In the lead up to next year’s Paralympics, The Telegraph’s Tom Ough joined the Solent Sharks to experience the competitive world of wheelchair rugby first-hand. Read more here.
It was more like a tank than a wheelchair. Around its front swept an armoured bumper, its surface streaked by scratches and scuffs. There were two small sets of wheels, front and back, protected by the chair’s silver exoskeleton, and a much bigger pair in the middle. These, the main wheels, were shielded by sturdy black plates that hid their spokes entirely. The wheels tilted towards one another in the manner of the A-frame, and between them was cradled the small black seat. I lowered myself in.
The Solent Sharks are a wheelchair rugby team who play in the national second division. They were founded in 2013, the year after the London Paralympics, and their training sessions, which are held twice a week in a Southampton Solent University sports hall, attract players whose experience ranges from international-level competition to no experience at all. Because they’re supported by Wooden Spoon, one of three charities chosen by the Telegraph for our Christmas appeal, the team had invited me to train with them. I had wondered how the chair had got so battered, and now I was about to find out.
I’d been assigned my chair in a storage room next to the sports hall. Wheel plates were stacked like warriors’ shields. You move the chair by turning the wheels, a gym assistant explained, but you mustn’t put your hand on the tyres. If you’re driving the chair forward, you’ll break your fingers. If you’re jerking it back, you’ll break your thumbs. As with other wheelchairs, you propel yourself using a rim that follows the tyre round; unlike other wheelchairs, a rugby wheelchair requires its users to wear gardening gloves, such is the friction generated by turning and accelerating.
I slowly wheeled myself into the sports hall. There were 13 players, most of whom were wearing the black of Solent Sharks. All of them were in armoured chairs resembling mine, though some of them had a sort of cowcatcher construction – a “pick” – on the front. The players were warming up, whizzing across the shining hardwood floor, flinging white volleyballs to each other.
George Rogers, one of the team’s star ball carriers, trundled over to tell me the rules. “It’s more like American football than rugby,” he explained. You can pass the ball forward, for one, but off-the-ball activity is where a game is won and lost. The best way to get the ball across your opponents’ goal line, a feat that earns your team a point, is block their players from blocking yours. You do this by crashing into them. Body-to-body contact isn’t allowed, but chair-to-chair collisions are not only permitted but encouraged.
Fortunately for this pusillanimous debutant, we started with passing drills. Ricky Goddard, a physics teacher who volunteers as the Sharks’ coach, told us to form a “caterpillar”, and the squad, moving with the sudden agility of a flock of birds, arranged themselves into a guard-of-honour formation.
I joined the end of the line. Goddard, at the other end, threw a ball to the man at the top. He tossed it to the player opposite him, and spun out of formation and down the line, joining it at my end. The ball, thrown from player to player, followed. The throwers, one-by-one, spun away to join the back of the line. The ball reached me, and I caught and threw it all right, but couldn’t master the spin movement, instead reversing as if I were a station wagon backing gingerly into a main road. Rogers and the other first-teamers, meanwhile, swept buccaneeringly from end to end.
The drills became more complex. “I’m going to add another condition,” warned Goddard.
“Haven’t we got enough conditions?!” someone joked, but they set about the exercises with gusto. In one of them, Goddard had us smash into each other, simply to acclimatise us to collisions. In another, we raced two-at-a-time for the ball, sweeping it into our laps by running it against the wheel.
Whoever got the ball had to make their way back down the pitch, attempting to evade the cowcatcher-wielding defenders. The defenders tend to be players with less mobility than the ball carriers; speed is less important to their performance than anticipation and positioning. Time and again, I was caught on the prongs of Imogen Steele, one of the Sharks’ top defenders.
The final hour of the three-hour training session was devoted to match play. Goddard split the 14 of us into three teams, who played each other in turn. If you’ve ever looked up Paralympic wheelchair rugby, you’ll have seen how fierce it is: crashes, capsizings, and turn-on-a-dime pirouettes from which a ball carrier, suddenly uncorked, hurtles to the goal line. Our matches had a comparable intensity. One player, Sonny Wells, had a spoke broken, and had to have his wheel changed.
It was soon clear that I lacked the speed of the muscular ball-carriers, who pounded their wheel rims as if their arms were pistons. Nor did I have the spatial awareness of the defenders, who frequently caught me by surprise. I charged around the court as quickly as I could, taking heart from my team-mates’ encouragement. About two dozen points must have been scored in the games I played in; despite having no disability, I scored once, and the ball was pretty much handed to me on the goal line.
It had been an invigorating, absorbing three hours, even though my triceps had suffered such overuse that they seemed on the point of explosion. The sport seemed expertly calibrated for people of different physical abilities to enjoy it. I spoke to Steele, the defender who had stymied me so many times, and she told me about the pleasure of thwarting ball-carriers.
“You get big, burly men playing,” she said, “and they get so annoyed when I trap them. I’m quite slight, and I’m the girl” – Steele was one of only two women at the training session – “so it’s really funny to see them get so angry and frustrated.”
Steele, a 24-year-old with cerebral palsy (CP), had tried horse riding and swimming, but found that wheelchair rugby satisfied her competitive urge. She has already represented Great Britain in an all-female exhibition match. Wheelchair rugby, she said, “enriches my life,” which was a similar assessment to those I heard from others.
I’d spoken to Rogers too, discussing the sport with him and Toby Church. They too have CP, but both of them have arms easily strong enough to zoom them up and down the pitch. Rogers, a 21-year-old who works in film, is in the Great Britain development squad; Church, 16, hopes to be a Paralympian one day. Rogers told me how he’d tried playing rugby with the able-bodied children at his school, his involvement limited to throwing in line-outs.
“I loved trying to be part of it, but this” – wheelchair rugby – “really makes you feel that you are not only able to be part of it, but that you are supporting the team. Everyone understands your levels of ability and mobility, so it becomes a level playing field. It’s fantastic.”
CP is one of a variety of conditions affecting the team. Some are amputees, others have spinal injuries. (Wells, who I was told later had deliberately slowed down in one of the drills so that I’d have more of a chance, is tetraplegic.) Pete Hull, the club chairman and a triple gold-winning Paralympic swimmer, was born with arms that end at the elbow and no legs. Until a recent osteoarthritis diagnosis, Hull played as a defender for the Sharks using an electric wheelchair. Wheelchair rugby, he says, gives its players things can’t get from solitary exercise.
“When you talk about sport,” he said, “you automatically think about the physical aspect. People often forget about the psychological benefits of feeling part of the team.”
Even as an interloper, I felt those benefits. And thanks to Wooden Spoon, which is covering the Sharks’ running costs for four years, so can many people who might not otherwise have access to the frustrations, thrills and joys of team sport. I thought about this kind of thing as I left – the gifts of sport, and the brilliance of a game that embraces such a range of physical ability. And I thought about next year’s Paralympics, and how I just might watch some wheelchair rugby players who I could once, briefly, call team-mates.