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‘Murderball’ – National Wheelchair Rugby Team trains at UTSC

David Willsie, left, and Patrice Dagenais duke it on on court.

There seems to be a misconception that campus is quiet during the summer. But during the week of July 11-15, there was plenty of action going on at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC).

While the Meeting Place in the Science Wing was converted into a movie set for the filming of ”Total Recall”, the back gym of the Athletic Centre became home to the Canadian National Wheelchair Rugby Team, who spent a full week on campus for training camp.

Wheelchair rugby is nothing like the sport of rugby played by able-bodied athletes and is played indoors on a hardwood court. Developed in Canada in 1977, the game was originally called murderball.

“Throw everything you know about rugby out the door,” says co-captain and long-time team member David Willsie, 43. “The only thing that’s similar about it is that it’s full contact.”

Full contact, indeed.  The game is an extremely physical one (hence the original name of murderball) and the players don’t wear any equipment.

“It looks like a rough sport but you have a lot of belts and straps to keep you in your chair,” says team member Patrice ‘Pico’ Dagenais. “It looks worse than it is. If you’re scared of getting hit, you shouldn’t play.”

Bumps and bruises are par for the course, but according to Willsie, the chairs take most of the abuse. A seasoned athlete, Willsie was injured in 1995 during a recreational tournament hockey game. He started playing wheelchair rugby in 1997 and made the National Team just one year later.

As for 26-year-old Pico, he was injured in a construction accident during a summer job in 2004, falling from the second floor to the basement. While doing rehab in Ottawa, the local wheelchair rugby team convinced him to give the sport a try. After a year and a half of rehab, he did. This training camp at UTSC is his first time making the top-12.

Pico credits guys like Willsie, who have been playing for a long time, for helping to give him the tricks and skills he needs to feel independent.

“If you’re a really competitive guy, this is a great way to get that spirit back,” he says. “When you play wheelchair rugby, you don’t feel like you’re disabled.”

Coach Kevin Orr, who is also in a wheelchair, made it clear that the chair is a piece of equipment that helps – not hinders.

“The thing wheelchair rugby players do is show people what they can do. It’s all about ability – not disability. And that’s inspiring in itself.”

They’ll be back

If Coach Orr has his way, the team will be back on campus more frequently.

“Going to a new community is great exposure for the sport and I’d like to come back to UTSC for sure. It’s been a good fit for us,” he says. “You have a dorm that’s 100 metres away and great food services. Now if we can get wheelchair rugby in the Parapan American Games, it would be a really good fit to get it going here.”

“The facilities are great,” Willsie says. “There’s lots of room around the sidelines, which is great for us. Plus staying in the residence [Foley Hall] means transportation isn’t an issue. And all of the meals have been top-shelf, which isn’t easy because we have certain criteria for our menu. They’ve gone out of their way to accommodate us.”

 Heidi Calder, Assistant Director of Athletics, who was instrumental in bringing the team to UTSC, is working to ensure that the new athletic facility being built on campus for the Pan Am Games is accessible to all athletes.

“We’re working with an accessibility consultant to make sure that we haven’t forgotten anything and Tina Doyle, the Director of AccessAbility Services, is also involved,” says Calder.

More on the new UTSC Athletics Facility

Want to see what wheelchair rugby looks like? View this video of the Canadian team scrimmaging in the gym. 

© University of Toronto Scarborough