By Christopher Fields, Warrior Care and TransitionOctober 23, 2018
SYDNEY -- If you have never witnessed wheelchair rugby in person, you should make it a point to do so. The sound of the wheelchairs rushing up and down the court and the metal-on-metal collision of those same wheelchairs is an experience in and of itself. The athletes maneuver their chairs with grace, finesse and ferocity all at once; an image unique to the sport commonly referred to as "murderball."
Most of the athletes playing wheelchair rugby at the Invictus Games may never have discovered the sport or ever imagined themselves playing it had it not been for a life-changing event that altered their path and led them into the rugby gym. Now that they found themselves there, they are making the most of it.
Two retired U.S. Army Soldiers who had their lives changed in an instant played wheelchair rugby for Team U.S., Sgt. Ryan Major and Staff Sgt. Joel Rodriguez. Major was injured after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006, which resulted in him losing his right leg and right thumb from the explosion and later his left leg, ring and pinkie finger to a fungus. Rodriguez was injured in a serious car accident where he suffered a broken neck and a severe spinal cord injury. Both retired Soldiers have fought through dark places in their respective recovery and found light again with the help of adaptive sports, particularly wheelchair rugby.
"Wheelchair rugby is probably the best physical therapy I can get," said Rodriguez, who has played wheelchair rugby for four years and is competing at Invictus Games for the first time. "There's nothing like pushing around a 30-pound wheelchair and smashing into somebody as hard as you can," he laughed.
For Major, wheelchair rugby has helped him build his self-confidence, as well as hold him accountable to his teammates to stay in shape and train. "Competition and sports has been a significant part of my recovery," said Major, who is competing at his third Invictus Games. "Growing up I played football, baseball, and I wrestled and played other sports where I had to put in the hard work training. Rugby has given that back to me and seeing the results of that hard work puts a smile on my face every time."
Wheelchair rugby has also given Major and Rodriguez the opportunity to be on a team again and enjoy the camaraderie. "I love team sports because it feels like I'm back in the military, being on a team again with people all working together for the same goal to accomplish the mission: winning," Major said.
For Rodriguez, being around others that deal with similar injuries and challenges also draws him to the sport. "Mentally, playing rugby has been great. It gives me the chance to be around other people in the same predicament as me and gives me the motivation to succeed and seeing them succeed as well. It also helped me find my competitive edge and mindset again," Rodriguez said.
Both retired Soldiers have played wheelchair rugby in matches around the world, but playing at the Invictus Games is something that is special. "Playing wheelchair rugby against other injured service members from around the world in this venue is incredible. It's hard to describe what it means, but it's an honor to be a part of it," Rodriguez added.
Major, Rodriguez and the rest of the Team U.S. wheelchair rugby team earned the bronze medal on Oct. 25 at the Quaycentre in Sydney Olympic Park.