01 December 2009

Something special (and loud) about wheelchair rugby

Monday, November 30th, 2009 | 12:56 am

Canwest News Service

Some call it murderball, but to 15-year-old Nathan Bragg, it's a chance to showcase his athleticism while playing a full-contact sport in his wheelchair.

"For me, one of the things I absolutely love about [wheelchair] rugby is the contact," Bragg said. "I've never had the opportunity to do that before I started playing."

"The hits are pretty loud, usually quite a loud clang of metal. I've gone over a few times, but I just get up afterwards."

Still Bragg, who has cerebral palsy, said it's not as dangerous as it seems. His teammates, some of whom are quadriplegic, try to convince Bragg's mother Sheena of the sport's safety by asking, "What's the worst that can happen, I break my neck?"

Bragg started playing wheelchair rugby two years ago after being introduced to the sport at the BC Wheelchair Sports Association's junior sports camp.

Each summer, the association runs one-week day camps — some in partnership with the Easter Seals — in the Lower Mainland, Squamish, the Okanagan Valley and on Vancouver Island.

Children get to try their hand at tennis, curling, rugby, track and field, dodgeball, sledge hockey, floor hockey and basketball.

The Vancouver Sun Children's Fund provides 30 per cent of the camps' budget every year, which helps buy new equipment, rent facilities and subsidize transportation to get the youth to camp and back.

"It's really critical. Without that funding we wouldn't be able to ship chairs around the province, rent the facility and pay for the transportation," said program manager Kevin Bowie.

"[Sports] gives [children] a well-round, well-balanced lifestyle. We really try to give them all the same opportunities that an able-bodied child has," he said.

"They get to play with kids who have different disabilities, so they become a little bit more self-aware and a little bit more self-confident."

There was special inspiration for camp participants this summer with visits from Paralympic hopefuls like Darryl Neighbour, a member of Canada's national curling team.

As for Bragg, it wasn't until a wheelchair basketball team played at his school four years ago that he realized he could be playing competitive sports and winning trophies just like the other children in his class. So he joined the camp.

"Sports are my big passion," he said. "I could name every single team in every major sports league since I was nine years old, but I could never play any actual sports."

After developing his own athletic abilities over the past four years, Bragg is looking to take a leadership role at camp next summer.

"There's some kids I see now and I think, 'That guy is just like me when I was 10 or 11,'" Bragg said. "I could see . . . that he would get frustrated at the same things that I would get frustrated at and I thought I should give back and help other people like me."

When he's not smashing and crashing into his rugby teammates, Bragg spends his time on the basketball court doing circles around other athletes.

Bragg, who lives in Maple Ridge, is on the B.C. Provincial Junior Team and is focused on snagging a spot in the Canada Games being held in Halifax in 2011. And maybe even future Paralympics.


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