Wheelchair court sports are a blast. And modern sports chairs are built to be faster and more agile than ever, making them even more fun to use and very exciting to watch in action.
For athletes, putting one of today’s sports chairs through its paces results in a rush of acceleration, velocity and snappy turns — it’s a cool synergy of human and machine. Constructed of high-strength alloys, these chairs are lightweight, strong and rigid. They have high-cambered wheels and aggressive seating positions combined with anti-tip casters for rear stability, allowing athletes to get the most out of their bodies.
Here is a look at the current crop of specialized sports chairs, the sports they’re designed for and the players who use them.
Wheelchair lacrosse is the newest, and arguably fastest-growing, court sport, having expanded to over 20 programs across the U.S. since its debut in 2009. It’s played on a roller hockey rink that is approximately twice the size of a basketball court, and a majority of lacrosse players use basketball chairs since the rules governing chair specifications are identical for both sports.
“I’ve played a lot of adaptive sports and I like how well wheelchair lacrosse translates from its nondisabled counterpart,” says Ryan Baker, a 47-year-old T6 para who co-founded the sport. He fields the attack position for the San Diego Seals wheelchair lacrosse team using a Melrose Wolverine sports chair.
“It is one of the few chairs made specifically for lacrosse,” says Baker, about the Wolverine. “I like it because it has a custom-welded frame that’s light and very strong.” Baker runs 17 degrees of camber on 26-inch Spinergy wheels. “I find that 17 degrees is the sweet spot for stability, quick turning and not losing energy when the front wheels come up. This is important in lacrosse because we are sprinting almost twice the distances as wheelchair basketball players.”
Camber refers to the side-angle of the rear wheel, and the average sports chair camber ranges from 15 to 20 degrees. Greater camber enables quicker turns and better stability, which is especially important at high speed. Trade-offs for greater camber, especially when you go up to 20 degrees, are wheels that stick out, which makes the chair quite wide, and drag caused by additional toe-out — meaning the backs of rear wheels are closer together than the front — when the front casters lift up. Optimal camber depends on the sport, position played and athlete preference.
Baker is the customer service manager for Spinergy wheelchair wheels and says that most players in court sports use Spinergy wheels because of their combination of strength, stiffness and light weight.
He adds that quad rugby chair manufacturers are incorporating thicker 5/8-inch rear-wheel axles versus the standard half-inch size for added strength. “This is frequently an option when ordering basketball and lacrosse chairs,” he says.
Once a player knows what their needs are, a custom-welded fixed frame sports chair is preferable because they can be made lighter and stronger. However, most sports teams use adjustable chairs for their ‘club chairs’ — team chairs for new players to try or use as backups — because they are generally less expensive. And more importantly, it takes most players a couple years of experimenting with different adjustments to find the optimum chair configuration.
“I was focused on playing nondisabled sports after my injury until I saw wheelchair lacrosse in 2014,” says Chris Van Etten, 29, a Marine Corps veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan. “I realized I was letting the stereotype of disability get in my way, so I tried lacrosse, loved it and have been playing since 2014.”
The PER4MAX Thunder Basketball chair is Van Etten’s choice for lacrosse. “It fits great and is tough,” he says. “My original PER4MAX is four years old and has never broken. I got it through a grant from the Semper Fi fund for veterans, and just got a second one through the VA.” Van Etten says the key for lacrosse chairs is setting them up with a lower center of gravity than you would for basketball. “Not too low, but low enough so when you get hit you stay upright.”
Although “center of gravity” can mean how high or low a player sits in their chair as in Van Etten’s reference, most of the time it refers to how close the rear wheel axel is mounted to a player’s center of mass. The closer that axel is to a person’s center, the quicker the chair turns and the longer a player’s push stroke can be. This also makes a chair extremely tippy, which is why sports chairs incorporate one or two anti-tip bars with high-performance casters.
