Wheelchair rugby has always been a hard-hitting sport, but player safety continues to be placed at the forefront
By John Groth
When United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA) Commissioner Dave Mengyan first started playing wheelchair rugby, athletes used their everyday wheelchairs.
Chairs didn’t even have seatbelts back then. And you thought hits were scary now.
Back in the 1990s when Mengyan was first injured, the now-51-year-old vividly remembers going to watch a match with his parents and seeing a player who was nearly 300 pounds hit and wreck an opponent, both athletes flying out of their chairs and their chairs going in opposite directions.
Still, that wasn’t enough to deter him from playing. He wanted that adrenaline rush.
“I was like, ‘Woah, this is crazy,’” says Mengyan, a Detroit Rugby Football Club player who sustained a C5-7 incomplete spinal-cord injury (SCI) in a 1991 car accident on a ride back from a Rush concert in Michigan. “But just like if you look at able-bodied rugby compared to NFL football, as you gain armor to protect you, hits get harder. People are less worried about their safety because they have more protection. If you have less protection, then you are going to be a lot more cautious about how you hit someone. So the hits weren’t as big back then, not at all. It was more about getting in position, getting in between someone’s spokes.”
Chair & Safety Changes
Over the past three decades, wheelchair rugby has evolved. Chairs have transformed three times over. And along with that, the sport’s safety issues have also improved.
Athletes no longer use their own everyday chairs. They use wheelchairs designed specifically for the sport.
Players can choose between offensive chairs set up for speed and mobility that contain a front bumper and wings to prevent other opponents from hooking it or defensive chairs that contain bumpers set up to hook and hold other players. They also have spoke protectors covering the wheels to help prevent damage to them in collisions and an anti-tip device in the back.
Longtime USQRA official Bob Lopez acknowledges the wheelchairs are so much safer now with the added anti-tips, way more so than when he and fellow USQRA
official Kelli Kaliszewski started more than 25 years ago.
“Now the way the chair is, the foot is so much safer because it’s set back from the point of contact in the front of the chair,” Lopez says. “Even the mandatory spoke guards, so you wouldn’t have the chairs hit the spokes and the spokes break and then you have sharp objects and stuff like that, have made it safer.”
“The strategy has changed, the equipment has changed quite a bit,” Mengyan says. “And I feel like the equipment has not only made us safer, you have to have those anti-tips in the back — those extra casters. They’re not even considered part of the chair when it comes to out-of-bounds or scoring. They’re safety equipment, and they really do make a huge difference.”
The USQRA has also instituted a concussion policy, making someone on each wheelchair rugby team take a concussion course and be able to diagnose a concussion. All USQRA-sanctioned tournaments are also required to have a health care professional on site who is trained in concussion evaluation and management.
If an athlete is determined to be potentially concussed, then he or she isn’t allowed to play again that day and isn’t allowed to play until he or she has been cleared and has written permission from a medical professional.
In 20-plus years of playing wheelchair rugby, Mengyan has never had a concussion or a head injury. In fact, he’s only seen a handful of them during his career — including one at the 2017 USQRA national tournament.
The Clarkston, Mich., resident, who carries a 3.5 classification but plays as 3.0 because he’s older, has taken plenty of jarring hits, jammed his fingers and bruised his knees dozens of times.
“But for me, personally, when I’m out there playing, I’m not thinking about it. I think about it when my body hurts because I’m out of shape. But I’m not thinking about it until somebody’s chair is about to hit me when I’m reaching down for that ball. I wouldn’t even think about the fact that I could get hurt or about, ‘Why am I so slow?’ or, ‘Why did I miss that pass?’” Mengyan says. “I think that not only the rules but the equipment together really have made the sport much safer.”
USQRA officials look out for player safety, too.
They can assess penalties for spinning, along with technical and flagrant fouls. Spinning, as Mengyan describes it, results when one player hits another player behind his or her axle.
There are also flagrant fouls, which are called when one player consciously puts another in an extremely dangerous situation, or technical fouls, when someone isn’t in control of his or her chair, Mengyan says.
At the 2018 USQRA national tournament, officials acknowledged that besides player safety, their biggest concern is keeping an eye on concussions as well.
USQRA official Marianne Duda says her biggest worry during a match came when two players hit heads.
“I don’t know if the jaw went to the temple or they knocked heads. That was one of the one times I can remember being worried about a concussion,” she says. “They didn’t hit the floor … They hit heads and I watched it. He’s shaking his head. He’s shaking his head, trying to get the cobwebs out. Never hit the floor.”
