Wheelchair rugby tournament back in Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan – Thunderfest was back in action on Saturday, celebrating its ninth annual event.

It was canceled last year due to COVID, but wheelchairs finally came onto the pitch for a rugby game.

“We’re really looking forward to playing on the pitch again. We had to do lots of COVID logs to be sure, but we’re back, ”said Christy Vanhaver, recreational therapist at Mary Free Bed.

It was a full seat for the Grand Rapids Thunder Wheelchair Rugby team’s home tournament. A big morale boost after being canceled last year due to the pandemic.

“You’re just super excited,” said Vanhaver. “They were pretty isolated during COVID and couldn’t really get together and train with their teams, and they really miss this camaraderie and these trips and most of all trying to work off the ‘COVID 15’, you know? They miss this exercise that they get through sport. “

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The tournament is part of the US Wheelchair Rugby Association, so across the country.

There are five teams from the Midwest, including two in Michigan – Grand Rapids and Detroit.

Another team is from Ohio, there is a combined team from Minnesota and Wisconsin and also a veteran group.

“And they come from all over the place,” said Vanhaver. “I took two guys from the east coast, we had a guy from Florida, Illinois, a guy from Belgium. He works with the Belgian Paralympic Rugby Team and came back from a selection camp. “

Fifty athletes will compete in dozens of games for the ninth annual tournament hosted by Mary Free Bed.

Vanhaver tells us that this unique sport helps a group of people who have not been very successful in any other sport.

“So they created wheelchair rugby to say, ‘This is our sport. This is our niche. We can be really good at that. And we may have a disability, but we are not fragile. We can crash together. ‘”

It’s a chair-to-chair contact sport with a lot of hammering and slamming. This roughness really drives them to be aggressive and competitive.

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Apart from the chairs, there are a few differences to normal rugby.

You’re playing on a basketball court instead of a field, the ball is more like volleyball and the game is a combination of soccer and football – moving the wheelchair rugby ball around the court to score.

“It’s four against four,” said Vanhaver. “Every player has a classification based on their disability and functional ability. This group of classification points must not exceed eight points at any time. “

Therefore everyone should treat themselves to a game to cheer them on, because they are athletes like everyone else.

“We took second place in the Paralympics recently, but we’re number one in the world for rugby in the US and they are really very proud of their sport and that they are competitive and like everyone else out there.” said Vanhaver.

The tournament continues on Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you’re in the mood, you can find it at the MSA Fieldhouse on 28th Street in Grand Rapids.

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