Over the past seven years, the action-packed, fast-paced sport of wheelchair lacrosse has started to come into its own.
A few years ago, Ryan Baker called a San Diego lacrosse shop and asked if it carried the special, less bouncy lacrosse balls used for play on hard surfaces. He was told the store had a few.
A little later, Baker rolled into the store in his wheelchair and announced he was the guy looking for low-bounce balls and would take all the store had.
The clerk looked at Baker in his wheelchair and asked what he planned to use them for.
“Well, playing lacrosse,” Baker said.
It may seem obvious, but in 2009, very few people using a wheelchair were playing the sport.
Baker hadn’t played lacrosse, either before or after a car accident left him a T-6 paraplegic at age 19. He grew up in California in the 1970s and ‘80s when lacrosse was mostly an East Coast sport. But he’d seen it because his wheelchair tennis coach’s husband coached high school lacrosse, and Baker liked what he saw.
So on a 2009 Colorado ski trip with other paraplegics from around the country, Baker was talking to some guys from New England about what they did for fun when there was no snow. He figured they may have played adaptive lacrosse and asked them about it.
“They looked at me like deer in headlights,” Baker recalls.
The idea for a new adaptive sport was born.
Starting To Grow
A few years later and the sport has grown to about 20 teams nationwide. Four teams played in a tournament in Ocean City, Md., last year (Baker’s San Diego team won it), and in August of this year they expect more teams in the tourney, which will serve as the sport’s first national championship. After that ski trip, back in San Diego, Baker and his friend Bill Lundstrom now had a simple reason to try wheelchair lacrosse.
“It wasn’t being done,” says Lundstrom, who’d never played lacrosse either.
They got sticks and balls and started tossing back and forth on a tennis court.
“We lost all the balls we had – outdoor balls that were super bouncy,” recalls Lundstrom, who sustained a T-7 injury from a 2002 motorcycle accident. “We lost all the balls because we sucked … But it was fun, and we weren’t even playing full lacrosse yet.”
That’s when Baker made that trip to get low-bounce balls. Then, they recruited some friends.
“Within a month or so we had six or eight guys out throwing, catching and moving,” Baker says. “We started watching high school lacrosse, learning about the game.”
Since then, mostly through the evangelism of Baker and Lundstrom and the organization they started, Wheelchair Lacrosse USA, the sport has added more teams each year around the country, though only a handful have enough players so far to compete against others.
Baker and Lundstrom have held clinics around the nation to try to get more going. Some teams have, in turn, planned clinics in other cities to recruit still more, so they’ll have opponents to play. New players find it makes for a fast adrenaline-rush.
“It’s action-packed, fast-paced,” Baker says. “When you get a team of eight guys that can really move, and catch and throw accurately, keep the ball off the ground, it really opens some eyes how fast the sport can really be.”
Speed’s great. But many players say what they really like is taking whacks at each other with sticks.
“You get to smash each other,” says Eric Fife, who has played for several months with the Milwaukee Eagles.
The team was started by Kenneth Lee, a spinal-cord doctor at the Milwaukee Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, and two players, who were introduced to it at a clinic by the San Diego guys.
“There are very few sports where you get to check another player with a stick,” says Fife, who sustained a T-10 injury in a balcony collapse when he was in the Army. “It’s high-speed, and you get to go out there and smash it up.”
That physical contact also appealed to Brian Galloway, who is building a team in the Indianapolis area. He played rugby before a 2010 motorcycle accident left him a T-10 paraplegic.
“I can’t play quad rugby because I’m not a quad,” Galloway says. “I wanted to play a team contact sport.”
Galloway likes hockey – but sled hockey wasn’t very appealing.
“I’m 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds,” Galloway says. “I can’t keep up with those guys (in hockey). They can fly.”
He was familiar with lacrosse – he’d thrown the ball around years earlier, but never played competitively. But now his sons had picked up the sport.
“So I wondered if there was a wheelchair lacrosse team,” Galloway says. “The first thing I thought was, if there’s not, I’m going to start one.”
The sport’s growth has been quick. Generally, new teams have found enough players. The Milwaukee Eagles, playing for just about a year, now have enough players for two full squads.
In some cases, teams have boosted numbers by inviting able-bodied players to join, which Wheelchair Lacrosse USA recently decided is fine. Several players say when able-bodied players join, they may have good stick skills but often are at a disadvantage in terms of chair maneuvering. Finding enough women to play has been a different story. None of the clubs has had enough to have a women-only game.
“But we’ve had some pretty amazing women come out and play with the men in San Diego,” says Lundstrom.
While finding interested male players hasn’t been very difficult, getting enough of the necessary – and expensive – equipment sometimes has been.
“Money tends to be the biggest hurdle,” says Galloway, who used an online fundraising site to raise some money for chairs, sticks and protective gear. “The biggest cost is chairs.”
Some teams have sought partnerships with established, able-bodied lacrosse teams. That formula has been particularly successful in Milwaukee, where the Eagles have partnered with Marquette University’s NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse team, which provides coaching help and has supplied equipment.
“They spent a lot of money on us, including uniforms,” says Lee. “We’ve been very fortunate because of Marquette.”
Lee also applied for and received a grant that provided money to buy equipment for 10 players and for traveling with athletes to other cities for clinics in an effort to start more teams. The Eagles are planning clinics this year in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago and, possibly, Cleveland.
Lundstrom says helping clubs with equipment is a priority. Wheelchair Lacrosse USA has a sponsor relationship with Melrose Wheelchairs, which helps. Melrose makes a lacrosse-specific chair, though basketball or rugby chairs are often used by players as well. Baker and Lundstrom are also talking to people in Canada and Europe about prospects there. Eventually, they hope to have a world championship, which could lead to inclusion in the Paralympics – though that’s down the road.
“Right now, we’re just trying to spread the word and get equipment to these programs,” Baker says. “The idea is to keep growing, get more teams and really develop a season.”
Wheelchair Lacrosse USA (WLUSA) is the governing body of wheelchair lacrosse. The sport started in 2009, and WLUSA offered its first wheelchair lacrosse clinic in 2010. There are now more than a dozen programs across the country, including:
• San Diego Sharp
• Colorado Rolling Mammoths
• Tampa Bay String Rays
• Sportable (Richmond, Va.)
• Milwaukee Eagles
• Freestate Wheelchair Lacrosse (Maryland)
For more information, visit wheelchairlacrosse.com or facebook.com/Wheelchair-Lacrosse-USA.
Discovering The WHEEL RULES
Here’s a look at some of the basic wheelchair lacrosse rules, which are modeled after lacrosse:
• 8 versus 8.
• Positions are attack, midfield, defense and goalie.
• Each team must keep three players in their defensive half and two players in their offensive half at all times.
• Players use a lacrosse stick, which must be at least 40 inches long, and the pocket depth cannot exceed the overall depth of the ball from the sidewall.
• Played on a rectangular surface 185 feet long and 85 feet wide – usually a roller hockey rink or box lacrosse pad.
• Each team is allowed two d-poles, which can measure up to 50 inches. Only two are allowed on the court at any time.
• A game consists of four 15-minute quarters. Substitutions are done on the fly and don’t require play to be stopped.
• A no-bounce indoor ball made of rubber is used.
• Personal and technical infractions may result in penalty minutes, leaving the penalized team down a player for a determined amount of time.
• Goal measurements are 4-by-6 feet (hockey size) and are pushed toward the center line to create more space
behind the net.
• Players must wear a protective helmet with chin straps, face mask and a mouthguard and can also wear knee pads and shoulder pads.
Source: Wheelchair Lacrosse USA, wheelchairlacrosse.com