to individual sports. “I started with powerlifts and after that I focused mainly on rowing. However, I have to tell you that wheelchair rugby has become important to me, also during my recovery process. Thanks to rugby, the tension is relieved. And although I am someone who prefers to do his own thing, I have to say that the social aspect of rugby really helps me mentally”.

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