Refusing to be defined by twist of fate

Ireland’s wheelchair rugby athletes put everything on the line to reach European Championships

Refusing to be defined by twist of fate

Outside the gym doors, two men in wheelchairs blow cigarette smoke towards the sky. They don’t share as much as a glance, never mind a word. Maybe it’s the language barrier. Maybe you don’t converse with the enemy. Or maybe they are too nervous as from inside you can hear a tuxedoed announcer doing a Michael Buffer impression as he winds up a colourful crowd of a few hundred.

“For the thousands in attendance and the millions watching around the world,” he booms in an accent tinged with Meath, “let’s get ready to rumble.”

With that the two men fling their butts at the ground and head for the doors, still shy of both that word and that glance.

One is dressed in an Irish tracksuit, the other in the red of the Czech Republic. They are two of the four sides competing in qualifiers for the European Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Gormanston College that conclude today, but here and now they are heading for the opening ceremony.

“A lot of organisation has gone into this,” Nicky Hamill, director of sport at the Irish Wheelchair Association, says. “There are little things; accessibility is an issue in hotels for example. But we plan so much and this is something we started planning as far back as the Paralympics.”

You can’t plan for everything though, and as good a job as he’s done, perhaps the most touching moment is one of spontaneity. Each nation is led out by a child carrying a national flag, but the boy in front of the Italian team is also in a wheelchair and panics when he thinks he’s too slow to lead the line and veers off course. Knowing it’s the boy’s moment, the Italian captain ushers him back and waits until he’s good and ready. An action of gentle generosity but the action that follows is nothing short of ferocious.

The equipment draping the sidelines is like a cross between the Tour de France and Robot Wars. Wrenches, tool boxes and metal wheels are stacked for the many repairs that will be needed throughout the four eight-minute quarters.

Out on the floor it’s like bumper cars without the rubber as this is the only full-contact wheelchair sport. You cringe as the first few hits create the gnawing scrape of metal on metal and you never get used to seeing someone being flung through the air and onto the ground by the collisions.

For a while you wonder about the rugby analogy as it’s hugely technical in a basketballesque sense but when a full speed break is followed by the slightest swerve to avoid a massive tackle to get across the line, you get it.

But this is a sport that’s every bit as much about the competitors as the game itself. None of them want pity, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hear their stories.

“It’s hard to get awareness out there,” says manager Stuart McLindon, choked up by Ireland’s last-second 40-39 loss to the Czech Republic.

“The Paralympics gave it a boost but it’s hard as a lot of people don’t know if they are eligible because you have to have impairment in four limbs. Mentally though, it is a huge part of rehabilitation for people. They’ll all tell you that, it’s important in so many ways.”

“They” comprise of a 10-man and two-woman squad, with Garrett Culliton from Clonaslee in Laois still an integral part of the team having introduced the sport to Ireland in 1997. His late father Gerry had lined out at lock for Ireland 19 times, and once for the Barbarians in 1961, and Garrett was doing no more than following in his footsteps when playing for Wanderers 21 years ago.

“I broke my neck in Naas. It was just an awkward tackle. That was the way it was, so then I got involved in wheelchair sport. I was competing in athletics in Stoke and came across wheelchair rugby. We started here but in 1998 I went to America and played with a team we called the Chicago Bears. I learned a lot more and brought it back. That helped to move it on but it was very hard to get people. For a long time there were eight players in the entire country. But now we’ve got a good squad and it’s growing.”

Culliton didn’t just introduce the sport but introduced others to it. One of those was Portlaoise’s Ger Scully, who he contacted in hospital after a car accident one morning outside Shannonbridge.

“To get back up is a mammoth task but at the end of the day I need to function as a father and a parent,” says Scully.

“I think it’s unfortunate if people put their life on hold. I can’t emphasise what rugby has done for me.

“When I started playing, my dad had to come up with me every Wednesday for training and take all of his day off. He’d drive me, get me out of the car, the lot. Now I can drive up and down on my own and get in and out of the car on my own. That’s what rugby has done for me. It’s given me serious independence.”

This is the upside but there are no ways and no reason to pamper and pad defining moments like that of captain Alan Lynch from Ardee, who fell out of a tree in 1997 and broke two bones in his neck aged 14. “When you are a kid, you don’t think about the stuff you do. I was always doing mad dangerous stuff. If I was 14 again and in here, I’d be climbing across that rafter,” he says pointing at the beams 25-feet up. “There are obviously a few down days but feeling sorry for yourself ain’t going to help.”

There are no ways to get around the horrific accident involving Ciara Staunton either, who celebrated her 21st birthday in rehab after a freak moment six years ago. “It was a miserable, miserable night out and me and my boyfriend at the time were coming back from my brother’s house. He said he’d drive as I had work early the next day. I was in the passenger seat and a tree was rotten and got blown down on the car. Just the luck you have. I’ve no memory of it, but I got knocked into the back and the roof came in on top of me. I’ve to drive past that every time I go to my brother’s so I do have moments where I just say, ‘Fuck it’. You’ve moments but you can’t dwell on it. You have to choose to get on with it.”

While Scully talked about how the physicality got him hooked, 19-year-old Alan ‘Leggy’ Dineen shows how the physicality got him hooked. On the court he is the ultimate competitor, nearly coming to blows with an opponent on several occasions.

From Togher in Cork, he was born with brittle bones and has been in a chair since he was four. “You get people being patronising, thinking it’s nice we play sport. Then they come along and see me,” he laughs.

“People often say, ‘well done for getting out, aren’t you great to be on a team’,” adds Staunton, a swimmer before her accident. “But my life revolves around the gym, eating and sleeping right for this, travelling the world to play games. We are athletes first, in a wheelchair second.”

“There are other upsides too,” concludes Scully. “I talk to guys from other countries about medicines and chair stuff, to make sure we are all up to date. But look, my neck is still broken. The signals that go to my muscles are still broken. Do I think back and regret I was in the car? Course I do. Sometimes I think I’ve let me whole family down and no matter what there’ll be a certain amount of blame. But mentally this has helped. This is about manipulation of what you have left and the ability to manipulate the last bit of skill you have. It’s just been so good to me and you know, my daughter Ellen, she’s eight, she’ll be a mascot on Saturday. That’s something I cannot wait for.”

He smiles at the thought and while to call it a happy ending would be misleading, at least it’s stopped all of their accidents being an ending. Wheelchair rugby won’t make life what it was but it’s making life the best it can possibly be.

Picture: WHEN WE COLLIDE: Ireland’s Garrett Culliton under pressure during the Wheelchair Rugby European Qualifying Championships at Gormanston College in Meath. Picture: INPHO

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