GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan – Thunderfest was back in action on Saturday to celebrate its ninth annual event.
It was canceled last year due to COVID, but wheelchairs have finally reached the pitch for a rugby match.
“We are super excited to come back to play on the pitch. We’ve had to go through a lot of COVID protocols to be safe, but we’re back, ”said Christy Vanhaver, recreation therapist at Mary Free Bed.
This was a full field for the Grand Rapids Thunder Wheelchair Rugby Team Home Tournament. A big boost in morale following a cancellation last year due to the pandemic.
“They are just super excited,” Vanhaver said. “They were pretty isolated during COVID and weren’t really able to get together with their teams and train, and they really miss that camaraderie and that trip and most of all trying to get over this ‘COVID 15’, you know? They miss that exercise that they do through sports.
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The tournament is part of the American Wheelchair Rugby Association, so it’s all over the country.
There are five Midwestern teams, including two in Michigan – Grand Rapids and Detroit.
Another team is from Ohio, there is a combined team from Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as a group of veterans.
“And they come from all over the place,” Vanhaver said. “I got two guys from the east coast, a guy came from Florida, Illinois, got a guy from Belgium. He works with the Belgian Paralympic rugby team and was returning from a selection camp there.
Fifty athletes will compete in dozens of matches for the ninth annual tournament, hosted by Mary Free Bed.
Vanhaver tells us that single sport helps serve a group of people who haven’t had much success in any other sport.
“So they created wheelchair rugby to say, ‘This is our sport. This is our niche. This is where we can be really good. And we may have a handicap, but we are not fragile. We can snap together.
It really is a chair-to-chair contact sport with a lot of kicking and clicking. This roughness really pushes them to be aggressive and competitive.
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There are some differences from regular rugby besides the chairs.
They play on a basketball court instead of a court, the ball is more like a volleyball, and the game is a combination of soccer and football – in that you move the wheelchair rugby ball over the ground to score.
“It’s four on four,” Vanhaver said. “Each player has a classification according to his handicap and his functional capacities. This group of ranking points cannot exceed eight points at any one time.
That’s why everyone should attend a game to cheer them on because they too are athletes like everyone else.
“We recently took second place at the Paralympic Games, but we are ranked number one in the world for American rugby, and they really take great pride in their sport, to be competitive and to come out like everyone else,” said Vanhaver. .
The tournament continues Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you want to go, it’s at the MSA Fieldhouse on 28th Street in Grand Rapids.
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