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"Wheelchair Rugby," A 40th anniversary APR encore presentation

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Alabama Public Radio is celebrating forty years on the air in 2022. The APR news team is diving into our archives to bring you encore airings of the best of our coverage. That includes this story from 2015. That was when APR was spotlighting adapted athletics at the University of Alabama. News Director Pat Duggins produced this feature on wheelchair rugby and the role a training center in Birmingham has in preparing these athletes.

Here at the recreation center at the University of Alabama, the crimson tide’s men’s wheelchair basketball team is playing the Orlando magic from Florida. Like conventional basketball, there’s dribbling, passing, and the occasional foul—all of played from wheelchairs. And, there are fans too, to cheer the team on including Javalla Hardy of Tuscaloosa…

“Actually, we went to the movie theater last Monday night, and there were six of the players that were there at the theater, and they were as nice as they could be, so we thought we’d come out and support them,” she said.

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Fans of another sport for disabled athletes say that’s all well and good…they prefer something a little rougher…

Welcome to wheelchair rugby…

“I can’t tell you how many people i’ve come into the gym,” said Bryan Kirkland. He’s a champion wheelchair rugby player. “And they’re walking by to go to the bleachers and somebody hits, and, I see em about come out of their shoes, and they go ‘oh, my god!’”

Kirkland is also a paralympian. He and team USA brought back gold and bronze medals for wheelchair rugby at the paralympic games in Athens, Sydney, and Beijing. One of his teammates was Bob Lujano…

“One of the things we love the spinal cord injury people to tell them is ‘what’s the worst things that’s gonna happen? I’m gonna break our necks again?’” said Lujano.

Lujano and Kirkland’s team is called the Lakeshore Demolition. Team coach Mitch Watkins explains how the game is played…

“I would say it’s a little of a combination between football, rugby, and hockey, and a little bit of basketball,” he said. “You got rules from all sports, because you play on a basketball court, but you can also get a penalty where you can serve time in the box.”

Lujano and Kirkland both play from wheelchairs. Lujano is a quadruple amputee. He lost his forearms and legs to a blood disease when he was a teenager. Bryan Kirkland injured his neck competing motocross. But don’t call him disabled…

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“People are not going to tie my shoes for me or put my clothes or tie my shoes for me, I’m doing it. And I did it,” he insisted.

That philosophy isn’t unique where Kirkland, Lujano, and hundreds of disabled athletes come to train.

This is the Lakeshore Foundation, nestled in a wooded area next to Samford University in Birmingham. Paralympians, disabled members of the military and even children with disabilities come here for exercise or to train for competition. And the one thing patients don’t hear is the phrase…you can’t do this…

“You don’t hear that around here, that’s for sure,” said Jeff Underwood. He’s president and CEO of Lakeshore. He says disabled patients usually aren’t the problem—it’s the people around them…

“They just don’t want these folks to get hurt, again. They tend to do everything for them, take care of them. They say ‘let me do that for you, I’ll take care of you, don’t do that, you might hurt yourself…”

The Lakeshore Foundation is a non-profit group that takes in four thousand people year—twenty percent of which compete for medals or championships. It’s also one of only five paralympic training sites in the nation. Underwood says that took work, mainly because of politics with the Olympics committee.

“Every time we started getting traction with the leadership, there was some controversy, some kind of scandal, some reason key leaders left and we’d have to start all over again,” he stated.

The 1996 games in Atlanta was the first to feature wheelchair rugby. That led to future games in Athens, London, and here in Beijng…

Since then, both Bryan Kirkland and Bob Lujano have hung up their medals and their paralympic careers. But that doesn’t mean they’re on the sidelines…

The demolition is the club team for wheelchair rugby at lakeshore. The wheelchairs for rugby are similar to those for basketball. Most notably, the wheels are angled in, and there’s no back rest. Oh, and, there’s one more thing. Rugby wheelchairs are covered with armor. And there are plenty of dents from the banging that goes on. We caught up with Bob Lujano as he strapped himself in for game…

“Uh yeah, there are sideguards to protect the spokes when we slam into each other. Some have a ram rod in the front to hit other chairs,” Lujano explained.

Bryan Kirkland and lakeshore demolition won five national championships, along with his paralympic medals. Kirkland also became the first adapted athlete in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Kirkland admits someday he needs to slow down…

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“I basically accomplished everything…all my goals, my dreams. I wanted to win a national championship...check. I wanted to win a world championship…check. I wanted to win paralympic gold…check.”

But, he spends a lot of time at lakeshore—and that will include offering advice to the next round of paralympians who will fight for a spot on team USA for the Rio games in 2016. And serve as an example for other disabled athletes… tomorrow, a little piece of Sochi, Russia comes to Birmingham. The winter paralympic games are starting up, and fans will gather to watch, and cheer, and dream of the upcoming summer games in Rio.

You can hear all of our APR fortieth anniversary features by going to our website, at apr.org.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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