Crash. Bang. Wooh!
I looked up to see a physical therapy student rolling across the baseline of the basketball court at Charles J. Ping Center at Ohio University.
Her arms are up in exclamation and a volleyball is sitting in her lap. She is seated in a rugby wheelchair as her teammates finally found a way to score against the members of the Ohio Buckeye Blitz, a semiprofessional wheelchair rugby team out of Columbus, Ohio.
This is the rare scene during the 12th Annual Quad Rugby: Battle the Blitz fundraiser hosted by the Ohio University Department of Physical Therapy. Each year, teams of 4-6 people can sign up to play against the Blitz for a 30-minute game, often to their own demise. The event is a big draw for physical therapy students and alumni, but anyone can play in the event.
A standard game of wheelchair rugby is played four-on-four on a hardwood regulation basketball court. For a goal to count, two wheels of the player's wheelchair must cross the goal line with complete possession of the ball. It must be carried across, not passed. Physical contact between wheelchairs is permitted and is highly encouraged — one reason why wheelchair rugby used to be termed murderball.
To be eligible to play wheelchair rugby, athletes must have some form of disability with a loss of function in all four extremities. Most wheelchair rugby athletes have spinal cord injuries at the cervical level, but other eligible players may have multiple amputations or other neurological disorders. Players are classified according to their functional level and assigned a point value ranging from 0.5 (the lowest functional level) to 3.5 (the highest functional level). The total classification value of the court at one time cannot exceed eight points.
Players use customized wheelchairs designed specifically for wheelchair rugby. These chairs can cost up to $7,000 each. In order to play competitively, it's estimated that league fees, tournament registration, travel, housing, spare wheels and other equipment for the year can cost more than $17,000. That is why the Battle the Blitz fundraiser means so much to players like Jeremy Finton.
"The event allows me to play throughout the season, lessening the financial impact. Without it, I would only be able to play in one or two tournaments, at best."
Over the last 12 years, wheelchair rugby has provided Finton with an outlet to work through life's frustrations. He says that by being around like-minded people, he has figured out to make life functionally easier. He states that he is less depressed and is physically stronger as a result of playing this competitive sport.
"It is a fun team sport where I can get some exercise. It's basically bumper cars,” he said. “Who doesn't want to do that?"
"This event not only serves as a fundraiser to be able to afford playing in tournaments throughout the year, but it is also an opportunity to introduce adaptive sports to future physical therapists who can either serve as an advocate for the sport to a newly injured patient, or even participate in an administrative or coaching capacity at some point,” added Blitz team member Daniel Pitaluga.
The physical therapy students also enjoy the opportunity to work closely with these adaptive athletes. Alyssa Flora, a third-year physical therapy student at Ohio University said, "As a student, this event has taught me far more about spinal cord injury than any class could have taught me. And experiencing my own soreness after playing a 30-minute game, I've gained an appreciation for the amount of upper extremity strength and endurance required of athletes with absent or diminished trunk control."
"It is a great opportunity for the community to learn about wheelchair rugby and lessen the financial burden it places on its participants. It is also an opportunity for individuals who have quadriplegia in the surrounding areas to learn about the local adaptive sports resources available to them,” Flora added. “Most of all, this event creates an opportunity to bridge the gap between individuals who are disabled and individuals who are able-bodied. It puts us into the shoes of the athletes who have quadriplegia, addressing the stereotype that persons with disabilities should be objects of pity or sympathy, when in fact they most often desire to be treated the same as everybody else."
Members of the Buckeye Blitz give back to the students throughout the school year by volunteering their time and speaking about their experiences with physical therapy, including wheelchair prescription and functional training. They also allow students to practice their fundamental skills like manual muscle testing, bed mobility, and full evaluations. This provides us as students with a unique opportunity to work with patients with spinal cord injury prior to clinical experiences.
"I have been lucky enough to have extensive conversations with many of the team members and understand what types of communication and treatment approaches they value in health care providers. With this understanding, I can now enhance the quality of my own patient care,” said Flora.
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Emma Fish, SPT, ATC, is a current third-year physical therapist student at Ohio University and is vice chair of the Ohio Physical Therapy Association Student Special Interest Group.