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Wheelchair Rugby: A Hit in Sydney?

October 24, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ The biggest hit at the Sydney Paralympics? Could be wheelchair rugby, a rough-and-tumble sport originally known as ``murder ball.″

A human-powered version of demolition derby, wheelchair rugby is the only contact sport in the Paralympics and makes its full-medal debut Wednesday.

Reggie Richner, of San Leandro, Calif., the coach of the top-ranked U.S. team, said he expects it will pull a big crowd in Australia, home of the world champions of able-bodied rugby and a land where collisions on the field of play are worshipped.

Duncan Campbell, a quadriplegic, devised wheelchair rugby in the 1970s while messing around with three friends in a gym in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He said it was a fluke that the game has taken off.

``There was no team sports for (quadriplegics) so we used to lift some weights, but we got bored with that,″ he said. ``We were in the gym one afternoon and started to throw things around _ that’s where it started.

``There were no rules really ... we called it murder ball. But when people got together to define the regulations, we decided murder ball might not be the best name for a developing game.″

Wheelchair rugby is the fastest-growing international wheelchair sport, with more than 22 nations competing regularly and others showing interest.

Eight teams qualified for the Paralympics, with the United States going in as the favorite after winning every major international tournament to date.

Campbell, who now lives in Vancouver and works as a rehabilitation officer, is on the coaching staff of the Canadian team and says his squad is a serious gold-medal contender.

New Zealand, runner-up at the 1998 World Championship, is ranked No. 2 in Sydney, while Australia is expected to challenge for a medal.

The game consists of two teams, each of four players, competing on a wooden court with the same dimensions as a basketball court.

Each player can hold or carry the ball a maximum of 10 seconds before passing or rolling it to a teammate.

There are 12 players on a squad _ all quadriplegics with varying degrees of dysfunction in all limbs. A game is composed of eight-minute quarters.

The aim is to carry the ball, which is the shape and size of a volleyball, across an opponent’s end line to score a point.

Blocking and contact between chairs is legal, but physical contact between players is outlawed.

All wheelchairs are custom made, most defined by big bumpers at the front to guard the feet in collisions. They’re built to take a beating, player Norm Lyduch, of Austin, Texas, said.

Lyduch said the game could shock some spectators who ``have the wrong idea about quadriplegia _ they don’t know we can get in these chairs and actually hit each other and cause chaos.″

Cliff Chunn, who was 15 when he started playing in 1993, is one of three returnees from the U.S. team that played as part of an exhibition at the Paralympics in Atlanta four years ago.

He said the sport grew in popularity as the Atlanta Games progressed until the final was sold out. The opening game had been played in front of about 20 players.

``Everyone was talking about rugby later on in Atlanta _ I think it’ll be even more popular in Australia because everyone seems to be into″ the Paralympics, he said.

Chunn, of Brentwood, Tenn., usually plays as an attacker or ball distributor

Others concentrate more on defense, setting blocks or screens so that the attackers can press forward.

Ralph Shadowens fits that role, a position he likens to being a front-row forward in traditional rugby.

``I’m the one getting right in there in the scrum, doing all the hard work ... the grunt,″ says Shadowens, who plays for San Diego in the domestic league.

Richner says everyone has a particular job to do, and if Shadowens never touches the ball during a game, then the team is going well.

Wayne Romero, of Pueblo, Colo., says the opening hit can have a major impact on the outcome of a game.

``Everyone wants to get in a big hit early on ... there should be some fireworks to start with,″ he said.

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