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Countdown to The World Games Birmingham: Wheelchair rugby

Mike DeYoung didn’t hold back when asked to describe what fans can expect at The World Games 2022’s wheelchair rugby competition.

“You’re going to see a lot of chair-on-chair contact. It’s a full-contact sport,” said DeYoung, a Californian who has been playing the sport since 2003. “You can pretty much do any kind of contact to the opponent’s chair to stop them or block them or hit them out of bounds or knock them over. Whatever it takes. I can’t physically touch the other player with my hands, but I can hit them as hard as I can (with my chair).

“And if I hit them hard enough and they fall over or let’s say they’re carrying the ball and they fall over, it’s a turnover. So, that’s good for me and bad for them. It’s not a bad thing to hit another player as hard as you can and knock them out of bounds or over or whatever it may be.”

Wheelchair rugby is considered among the most intense sports, evidenced by the players’ use of custom wheelchairs designed to withstand constant collisions.

The sport’s physical nature was on full display in “Murderball,” the 2005 documentary that focused on the rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian wheelchair rugby teams.

Most wheelchair rugby players pick up the sport after suffering a spinal cord injury, which leaves them with no or limited mobility or dexterity in at least three of their four limbs.

That’s why, DeYoung said, the violent collisions in wheelchair rugby surprise many novice fans.

“They’re going to be shocked by it,” he said. “A lot of people think quadriplegics are people who can’t move anything, but they’re going to be very surprised by the speed of the game and hard hits and the athleticism that comes with it. It’s loud. The chairs are banging. The benches are going to be screaming.”

This summer’s competition in Birmingham will mark the first time wheelchair rugby has been part of The World Games, and it also marks the first time an adaptive sport is part of the regular sports program at an international, multisport athletic event that also includes non-adaptive sports.

The Lakeshore Foundation Disability Inclusion Program presented by Drummond Company Inc. has the mission to make The World Games 2022 inclusive and accessible for all by establishing a legacy for disability inclusion in multisport events.

“Wheelchair rugby offers an exciting, fast-paced game that showcases these unique athletes’ skill, grit and daring,” said The World Games 2022 CEO Nick Sellers, “and that’s why we think it will be a hot ticket. The ability to see these athletes up close with a gold medal on the line truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that any sports fan will cherish and enjoy.”

The six teams qualified for The World Games’ wheelchair rugby competition are the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland. The mixed-gender wheelchair rugby competition will run July 14-17 at the Birmingham CrossPlex.

Great Britain defeated Team USA in the gold medal round at the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo in August 2021. Japan won bronze after winning the IWRF World Championship in 2018.

In Birmingham, the wheelchair rugby competition will be played according to low-point rules. Eligible players are classified according to their functional level and assigned a point value ranging from 0.5 to 1.5. Adding the assigned value for each player, a team’s four-player lineup on the court cannot exceed 3.5 points this summer in Birmingham.

Only players rated 0.5, 1 or 1.5 are eligible to play in The World Games 2022. Female players received a half-point deduction for rating purposes.

The United States Wheelchair Rugby Association recently announced the training squad, and the eight-person team that will compete in Birmingham will be selected after a training camp next month at Lakeshore Rehabilitation in Birmingham.

“It’s a pretty rough sport,” said DeYoung, a longtime member of the U.S. national team who could be selected to play in Birmingham. “It’s going to be pretty intense for anyone who wants to check it out.”