Generations from now, when they retell the tale of the birth of wheelchair lacrosse, Ryan Baker and Bill Lundstrom will be remembered as the prophets. Two visionaries who were struck by inspiration on the side of a mountain and returned to the masses to travel the countryside on nary a dollar, preaching the gospel of the new sport they had brought down from on-high.
In reality, Baker, 42, and Lundstrom, 40, the co-founders of Wheelchair Lacrosse USA, did get the idea for the sport while skiing on a mountain, and they are travelling around America to teach the sport and spread the word. But as they would tell you, they are just two regular guys from Southern California who thought wheelchair lacrosse sounded like a cool idea — and that is why they have devoted much of the last five years to growing the sport.
Birth of Lacrosse on Wheels
To say that paras Baker (T6) and Lundstrom (T7) faced a few obstacles when they decided to start wheelchair lacrosse back in 2009 would be an understatement. They were not strangers to adaptive sports (Baker had a background as a competitive wheelchair tennis player), but neither had played lacrosse prior to their injuries. They had no real budget. They both worked full-time jobs. And they had no idea if the sport was already being played and what resources might be available to them. A little bit of research made the extent of their task apparent.
“We found there wasn’t a lot happening,” says Baker. “As far as being offered for people with disabilities, lacrosse wasn’t available. There was no rule book. There was no organization. We even called US Lacrosse in Baltimore and they had never heard of anything.”
Despite those obstacles, Baker and Lundstrom had one big thing in their favor: Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in America. According to a participation study by US Lacrosse, the organizing body that oversees the sport domestically, the total number of lacrosse players in the U.S. more than doubled from 253,931 in 2001 to 568,021 in 2009. The sport is especially strong among youth. It is the fastest-growing team sport among National Federation of State High School Association members, and 60 colleges launched programs last year alone.
To reach this growing base, Baker and Lundstrom decided to hold camps across the country. They would travel to a locale, help find a suitable venue — a roller rink, or indoor arena — provide pads, sticks and other equipment (most of it donated), and then teach interested people how to play.
“After the camp, they’re familiar with the rules, they have the equipment and a space to play,” explains Baker. “We want them to build a program and then start a team.”
Over the last five years they have held camps in San Diego, Denver, Atlanta, Tampa, Richmond, Baltimore and New York City. In addition to their home group in San Diego, strong groups have emerged in Denver and Baltimore. Baker is optimistic this is just the beginning.
“It’s just going to keep growing,” he says. “Guys want to play, it’s just a matter of getting equipment to them, helping them find places to play and getting them rule books.”
James Cook, 23, from Salisbury, Md., is one of those guys. He attended one of the clinics in Richmond in 2011 and immediately found himself hooked. Cook, a T11-12 para, had played lacrosse in high school and enjoyed it. A car accident in 2010 left him paralyzed and searching for a new pastime. Finding wheelchair lacrosse was a godsend.
“It’s been nice being able to play again,” he says. “I started playing wheelchair basketball and doing handcycling and a lot of different sports specifically for disabled people, but it was really cool to be able to play a sport that I had done a lot before my accident.”
With the same equipment and similar rules as normal lacrosse, Cook says adjusting to a sport chair and learning to push while holding a stick were the most difficult aspects.
Like Cook, Colorado resident Daniel Hersh came to wheelchair lacrosse because none of the other adaptive sports really spoke to him, but unlike Cook he had no background in lacrosse. “It was definitely a challenge trying to move and control the ball,” says the T6 para. “I’d watched a lot of nondisabled lacrosse and it kind of hooked me just because of the speed and how fast everything goes.”
Three years after padding up for the first time, Hersh now sees himself as an ambassador for the sport. He plays as a member of the Colorado Rolling Mammoth Wheelchair Lacrosse Team and coaches at a local college. He also teaches the game to wheelchair users at nearby Craig Hospital. “The biggest question there is, ‘How do you move with a stick?’” he says. “You get some backlash right away, but once you show how similar it is to a lot of the other sports, like tennis, they’re more understanding and enthusiastic about it.”
Growing the Sport
Baker sees a bright future for the sport he has helped mold. “We’re trying to build it up, like rugby or basketball or any other team sport where you have regional tournaments and a national championship,” he says. “The ultimate goal and the dream would be to have this become a Paralympic event, but that’s a long way away.”
Whether the sport gets that far will likely depend on people like Hersh and Erin Michael. Michael is a physical therapist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. The institute partnered with a local team to host a clinic and has been hosting open gyms to grow participation in hopes of founding a team.
“We’re in an area where when you talk about lacrosse everyone is like, ‘Yes, I’ll help you, what do you need?’” she says. “Based on the interest we’ve gotten so far and the support we’ve received from the community, I think we could have a formal team or even maybe two formal teams in this area within the next year. I’d love to see more teams pop up across the country so we could have a national tournament … all we need is one person in an area who loves the sport and then they can become an advocate. We need more advocates to get it going.”
As the sport grows, so have the rules. Baker refers to them as “a living document” and says growing the sport is more important than cracking down on enforcing the rules. There is a classification system, like the ones used in wheelchair basketball and rugby, but it is rarely used so as not to keep interested players off the court. Baker describes Wheelchair Lacrosse USA’s relationship with US Lacrosse as “slowly maturing,” citing recent collaboration on rules.
“US Lacrosse is just now starting to warm up to us a little bit more about what we’re doing and how we can grow it,” he says. “US Lacrosse is only 15 years old itself. It’s different than hockey or basketball or tennis where you have the USTA or USA Hockey, where all the guys that play sled hockey are members of USA Hockey.”
For now, Baker and Lundstrom are planning to keep traveling around the country, teaching the sport and expanding its reach. Like them, Cook is excited to see where the sport goes.
“I talk to guys who play basketball and they say how the sport has evolved so much just in the last five years and I’m sure the same thing will happen with lacrosse. I’m sure in 10 years when you watch wheelchair lacrosse, people will have perfected ways of flying around the court.”
For more information about wheelchair lacrosse, visit wheelchairlacrosse.org.