Quad Rugby for Life
“I call quad rugby ‘finding life after death,’” says Troy McGuirk, 52. “When I was first injured, I couldn’t accept being in a wheelchair, and I was convinced I was going to walk out of rehab. But when I saw quad rugby, everything changed, and the idea of walking flew out the window. Twenty-nine years later, rugby is just as important. It keeps me in shape, plus the only time I’m free from my intense neuropathic pain is when I’m training or playing and so focused that I don’t feel it.” McGuirk says other benefits of the sport include hanging with the team and sharing “SCI life hacks” that range from sex and transfers, to managing bowels and bladder, to travel tips.
McGuirk was injured in 1990 and started playing nine months after acquiring his C7 SCI. Since then he has amassed an impressive resume that includes playing for Team USA in the ’95 and ’98 World Championships and in the 2000 Paralympics. Although he has retired from tournament play, McGuirk still coaches a local team and also plays in pick-up games on weekends.
In quad rugby, players are assigned a point value ranging from 0.5 to 3.5 based on their level of injury or amount of upper limb control — the more muscle/limb-control they have, the higher the point value. Each team must not let the total point count of their four players on the court exceed eight. Higher-point competitors play offense. They wheel the ball toward the goal while lower-point players are on defense, trying to guard and hook offensive players. Offensive chairs have smooth impact guards for movement, and the impact guards on defensive chairs, known as pickers, are designed to try and hook an opposing player.
The Vesco Hi-Point Offensive is McGuirk’s choice for a quad rugby chair. He is also a Vesco sales rep, a job he has been doing for 10 years. He was hired because he knows the teams and players, and he has a deep knowledge of how to fit and adjust rugby chairs to enable maximum performance.
“A lot of times I’ve been able to help a player dial in their chair by making a simple upholstery adjustment, which is easy to do, but can make a big improvement in performance,” he says. “I like Vesco chairs because they are custom built for the player and are made out of heat-treated aluminum that makes them both extremely strong and one of the lighter quad rugby chairs on the market. I’m classified as a three, so the light weight is important for speed.”
In quad rugby, offensive players generally push 25-inch wheels that provide better top speed, and defensive players run smaller 24-inch wheels that are better for short, quick bursts of acceleration.
“I was mainly using a power chair until a friend invited me to check out a quad rugby scrimmage,” says Todd Wolfe, a C5-6 incomplete quad who was injured 14 years ago. He figured he would just watch, but the team got him transferred into a club chair, put some sticky quad rugby gloves on his hands and sent him out onto the court. “All of a sudden I could push! I felt like a superhero and liked it right away. I started going to practices and scrimmages, built up my arm strength and transitioned to using a manual chair full time.”
Wolfe uses the Melrose Low-Point Defender chair in titanium as a player and coach for the Cal/Nevada High Fives. He is also a sales rep for Melrose. “After playing for a while I got to know the players as well as the various funding and grant organizations, and I was offered a rep job at Melrose,” says Wolfe, who also owns a tree service company.
Wolfe likes Melrose chairs because they are custom built to the player’s specs and have a fast delivery time of about six weeks. “I especially like Melrose’s titanium chair because it’s super light and super strong. After three years of hard hitting, plus travel, my chair still looks as good as new,” he says. “The light weight of titanium is also an advantage for a low-point player because it enables me to accelerate quicker. The downside is it is much more expensive, almost twice the price as aluminum.”
Hooked on Wheelchair Basketball
Josie Portell, 12, is a point guard with the Rolling Rams wheelchair basketball team and uses a PER4MAX Thunder basketball chair that was paid for through a grant from the J-Rob foundation. Portell, who has spina bifida, started playing basketball at age 7 in a local team’s club chair, which worked well until she outgrew it. “What I like about my PER4MAX Thunder is the custom fit. It is super light, turns quick and is really stable, which allows me to go fast,” she says. Always trying to up her game, Portell is running 25-inch Spinergy 24-spoke wheels and finds that 18 degrees of camber is the sweet spot for quick turning and lateral balance, yet narrow enough to get her in close under the boards.
Portell’s favorite things about basketball are making new friendships, practicing her moves and experiencing the payoff when hard work leads to improved skills during a game. Portell is also a dedicated student and has her sights on playing basketball at the collegiate level.