Lopez says concussions are his main concern because you don’t always know.
“Sometimes they can hit and there’s not going to be anything wrong. Sometimes they hit and you can see it, and sometimes you can’t see it. And, you know, that’s where, you know, we’re not sure. We bring the player to the coach and say, ‘Look, he took a real hard whack.’ We put the onus on the coaches to deal with it ’cause that’s what the protocol says because we’re not trained. We’re not medical people,” Lopez says. “And one of the good things, like this [national] tournament is doing, and I think we do all the time now at nationals, is there’s EMTs [emergency medi cal technicians] on each court. So that way if something happens, [there’s] someone trained to evaluate that.”
Learning How To Fall
Concussion risks aren’t too worrisome for Joe Delagrave. A 10-year wheelchair rugby veteran and wheelchair rugby Paralympian, he learned the right way to fall from the get-go. The key is to protect your head.
“Usually, it’s like making sure you’re protecting your head from getting hit, so an arm, two arms, sometimes an elbow, which isn’t great ’cause you can blow up an elbow, but you know, you want to protect your head, obviously, because we’re not wearing head gear out here,” says the 33-year-old Delagrave, who sustained a C6/7 incomplete SCI at 19 years old.
Because of his body mass — being 6 feet 5 inches tall and 205 pounds — he doesn’t fall too much. Though, he admits, when he does, it usually comes via a spin from behind. But when he falls, he braces himself with one arm and because of his body weight, it results in a slower fall.
Instead, Delagrave’s main concerns have to deal with injuries, l ike open sores. He has to keep a careful eye on cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin and tissues beneath it, and bursitis, an inflammation or irritation of small, fluid-filled sacks that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near your joints.
He uses his elbows for throwing and braking, so he protects them with elbow pads. To help his hands, he puts tape on them inside his gloves along with some red rubber for
grip and keeps an eye out for blisters
and open sores.
“From there, making sure that you’re strapped in your chair in a way that you’re not coming out of your chair or something’s not falling out and breaking — a freak accident, like a foot falls out and you break it,” says Delagrave, a 2.0 classification player and Chandler, Ariz., resident. “Just proper strapping and proper covering of where you have hot spots.”
But there are more safety risks than just concussions and pressure sore injuries. For wheelchair rugby players with spinal-cord injuries, temperature regulation is a major concern.
Chris Hull, a 34-year-old Army veteran and Chicago resident who plays for the Chicago Bears and Oscar Mike wheelchair rugby teams, admits he’s nearly had to go to the hospital from heat stroke while playing at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
“I had to lay back. I felt like I was going to pass out. I’ve gotten pretty sick a couple of times just pushing myself to the limit. But I haven’t had to go to the hospital for it,” says Hull, who sustained a C6/7 complete SCI in a car accident in 2004. “Usually, I get to a point where I’m like, ‘OK, this is enough,’ and then I can pull myself out of the game or find a way to pull myself out of the game.”
Now, when Hull plays wheelchair rugby, he brings along his own arsenal of safety equipment.
There’s a gigantic spray bottle filled with cold water to simulate sweat, a four-bag ice vest with custom gel ice packs to cool him down and a handful of small towels.
That’s how he combats autonomic dysreflexia, a condition that occurs when his involuntary nervous system overreacts to external or bodily stimuli.
Autonomic dysreflexia has a wide range of symptoms, including flushed face, sweating above the level of injury, goosebumps below the level of injury, nasal stuffiness and even a slower than normal pulse, according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
“Guys will either overheat or get really cold because they don’t sweat,” Hull says. “So their body temperature really will drop or rise to an uncomfortable point.”
Years ago, Hull’s rehab therapist at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla., suggested he carry a spray bottle to cool himself — especially with the Florida heat. So he made his own
The vest, which Hull purchased on Facebook, was intended to be used as a fat-burning device. But he converted it into a cooling vest, with ice packs in four spots — his chest, back, neck and arms. Hull usually wears the ice vest between each of the four quarters, at halftime and between games to recover his
“The directions actually say to wear it with a sweater. I put it directly, like, on my skin with a tank top on, ’cause there’s points in a game where I could be running a temperature,” says Hull, a 3.0 classification player. “I can actually be above 98.6 [degrees]. I’ve taken my temperature after a game, and I’ve been over 100 [degrees].”
If he’s still not cool enough, Hull says he’ll unstrap himself, get into a comfortable position in his chair and move to a cool area with a fan. If it’s really bad, he’ll lay on the ground or pour ice-cold water over his head.
“Just anything to lower the body temperature,” he says.