After missing the United States’ morning matches because he was competing in the cycling event, Varela’s early try-scoring spree helped lift his team to a victory – and even more importantly, the defending gold-medal winners, into the tournament’s semifinals
By John Groth
Henry Varela (right) blocks his opponent during a wheelchair rugby match against Team Italy at the 2017 Invictus Games. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)
TORONTO – Boy, did Team USA’s wheelchair rugby team rebound in the 2017 Invictus Games with Hector Varela on the court.
After missing the United States’ morning matches because he was competing in the cycling event, Varela’s early try-scoring spree helped lift his team to a victory – and even more importantly, the defending gold-medal winners, into the tournament’s semifinals.
A Navy veteran, Varela scored three of Team USA’s first five tries as the United States defeated Italy 26-16 in its final Group A preliminary round match at the Mattay Athletic Centre in Toronto.
With the win, the U.S. (2-1) moved out of a tie with Italy for the second qualifying group spot and will face Denmark (3-0), from Group B, in an 6 p.m. ET semifinal match Thursday. Australia (2-1) will meet the United Kingdom (3-0) in the early 5 p.m. semifinal. The bronze medal game will be at 8:15 p.m. ET and the gold medal game will be at 9:15 p.m. ET.
Ryan Major (left) and Anthony McDaniel (middle) block their opponent during a wheelchair rugby match against Team Italy at the 2017 Invictus Games. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)
After a rough morning that included a 19-14 loss to the United Kingdom, a forfeit win over France, whose team couldn’t make it, and an exhibition 18-17 loss to Team Ontario – a last-minute replacement for France comprised of members from a local wheelchair rugby team – Team USA recovered with a dominant performance over Italy.
Team USA’s Anthony McDaniel, who scored 11 tries against Italy, thought Varela provided a nice boost.
“We missed Hector due to cycling this morning. He’s a big part of our team. He helps spread the floor out. It gives us another threat on the court offensively and defensively. To have him back this last game definitely helped us out a lot,” said McDaniel, a Marine Corps veteran and a double above-the-knee amputee who was injured in Afghanistan in 2010 in an IED blast. “We was able to do a lot of things that we were working on at practice, you know, and preparing ourselves for the tournament and just to have him back on the court, you know, it really did us well.”
The Invictus Games reached their halfway point Wednesday, as more than 550 athletes from 17 countries competed in wheelchair rugby, archery, cycling and sitting volleyball events. Established in 2014 by Prince Harry, the Invictus Games is the only international adaptive sporting event for wounded, ill and injured active duty and veteran service members.
The wheelchair rugby preliminaries were a little different than its normal competition. At the Invictus Games, the wheelchair rugby prelims were played in two 10-minute halves with a running clock during each half. The clock only stopped after tries are scored.
Athletes are grouped into three categories – maximum, medium and lower. Maximum players are the athletes with the highest level of physical impairment and equal one point on the court. Medium players have mid-level function and equal two points, while lower players have minor or non-visible disabilities or illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder and equal three points. The maximum number of points for each team on the court at one time is eight points.
Usually, wheelchair rugby is played in four 10-minute quarters and athletes have classification levels every .5 points.
With Varela in the lineup, the U.S. scored off defensive steals more and had more offensive options. Besides Varela and McDaniel, the U.S. team features Army veterans Ryan Major, James Pradke and William Reynolds, Special Operations Command veteran Ivan Castro, Navy veterans Nate DeWalt and Henry Sawyer, Marine Corps veterans Brian Scarbrough and Ivan Sears and Air Force veteran Jesse Graham, Tiana Lopez and Jason Caswell.
‘It’s about getting the lineups, the chemistry together. People have to fill in, next man up,” McDaniel said. “But when you’ve got a guy his size that’s able to catch and he’s a decent pusher as well, you’ve got to respect his game and it just opens it up for the rest of the team.”
For more information and results, visit results.invictus2017.com