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Swapping metal the name of the game in wheelchair rugby

Great Britain's Andrew Barrow, left, gets tangled up in the wheels of Canada's David Willsie during action in the first game of World Wheelchair Rugby match in Richmond September 21, 2010. Canada went on to beat Great Britain 48-41.


Wheelchair rugby existed in virtual obscurity until five years ago, when an Academy Award-nominated documentary with a shocking title thrust an acrimonious rivalry between Canada and the United States into the Hollywood spotlight.

This week, at the 2010 world championship inside the Richmond Olympic Oval, the North American enemies are poised to pen another nasty chapter of murderball, with former U.S. coach Kevin Orr now steering the Canadians.

"There are a few ex-players who don't say anything to me and are a little standoffish," said Orr, adding that the bulk have been understanding. "One of the players I helped get involved in the sport, used to be one of the strongest players on the American side, our relationship has changed since I became the Canadian coach."

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Betrayal and rivalry ran through the 2005 film Murderball, which brought a publicity bonanza to the sport and the athletes with disabilities who play it full-time. Joe Soares, a former American star turned Canadian coach, was detested by some U.S. players, one of several edgy themes, alongside sex and booze, from the MTV-produced documentary that followed both teams in the buildup to the 2004 Paralympics.

The sport was once known as murderball, but as the joke goes, the name scares off corporate sponsors. Murderball the film, however, attracted interest from all sides.

"The disability community gained a greater awareness to say 'Hey, I can do more, I can be more, I can play a hard-nosed sport,' " Orr said. "You show them Murderball, and it's like 'Wow, I want to go hit somebody.' "

Organizers expected more 1,500 spectators through the doors for Day 1 of the tournament Tuesday. In a morning match, Canada defeated Britain 48-41 before hundreds of thunderstick-clapping schoolchildren, their noise only interrupted by the deep thumps and piercing clangs of specialized wheelchairs colliding at speed.

"Swapping metal," as one player called it.

Orr, far more genteel than the abrasive Soares, says the world championship proves that the sport is elite and global, and thus coaching should be elite and global, too. Indeed, Soares is guiding the German side, one of 12 countries participating this week, and many Canadians count American teammates on their club teams.

Players and coaches say the documentary helped participation and, in turn, the quality of play. Miranda Biletski, one of two women on the co-ed Canadian team, learned about wheelchair rugby early in her rehabilitation, while Garett Hickling, chosen MVP of the first three world championships, still competes at age 40, but only after losing more than 40 pounds and giving up drinking and smoking.

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"Garett was almost cut," Orr said. "He's made a big turn."

The sport, played by athletes with functional impairment in at least three limbs, was invented in Winnipeg in 1976, and held its first world championship in 1995. Five years later, it became a medal event at the Paralympic Games. It has heritage designation from the federal government.

It is played on a regulation basketball court, four players aside, with points awarded for pushing both wheels across a touch-line while in possession of a volleyball. Teams have 40 seconds to score or they cede possession.

Much like five years ago, the United States remains the global power, while Canada is still a plucky underdog with an outside chance at an upset. They play Friday.

"It might not be quite as fierce as it was portrayed in Murderball, but nevertheless, it's still there," Canada co-captain Ian Chan said. "There's going to be a lot of emotion in that game."

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About the Author
B.C. sports correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Matthew spearheads the Globe's sports coverage in B.C., and spends most of his time with the NHL Canucks and CFL Lions. He has worked for four dailies and TSN since graduating from Carleton University's School of Journalism a decade ago, and has covered the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Grey Cups, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the NBA Finals. More

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