When a person incurs a spinal cord injury, a litany of what’s impossible is presented. Simply put, no longer will life be as it’s always been.
“We wanted to offer another list,” said Lakeshore Foundation spokesperson Jen Remick, “a list of what someone can do.”
For wheelchair rugby athletes — quadriplegic persons who compete in a grueling and often edifying sport — a facility like Lakeshore is home base to the ways of an altered life.
The Lakeshore Foundation serves people with physical disabilities, promoting independence and providing opportunities to pursue active and healthy lifestyles.
Remick is careful to point out that hospitals do not send home discouraged persons post-recovery, but instead, medical facilities are simply not day-to-day places. Remick explains that in the 1980s, doctors began taking notice of a phenomenon regarding spinal cord injuries. Patients would recover in the hospital and return home in good health, only to reappear with medical issues — brought on by inactivity.
In 1984, when Lakeshore began, wheelchair (or quad) rugby was a new and growing sport in the U.S., introduced by its Canadian creators, who had given the sport the moniker “murderball.” (A 2005 documentary by the same name made infamous the rigor, intensity and interesting personalities of quad rugby, bringing the sport to the mainstream.)
Quad rugby players must play on club teams during the October to April season, competing in weekend-long tournaments to be eligible for national team play.
January 25 – 27, Lakeshore hosted one such competition, the Demolition Derby tournament. Six club teams from across the nation competed, including tournament champions Texas Stampede. Lakeshore’s own Demolition club finished 3-3.
According to the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF), the sport is unique in that athletes with a disability created quad rugby, combining elements of rugby, basketball and handball. The IWRF explains that players compete in teams of four to carry the ball across the opposing team’s goal line. Contact between wheelchairs is integral, as players block and hold opponents.
Susan Robinson, coordinator for Lakeshore’s “Lima Foxtrot,” a recreation and rehabilitation program that serves severely injured members of the Armed Forces, jokes that quad rugby “is sort of like human NASCAR.”
Robinson refers to the elite chairs (and the pit crew mechanics and welders on hand to service the chairs during tournaments) used by athletes. During games — such as those at the Demolition Derby — the clack and clang of colliding chairs echoes throughout a gymnasium. Players must develop wide skill sets, from the finesse of ball handling to knowing how to take a hard hit.
Lima Foxtrot participant Ben Tomlinson, a Marine shot and injured in Afghanistan, competes on Lakeshore’s club rugby team. Also on the team are a number of Olympians. In 2003, the United States Olympic Committee designated the Lakeshore Foundation as an Olympic and Paralympic training site. Since then, in addition to Lakeshore’s club team, the national team has trained here in Birmingham under the guidance of Texas coach James Gumbert.
Cincinnati-native Aimee Bruder is a six-time Paralympian in swimming. Bruder has cerebral palsy and was once told she could not compete in quad rugby because she was deemed too “high functioning.”
Quad rugby uses a point system to determine an athlete’s functionality. The scale, which runs 0.5 to 3.5, allows multi-level players to compete. According to U.S. national standards, a player must have one of the following: spinal cord injury that affects at least three limbs, amputation in four extremities, neurological impairment in four limbs, physical impairments in four limbs to include hands and/or feet, or a combination of any of the above. Each team’s four players may not exceed eight total points.
Bruder says joining the rugby team has served more than her athletic ability. “The thing I really enjoy with rugby is that I’ve always done independent sports. With rugby, you can’t do it alone. There’s team dynamic.”
After Lakeshore’s loss to St. Louis in the Demolition Derby semifinals, Bruder sits alone on the sideline to watch the championship game.
“At first it was hard for me to grasp the team concept and how to work with people. I’m used to being alone and being in control myself. Sometimes you have to step back and be patient because you have a group working together.”
Bruder admits being the only woman on the team can be challenging. “But,” she says, “The cool part about Lakeshore is that they invite people to do and try new things. It’s not uncommon to see different levels of ability or different genders competing together. It’s not a foreign concept here.”
For the past 10 years, Bruder has worked in membership at Lakeshore. She moved to Birmingham, she says, because the warm winters offered her the opportunity to live independently. Athletics is only one aspect of Bruder’s life. “My life,” she says, “is not about one or two things. My life is about many things.”
Three-time Olympian Bryan Kirkland of Leeds has played quad rugby for 18 years. Kirkland broke his neck in 1992 during a motocross accident. Five months later, he was playing quad rugby at Lakeshore.
Kirkland holds the longest running tenure on the U.S. national team — 10 years. During that time, he traveled around the globe to compete. Recently, Kirkland returned to the sport after a two-year hiatus. “The international travel took a toll on me,” Kirkland says. “But my motto is: try to keep it fun. I came back for the young players. I want to teach the new players on the teams. I just want to pass it on to them so the program stays strong.”
Kirkland is long-limbed with a toothy smile. After the semifinals game, his Home Depot co-workers call him over to the stands for a round of photos. His role as team teacher seems a solid fit with his easygoing personality.
Unlike some athletes whose spinal chord injuries halt the body’s ability to produce sweat, Kirkland sweats bullets post-game, his bald head glowing under the gymnasium’s fluorescents as he proudly waves to the blue banners hanging overhead.
“Lakeshore has numerous records in our sport that no other team has come close to. We’ve raised the bar. We won five national championships straight. For 11 years, we were in the national championship. And we have the strongest contention of rugby team in the U.S. with 40 teams.”
The Demolition Derby tournament began on the heels of the January 25 U.S. Education Department announcement that schools must give students with disabilities a fair shot to play on traditional sports teams or have their own leagues. The success of Lakeshore, its many competitors and competitions speaks to the magnitude of this new order.
The multi-sport athlete Aimee Bruder has much to say regarding the benefits of athletic competition.
“Athletics,” she says, “builds you holistically — not just mentally, but also physically, emotionally, socially. [Athletics] helps you develop for the real world because life in general is not ever going to be perfect. You have to work and get along with other folks but it’s a social outlet, too. There’s not just one thing rugby does for you — it’s life-building skills.”
For more information on the Lakeshore Foundation, quad rugby and a calendar of upcoming events, visit lakeshore.org.