GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Thunderfest was back in action Saturday celebrating its ninth annual event.
It got canceled last year due to COVID, but wheelchairs finally hit the court for a game of rugby.
“We’re super excited to be back playing on the court. We’ve had to do a lot of COVID protocols to be safe, but we’re back,” said Christy Vanhaver, recreational therapist with Mary Free Bed.
It was a full court for the home tournament for the Grand Rapids Thunder Wheelchair Rugby Team. A big morale boost following a cancellation last year due to the pandemic.
“They’re just super excited,” said Vanhaver. “They were pretty isolated during COVID and not really able to get together with their teams and practice, and they really miss that camaraderie and that travel and most of all trying to work off that ‘COVID 15,’ you know? They miss that exercise that they get through the sport.”
The tournament is all part of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Association, so it’s all over the country.
There are five Midwest teams, including two in Michigan — Grand Rapids and Detroit.
Another team is from Ohio, there’s a combined team from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and an all-veteran group as well.
“And they’re from all over,” said Vanhaver. “I picked up two guys from the east coast, we had a guy come in from Florida, Illinois, picked up a guy who’s from Belgium. He works with the Paralympic Belgium Rugby Team and was coming back from a selection camp there.”
Fifty athletes will compete in dozens of matches for the ninth annual tournament, hosted by Mary Free Bed.
Vanhaver tells us the unique sport helps serve a group of people who weren’t very successful in any other sport.
“So, they created wheelchair rugby to say, ‘This is our sport. This is our niche. This is what we can be really great at. And we might have a disability but we’re not fragile. We can slam together.’”
It’s very much a chair-to-chair contact sport with lots of banging and slamming around. That roughness really pumps them up to be able to be aggressive and competitive.
There are a couple differences from regular rugby besides the chairs.
They play on a basketball court instead of a field, the ball is more like a volleyball, and the game is a combination of soccer and football — in that you’re moving the wheelchair rugby ball down the court to score.
“It’s four on four,” said Vanhaver. “Each player has a classification based on their disability and functional ability. That group of classification points can’t exceed eight points at any given time.”
Which is why everyone should take in a game to cheer them on because they too are athletes just like everyone else.
“We took second place in the Paralympics recently but we’re ranked number one in the world for USA rugby, and they’re just really, really proud of their sport and being competitive and getting out there just like anybody else,” said Vanhaver.
The tournament continues Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you’d like to go, it’s at the MSA Fieldhouse on 28th Street in Grand Rapids.
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