Juneau's Seth McBride set to join Paralympic team in China

U.S. wheelchair rugby team favored to take gold in Beijing

Posted: Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Broken ribs. Separated shoulders. Concussions.

Susy Lafferty / Juneau Empire
Susy Lafferty / Juneau Empire

Juneau's Seth McBride knows first-hand why his sport is still called murderball on sweat-slicked, rubber-scuffed gym floors around the country.

An afternoon of elite-level "wheelchair rugby" just has a way of making the game's original name feel closer to the truth.

"People don't expect the physicality, and it can be really impressive when you see it in person," McBride said. "It surprises people how fast and really athletic it is."

A 2001 graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School, McBride has been bruising his mark on the game in tournaments from New Zealand to Brazil since he began playing in 2003. He credits the game for keeping him active after a 2001 skiing accident broke two vertebrate in his neck.

Now, the 25-year-old is planning to hit the hardwood as a matter of patriotic duty. McBride will join the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team as they take on the world at the Paralympic Games in Beijing on September 6-17.

This summer will be his first as a Paralympic competitor, though McBride already helped the national team take gold at the 2006 World Championships in New Zealand. That same group has stuck together with only one change among the squad's 11 roster spots since those world championships.

"It's fairly rare for everybody to pretty much stick around," McBride said. "It really helped us to become a strong team."

The group's chemistry was visible during the official Paralympic tryouts in Birmingham, Ala., last December. Dozens of hopefuls were pared down over a three day camp until McBride was surrounded only by familiar faces.

The teammates range in age from 18, the youngest member in team history, to several members who are in their late 30s. They are also widely spread among the classifications of physical ability. Each member is rated among seven levels between 0.5 and 3.5, and the four players on the court cannot exceed a total number of 8.0.

McBride falls in the middle with both his age and classification, 2.0. Players at his level are asked to carry the ball, block for teammates and "generally do a little bit of everything," he said.

The team, which practices together roughly once per month at an Alabama training facility, enters the Paralympics as the reigning world champions and with the world's top ranking. Four other teams have given the squad trouble in the past, though. McBride expects to be primarily challenged by traditional powers New Zealand, whom his team recently played in the championship of a Canadian tournament, and Australia. Canada, the sport's founding country, has also been the main rival for the U.S. in recent years. Britain has achieved some recent international success with their team, and McBride expects them to be a tough draw as well.

"I know our team will be disappointed with anything but gold," McBride said. "It's another level of competition, though, at the Paralympics. Everybody has been training for four years for one tournament."

As usual, the games will begin roughly two weeks after the Olympics end on Aug. 25. Every effort is being made, though, to ensure that the games don't fall behind in any other way.

"I understand they put a ton of time and money into making [the Paralympics] into a really big event in it's own right," McBride said. "It's not just an afterthought to the Olympics, it has a lot bigger feel and a bigger setup compared to any other competition."

Extensive improvements have been made to Beijing's infrastructure and public transportation to accommodate the Paralympics competitors, according to McBride. Though China does not have a good reputation as being wheelchair accessible outside of the Olympic village, McBride said he plans to see for himself as he travels around Asia with friends for "a couple of months" after the games.

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