Moving on to murderball

Five years after tragic accident, Juneau's Seth McBride now an elite wheelchair rugby athlete

Posted: Sunday, July 31, 2005

Officially, the game is known as quad rugby or wheelchair rugby. In its early days, the sport was called murderball.

Juneau's Seth McBride calls it "organized mayhem."

McBride, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student, earned a spot on one of the U.S. Quad Rugby Association's national teams in late June. This fall, the international-studies major will be going to Rio De Janeiro to participate in some "organized mayhem" Sept. 15-25 at the Tribute to Peace World Wheelchair and Amputee Games.

"It's a whole another world," McBride said of the game. "There's not too many times you get to go out and hit somebody when you're in a wheelchair. The game is a whole lot of fun. And it was my best opportunity to stay active."

McBride has come a long way since July 17, 2000 - a day that's permanently etched into his memory.

A longtime competitive ski racer and budding extreme and freestyle skier, McBride took a summer ski trip to Whistler/Blackcomb ski area in British Columbia. He had been free skiing at Whistler when he went over the jump that would change his life. McBride said he over-rotated and landed on his neck, breaking two vertebrae in his neck.

Since that day, McBride has needed a wheelchair to get around. He spent three months in a Seattle hospital before he was able to return to Juneau so he could finish his senior year at Juneau-Douglas High School. Now he's two quarters away from a college degree and he's about to embark on his first journey with the national team.

"I was looking around on the Internet for sports I could do, and I found the site for the Portland Pounders, which practices close to where I go to school," said McBride, who completed his third year with the team in April, his first as a starter. "I'd never played before, but they had a 2-minute video clip on the Web. I contacted the coach, and he said they practiced in Salem (about halfway between Portland and Eugene) and he'd bring a chair for me to use at the next practice."

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"Seth's development has been pretty incredible," said Portland Pounders coach Ed Suhr, who will be an assistant coach of the U.S. team in Rio. "He's a natural athlete, but he had good instinct and court sense. He knew where to go. He moved up pretty quickly."

McBride was one of 16 quad rugby players to earn spots on two eight-person national teams for the Tribute to Peace event in Rio. He was one of 28 athletes invited to a tryout camp the last weekend of June in Birmingham, Ala. The two U.S. teams were divided evenly, and Suhr said the hope is they wind up playing each other for the gold medal.

"This is just perfect for Seth to get his feet wet in international competition," Suhr said. "He'll get a lot of playing time, and that'll help him build confidence. Seth's grown a bit and he could be in Beijing (2008) or London (2012) for the Paralympics. If he keeps improving, after this tournament he'll definitely be on the radar for the national team coaches."

For someone who hasn't seen the game played, quad rugby is difficult to describe. It's one of the official sports for the Summer Paralympics, and McBride said every athlete has to have some level of impairment to all four of his limbs.

"Pretty much, the only reason it's called rugby is because it's full contact," McBride said. "It's a mishmash of basketball, soccer and hockey."

"It's bumper cars with a ball," Suhr said. "If you look, it's more like hockey with the checking. There are no scrums and no rucks, but the spirit of the game is similar to able-bodied rugby."

Each player has a rating based on his degree of ability - the players with the most impairment are rated at 0.5 and the players with the least impairment are 3.5 (McBride is a 2.0 and Suhr is a 0.5). Each team can put four players on the court at a time, but their combined ratings can't be more than 8.0.

The game is played on a basketball court, and a goal - called the key area - is marked on each end of the court. The players try to advance the ball the length of the court by carrying the ball in their laps while pushing their wheelchairs, but they have to dribble the ball at least once or pass it to a teammate every 10 seconds. Goals, worth one point, are scored when a player gets two wheels of his chair into the key area while in possession of the ball.

Quad rugby was developed by three wheelchair athletes from Winnipeg who wanted to create a quadriplegic alternative to wheelchair basketball. They called the game murderball because of its violent collisions, which can tip athletes over in their chairs.

"It used to be called 'murderball,' but you can't really market 'murderball' to corporate sponsors," U.S. Paralympics Quad Rugby Team player Mark Zupan said in the movie "Murderball," a documentary on the sport that won two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival and opened nationwide this weekend.

The U.S. Quad Rugby Association is hoping the movie will bring exposure to the sport. McBride said most of the filming took place when he was just learning the sports, so he's not in the film. McBride said he's hoping to meet with the owner of the Gold Town Nickelodean to get a screening of the movie in Juneau.

McBride has had a lot of success on the court with his new sport, including winning a Division II national title with the Portland Pounders in 2004. But one of the biggest benefits was how the sport helped him make the transition into life after his accident.

"After my accident I had no trunk strength," said McBride, who is able to drive a hand-controlled car and take 15- to 20-mile rides in his handcycle during the summer. "I think I was able to start doing stuff again. And it helped me with my strength so I could do everyday stuff, like make my transfers. I've always been an outdoors person, and I was able to work and be active like that."

"For everybody, quad rugby is good for building strength and endurance," Suhr said. "It gives guys an opportunity to explore their new bodies. And it exposes them to similar folks, especially now that insurance cuts people off so early in rehab. ... Seth's learned a lot by watching other people in wheelchairs."

The athletes selected for the Tribute to Peace event in Rio are having to raise most of their own money, and McBride said he's raised about half of the $4,000 he needs. He expects the trip to Rio to cost about $3,000, plus he'll have had to raise another $1,000 to participate in three training camps in Birmingham. He said the Southeast Panhandler's motorcycle club raised about $1,000 for him and he's been trying to find corporate sponsors.

"I've gotten about half of what I need, and the $4,000 doesn't really cover the spare parts I need to have," said McBride, who plans to attend the U.S. tryouts in November for the World Championships team.

The U.S. Quad Rugby Association has set up a system so people can make tax-deductible donations to support Team USA and local athletes such as McBride. Donations can be made to USQRA Treasurer John Ershek, 1179 Simms Height Rd., Kingston Springs, Tenn., 37082. In the memo section of the check, write Seth McBride/RIO 2005. Interested doners can call McBride at 789-3624 to arrange a donation.

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