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Thunderfest wheelchair rugby tournament returns to Grand Rapids after nearly two years

The tournament was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. More than 50 athletes competed in a dozen matches, with teams from all over the country.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — Thunderfest returned to Grand Rapids this weekend. The wheelchair rugby tournament pitted teams from all over the country against one another in about a dozen matches. This year's event was held at the MSA Fieldhouse and hosted by Mary Free Bed.

"There's a misnomer that if you have a disability, you're fragile," said Christy Vanhaver, tournament director, "to them, it's really great to be crashing into each other and feel that aggressiveness of a contact sport."

According to the Grand Rapids Thunder team coach, wheelchair rugby is the only Paralympic sport designed specifically for wheelchair users. It does not have an able-bodied equivalent. 

Wheelchair rugby, also known as 'quad rugby' or 'murderball,' is a very high contact sport. The players are constantly ramming their specifically designed wheels into one another. 

"This is a $7,000 titanium chair," said Nick Long, Grand Rapids Thunder coach and player, "it's designed to take hits." 

Long said 19 years ago, he dove off a boat into shallow water, causing his injuries. A year later, he found wheelchair rugby. 

Credit: 13 OYS
Grand Rapids Thunder wheelchair rugby team played their rivals, Detroit's team, in Thunderfest.

"There's a downhill when you first get hurt," said Long, "and things that help you get up the hill. I’d say rugby probably has been the number one thing that let me climb back up that hill."

Without a tournament last year due to the pandemic, Long said it was tough to stay motivated to exercise. Now, he said it is "awesome to get back out and play."

Long shares his love of the sport with his teammates, as he encourages anyone who qualifies for adaptive sports to try it out. 

"I love seeing new players experience the impact, literally and figuratively, of the sport," said Long. "It's good to see someone come out, and the newly injured, who can barely push their chair. Then, two years later, they're excelling and playing at a national level." 

The Grand Rapids team ended up taking home fourth place in the tournament this weekend.

Credit: 13 OYS
Coach Nick Long leads his team in a huddle during a timeout.

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