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In December 2019, after a grueling five-day tryout, including three practice sessions a day, Liz Dunn got the news she had been working hard for years to finally hear: She had made the training squad for the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team.
That made her the only woman on this year’s squad, only the second woman in history to make the team and the first to make it in a Paralympic year. This puts Dunn in a position to be the first female wheelchair rugby player on the U.S. team in the Paralympics, which are held every four years just after and in the same location as the Olympics.
Dunn’s participation in sports started early with YMCA youth soccer at age 6. She eventually joined a traveling team and made varsity in high school. But it wasn’t just organized sports Dunn excelled at, she was into hiking, kayaking, running and going to the gym. Later, she developed a particular love for snowboarding — riding the slopes of western New York two to three times a week.
Adapting and Thriving
In 2010, however, a car accident broke her neck, resulting in a spinal cord injury. Dunn, now a full-time wheelchair user with limited mobility in her core and arms, explains, “the accident didn’t change my passion for sports and being active, but it did make me adapt to find new ways to participate.”
Since the accident, Dunn has participated in a number of adaptive sports — which are recreational and competitive sports adapted for disabled people and include handcycling, kayaking and sit-skiing.
In 2013 a female friend took her to a wheelchair rugby practice. Dunn says she found it “a bit intimidating” at first, and it’s no wonder. Played on a basketball court in specially reinforced chairs that are custom made for each player, wheelchair rugby is a full contact sport that sees participants ramming into members of the opposing team at blazing speed, sometimes completely tipping each other over.
In a reminder of how important representation is, Dunn recalls, “the more practices I went to, the more I fell in love with playing. There aren’t many women in the sport, so (my friend) had a big impact on me sticking with it. I’m not sure that I would have played if I was the only girl at first.”
In 2014, while attending graduate school, Dunn began playing for the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, but with school as a priority, she was only able to attend a couple tournaments. After graduation, she upped her commitment to five to six tournaments a year.
Community Among Teammates
Dunn says that wheelchair rugby has been much more than a way to be active, she says it gave her the opportunity to “learn from others about not only the sport, but about life with a spinal cord injury in general. These injuries are life-changing, so to have teammates that have been living with spinal cord injuries or other disabilities is incredibly helpful. They can give you all sorts of tips that help with daily living, travel and so much more. Playing rugby has opened up opportunities I never thought would be possible.”
One of those opportunities came in 2017 when two players for the U.S. national team (Chuck Aoki and Joe Delagrave) reached out to Dunn to ask if she might be interested in playing at a higher level. While she had been around the sport for three years, she had only been competing seriously for about a year and was “still very much a beginner.” Still, she knew that she had to accept the opportunity.
Her first tryout in 2018 was eye-opening for Dunn, who says, “it was obvious that I was in over my head. I had no idea what I was doing. It was a great learning experience and really opened my eyes to how different things were at that level.”
She didn’t make the team in 2018 or 2019, but she hadn’t expected to — she knew going in that she still had a lot to learn. But she began taking every opportunity that came her way to learn and improve her skills, and in the fall of 2019 she transferred to play with the Texas Stampede team in Austin, Texas. Dunn knew that playing with a U.S. Quad Rugby Association Division I team with multiple National Championships would give her more experience playing at a higher level. She believes that experience is what led her to making the 2020 U.S. Paralympic training team.
The first training camp started in January 2020, with another in March. While Dunn is one of two rookies, and the only woman on the team, she says “everyone makes me feel welcome. We all want to see each other succeed both on and off the court.” While there are 16 players selected for the practice team, only 12 will travel to the Paralympic Games. With practices on hold during the current pandemic, Dunn’s dreams are on hold as well until practices resume and the roster is finalized.
Dealing With Ableism
There are some downsides to Dunn’s sport, like those high-speed hits. “You’ll hear a lot of people say how after they got hit in a rugby chair for the first time they were hooked,” she says. “I’m actually not the biggest fan of hitting. It doesn’t bother me, of course. It is a necessary part of the game, but I don’t look forward to big hits. Probably because I’m so petite and can get hit into bad positions pretty easily. It just means I have to play that much smarter to avoid getting hit and causing a turnover or foul.”
Dunn experiences ableism every day: “strangers asking what’s wrong with me, speaking to my friends or family instead of me, telling me ‘I hope you get better soon’ and coming up behind me and pushing me.” If you’re not sure why this is an issue, ask yourself if you would silently walk behind a stranger, pick them up and move them.
People also send her what’s termed “inspiration porn,” a term coined by disability activist Stella Young, who explains “I use the term porn deliberately because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.'”
Dunn notes that “the majority of people are very unfamiliar with adaptive sports.” And they often underestimate the competitiveness of sports. “We train just as hard as any athlete and want to win just as bad. I absolutely love participating in sports, so I don’t let it stop me, but it can be frustrating to deal with.”
A Male-Dominated Sport
And blazing a trail as a female athlete in a male-dominated sport isn’t always easy. While there are about 600 wheelchair rugby athletes in the U.S., Dunn says, “my best guess is that there are maybe 30 females total, and even fewer that travel regularly with a team for tournaments.”
Dunn has found that “females aren’t always taken seriously, which can make getting started more difficult.” And while some teams are very welcoming to female athletes, others have never had a female athlete and so treat the sport “very much so like a ‘boys club.'” She’s even seen articles referring to “Men’s Wheelchair Rugby,” when, in fact, it’s a co-ed sport. Those things can deter new female players from trying out the sport at all. She points out that “the vast majority of athletes are incredibly welcoming of females in the sport.” And while women aren’t a common sight in the sport just yet, Dunn hopes that most teams will be co-ed in the next few years.
Dunn’s road to the games hit a detour when, along with the Olympics, the Paralympics (which were planned for this summer in Tokyo) were postponed due to coronavirus, leaving Dunn and her teammates with “more questions than answers.” The training team includes 16 players, but only 12 will travel to the game so until practices start back up and the game are re-scheduled, Dunn won’t know if she’s made the final team.
In the meantime, she says “we have been getting together virtually almost weekly. It has been difficult being away from everyone and unable to play. I’m really looking forward to when we can finally be together again, whenever that may be.”
You can follow Dunn (@lizdunn) and USA wheelchair rugby (@usawr) on Instagram.
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Wheelchair Rugby Player Blazing a New Trail to the Paralympics originally appeared on usnews.com