Fall started this week and a group of local athletes are going on the road to play in tournaments across the West. That’s after a summer of gathering together for physical exercise, mental strategy and camaraderie. They’re playing rugby … with wheelchairs.
Walk into the gym of the Fort Boise Community Center on a Thursday night and you’ll see eight people in specially-made metal wheelchairs slamming into each other.
This is Murderball, also known as Wheelchair Rugby. Two teams of four players try to carry the ball on their knees into the end zone. It’s also known as Quad Rugby. Some team members have spinal cord injuries, amputations, multiple sclerosis. But there’s only one criterion they have to meet to be on the team.
“You have to have disability in three of four limbs to play," says Spencer Larimore, the heart of the Boise Bombers team.
He started playing the sport in 2008 in Texas. When he came home to Boise eight years ago, he started recruiting players at the rehab center at the YMCA. Like Megan Zusne — Larimore talked her into playing for just one game. Zusne didn’t play team sports before then. But she was instantly hooked.
“And I got home and inhaled the contents of the refrigerator and drank a gallon of water and then this huge smile spread over my face," she says. "I had never felt so good in my life.”
She says it’s like drugs, but all natural.
“It was better than puppy dogs, better than chocolate, better than love, better than sex, better than turkey dinner, it was great,” Zusne says.
Since she joined the team, Zusne has continued to grow her mental and physical skills for the game.
“I can’t use my body in very many ways in real life, so this is strengthening it so I can use the parts of my body that work,” Zusne says.
More than an hour into practice, the Bombers are still going strong. This is a fast-paced, fierce, full-contact sport that often wreaks havoc on the equipment.
“There goes a popped tire, that’s what it sounds like when the tires pop," says Larimore. "It sounds like a gun goes off."
Family and friends give a hand to players by filling tires and keeping score. The sport was invented in Canada in 1977 by a group of quadriplegic athletes. Now it’s played worldwide. To the untrained eye, it looks like a chaotic free-for-all.
Behind Larimore, a wheelchair flips over and a player tumbles out onto the floor.
“Sometimes you’ll hit and go flying over," he explains. "It doesn’t happen too often, but it will happen.”
But Larimore says players rarely get injured.
Driving up and down the court at high speed, Kory Puderbaugh scores point after point. He was another recruit from the local “Y”. Larimore met Puderbaugh when he was just 17 and spent six months talking the teen into getting on the court.
“He knocked me out of my chair at my first practice and I tried to knock him out," says Puderbaugh. "I had no success. And from there on out, I loved the sport."
Three years later he made it on the USA Team and won a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. He’s seen the world through Wheelchair Rugby, including Japan and Canada. Puderbaugh says though the game is rough, strategy is key — he compares Murderball to a hardcore game of chess.
“'Cause you predict what people are going to do," he says. "But even then it’s a mind game after that to try and outdo the other person."
After more than two and a half hours, the players start to wind down. Puderbaugh, Zusne and fellow player Josiah Sullivan reflect on their favorite part of the sport.
“I think more of what you get off the court. Just the friendship, the camaraderie.”
“Watching myself as well as other players grow over the years.”
“The lessons learned, being able to travel, meet new people.”
“Hitting. That’s the best part of it is hitting.”
“It’s the joy at achieving something I never had an aspiration to achieve and suddenly, look at me!”
“That’s the best part, that’s what we all enjoy. When we hit each other we all smile.”
“It’s really a test of personal will, you know.”
At the end of the night, Larimore talks about why he got into the sport. At first, he wasn’t interested in meeting other people in wheelchairs.
“I don’t know, most of them just complain about parking and wheelchair access," he says. "I just didn’t want to listen to the complaints. I want to live life and move on and do my thing. But once I got on a team and started being around other quads, I learned a lot more about myself … it was a big eye opener for me, really."
After a summer of practice, the Boise Bombers are going on the road to five or six tournaments around the country this fall. Confident in his team, Larimore says they hope to win big this year.
The Bombers are in Seattle Friday through Sunday for a five-day Wheelchair Rubgy tournament. On November 8, 9 and 10 they’ll host their own tournament at the Garden City Boys and Girls Club.
Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio
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