On April 19, the United States Quad Rugby Association began its 30th annual wheelchair rugby national championship tournament, held at the Ability 360 Sports & Fitness Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The tournament features 16 teams from across the country, vying for the podium in two divisions.
Day one’s action featured no major upsets, with tournament favorites University of Arizona, Minnesota and Phoenix each taking two comfortable victories into day two action that should feature all of the speed, intensity and big hits that make rugby such an entertaining sport to watch. All games are being streamed live via the Ability 360 website.
The first national championship tournament was held in 1988, with eight teams competing in games that would hardly be recognizable today. “It’s just a completely different sport,” says Ed Suhr, a veteran coach, player and former assistant coach of USA Wheelchair Rugby, who first attended a national championship in 1990. “The chair technology has been a huge part of that, but it’s also the seriousness and dedication of the players, what they’re bringing to training and skill development.”
When the USQRA was founded, games were played in everyday chairs, with players wrapping surgical tubing around their push rims for grip and taking hits without so much as anti-tip bars to stabilize them. “When somebody would go over, it would be a complete yard sale. They’d be laying on the ground, completely out of their chair, change falling out of their pockets,” laughs Scott Hogsett, a longtime player, Paralympian and current player/coach for the No. 3 seeded Phoenix Heat.
In 2018, the chairs are custom made of aircraft grade, heat-treated aluminum and are engineered to withstand head on collisions in which each player can be traveling in excess of 12 mph. Likewise, a sport that has largely been contested in middle-school gymnasiums now sees its crown tournament hosted in a multimillion-dollar sports complex dedicated entirely to adapted athletics.
The Ability 360 Center is a 45,000 square-foot facility that features a pool, track, sports courts, weight room, rock climbing wall and locker rooms, all fully accessible to people with all manner of physical disabilities. The center has been instrumental in modernizing the USQRA National Championships since it was first held last year.
When teams compete in semi-final and final games or in the next two days, they’ll do so in an atmosphere that features a DJ pumping music to keep the energy up during timeouts and halftime, and large, loud crowds fueled by a beer and wine garden.
As much as the game has changed in the past 30 years, Suhr says one thing that has stayed the same is the intensity of the competitors: “Nobody likes to lose.”
Semi-finals begin at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Friday, April 20 and the division one national championship game will tip off at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Full event schedule can be found here.