U.S. Team Plays Killer Version

of Rugged Wheelchair Rugby

By Karen Allen: USA TODAY October 25, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- When it was invented almost 30 years ago, wheelchair rugby was called murderball. Today, the name is more polite, but the game is the same.

Eight athletes -- four to a side -- who are quadriplegics, bash each other's wheelchairs, set jarring picks and screens and sprint up and down a basketball court in a mad dash to cross a goal line. It's part basketball, part hockey, part rugby and football, and a whole lot of bumper-car action. ''We would have loved to have stuck with murderball as a name, but somehow, we had trouble finding people to play it,'' says U.S. team leader John Bishop. ''Seems like the name was scaring people away. It is a rough game, but we don't actually kill people -- a few bruises and scrapes come out of it, and sometimes a concussion if someone goes over and hits their head on the floor,'' Bishop says.

The sport is coed, but no women made this U.S. team. Teams score by carrying a ball similar to a volleyball over a goal line or key. The key is a rectangular box almost two yards deep and a little more than eight yards long, marked on the floor under the basket. To get to the goal line or key, players may dribble or pass -- and teammates try to clear a path by blocking or picking defenders. Defenders use any means possible to stop the ball carrier from crossing the goal line but can be sent to the penalty box for flagrant fouls, holding or for hitting in the back of the wheels, deliberately sending a chair into an uncontrolled spin. ''There's nothing more exciting than a big hit -- you love to deliver the hit, and you love to take it,'' says Ralph Shadowens, 41, the oldest member of the team.

All the players are ranked from .5 to 3.5, according to the amount of mobility and dexterity they have in their chests and hands.

Coaches cannot exceed an accumulated 8.0 for the players on court at one time. ''We have a real advantage, because we go 12 deep,'' says coach Reggie Richner. ''I can put a power lineup in, I can put ahitting lineup in or I can put a finesse lineup in. We play 94 feet of pressure, and I like to think we can do whatever it takes to win. With our depth, we can wear people down in every way.''

Shadowens, who was paralyzed in a 1989 auto accident, is a 1.0, near the bottom range of motion, which makes him a defender or enforcer, a kind of Dick Butkus of wheelchair rugby. The team's youngest member, Cliff Chunn, 22, who was paralyzed by a neurological disease when he was a toddler, is a 2.0, which makes him a Barry Sanders type. ''He can move his torso, so he can lean in one direction and turn on a dime,'' Bishop says. Chunn, a junior at the University of Alabama, who started his sports career as a wheelchair tennis player, says he works on his strength and speed by doing weight training and pushing his wheelchair up and down the hills of Tuscaloosa. ''Strength is important, and cardiovascular endurance,'' he says. ''But the biggest thing is the teamwork. And that's what I love about the sport -- the camaraderie and working together.''

The U.S. national team is a wheelchair rugby powerhouse. The Americans never have lost a tournament since international play began in 1990 and have lost only two games in international play. One loss came to another U.S. team in a split-squad matchup in 1996, the other to Australia in last year's World Games in Christchurch, New Zealand. The U.S. won gold in Atlanta when the sport was an exhibition sport, and is the top seed here as the sport makes its medal debut.

But the path to gold isn't unchallenged. Two years ago, Australia hired U.S. coach Terry Vinyard away, taking the man who had built the U.S. program and led its Atlanta victory. The USA opens against No. 8-seed Switzerland today and faces the fifth-seeded Aussies in its second game Thursday. ''They won't be playing like a fifth seed. They'll rise above it. Terry will have them ready for us,'' Richner says. ''And do we have a special reason for wanting to beat them? In a word -- yes.''