The Top End Schulte 7000 by Invacare is Myreo Dixon’s chair of choice for basketball. Dixon, 49, is in his 31st year as a T11 para, and has been playing the sport for 22 years.
“This is my first season playing in the 7000 and I love it,” says Dixon, who played in the previous Schulte model for eight years. “It’s everything I want. It’s custom made for me — light, strong, quick and smooth. I’m running 20 degrees of camber, which really makes for snappy turns, and using 25-inch Spinergy 24-spoke wheels.” In basketball, the advantage of 20-degree camber is quicker turning. But a disadvantage is the wheel slants out so far that it makes the chair wider, which can interfere with ball handling and squeezing between players to get to the hoop.
Dixon was able to get his chair through a grant from the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Foundation, where he is the coordinator for the Adapted Sports Program. Dixon also uses his Top End Schulte 7000 to play tennis and lacrosse.
For Zack Wentz, 26, the Quickie All Court by Sunrise Medical is perfect for recreational basketball. “I like playing basketball with friends and in fundraiser games, but with my level of injury, I’m not competitive at the elite level,” says Wentz, who in his 11th year as a C7-T1 quad. He uses his All Court to play in an annual basketball tournament fundraiser he founded at University of Southern California six years ago to raise money for ‘Swim With Mike,’ a national campaign that provides scholarship funds for athletes with disabilities.
“What’s cool about the All Court is it’s fast and agile. It is great for basketball yet has the flexibility to be good on the tennis court,” says Wentz. He says it accelerates and turns so fast that it’s elevated his tennis game. “Now I’m hooked and am going to purchase a dedicated tennis chair, thanks to a grant from the Kelly Brush Foundation. And the All Court is also good for working out in the gym.”
A Return to Tennis
The Quickie Match Point is the tennis chair that Curt Letherbee, 61, chose for his “second tennis life.” He was a competitive collegiate tennis player in 1981, when a car accident caused his T4 paralysis. “I tried wheelchair tennis in my Quadra, but the movement of the chair was so far removed from stand-up tennis that it wasn’t happening, and so I focused on work and a career,” he says.
After a 27-year hiatus, Letherbee decided to give the sport another shot and bought a used Quickie Match Point. “The speed and maneuverability of the chair felt closer to stand-up tennis. I still had my racquet control and saw that, with practice, I could move the chair to get to the level I wanted to be,” he says. He traded in his used Match Point for a custom-fit one and started practicing. “It took me about five years, but I managed to develop the chair movement I needed to achieve the same satisfaction and feel as I had during my college playing days.”
Letherbee increased the camber on his current Match Point to 20 degrees, which he says really makes a difference in snappy turns. He had been using everyday 12-spoke Spinergy wheels and recently upgraded to 24-spoke Spinergy Spox. “My game really improved with the much stiffer wheels. I didn’t realize how much energy I was losing to the flex of the 12-spoke rims,” he says.
Letherbee also likes the Match Point because it is strong. “I’m 6-foot-1-inch tall and weigh 220 pounds, so I put a lot of force on my chairs, and the Match Point holds up.” He chose the option of a folding back rest, which makes it easier to transport the chair in his convertible car.
For more information, or to try one of these sports, contact one of the national associations below. Some local park and rec departments sponsor wheelchair teams and your Center for Independent Living may know if there is a program or team near you.
• Challenged Athletes Foundation, challengedathletes.org
• High Fives Foundation, highfivesfoundation.org
• J-Rob Foundation, jrobfoundation.com
• Kelly Brush Foundation, kellybrushfoundation.org
• Melrose Wheelchairs, melrosewheelchairs.com
• National Wheelchair Basketball Association, nwba.org
• Rehab Institute of Michigan Adapted Sports Program, rimrehab.org/services/adapted-sports-program
• Semper Fi Fund, semperfifund.org
• Swim with Mike, swimwithmike.org
• US Tennis Association, usta.com
• United States Quad Rugby Association, usqra.org
• Wheelchair Lacrosse USA, wheelchairlacrosse.com