The Joy of Playing It Rough

March 28, 2013

“I love showing people that not everyone in a wheelchair needs to be helped, that we’re not all fragile,” says sophomore Chelsea Falnes.

Falnes came to the UA not just to pursue her degree in special education. She was recruited from Wisconsin to come here and play quad rugby for the UA Adaptive Athletics Program offered through the Disability Resource Center.

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“I have been hurt several times playing rugby,” she recalls with a huge smile. “Got a couple concussions; nearly broken wrist; nearly broken fingers. It’s all part of having fun, being rough, trying to get that hit, that pass, that turnover. I want to get out there. I want to play and I want to be tough. I give it everything I have in this sport and Coach Barten pushes me to show me I can do more.

Quad Rugby Team Coach Bryan Barten describes Falness, who serves as the team captain, as “an impact player.”

“She is a big hitter. She can go out and change the game with that ability,” he says. “I’ve seen her hit grown men and knock them on the ground.Within the game there’s a lot of contact. It’s encouraged. Full contact. Chairs are tipping over. People are falling.”

Into Quad Rugby

Also known as wheelchair rugby, quad rugby is a four-on-four game played on a basketball court. Games last 60 minutes, and players are constantly sprinting from one end line to the other, again and again and again.

“The athletes have to be sort of marathon runners. It’s a run-and-gun game,” says Barten, “so our conditioning is the key to our success.”

An Unknown Disease

Falnes has a progressive disease similar to multiple sclerosis. Doctors haven’t been able to accurately diagnose it, and as a result, she never knows what might happen next as it progresses through her body.

“Around age 19 was when my hips finally gave out and I wasn’t able to walk anymore,” she remembers. “When I ended up in a chair, I thought it was over. And then I was introduced to quad rugby.”

The sport rammed full-force into Falnes’s expectations of what it means to be in a chair. Today, she is at the height of her abilities, both physically and mentally.

“When I go on the court, I feel like I’m invincible,” she says. “I know where I have to be and I know where I have to go, and I make it happen.”

Dedicated to Adaptive Athletics and Disability Resources

The University of Arizona has five different athletics programs for wheelchair users and blind athletes. Competitive sports programs include men’s and men’s and women’s basketball, track and road racing, tennis and quad rugby.

“The University of Arizona has as the largest adaptive athletics program of any university in the United States,” according to David Herr-Cardillo, director of the UA adaptive athletics program. “Our student athletes have the same challenges that any student-athlete has. They’ve got to balance their academic schedule with their practice schedule and then the travel time for competition.”

In 2012, the UA sent seven athletes to the Paralympic Games in London.

The UA sets students up for success, as Adaptive Athletics is just part of an extensive Disability Resource Center.

“I had no idea what the school was about until I came down and saw how beautiful the campus was,” says Falnes, “how much they can help you in the Disability Resource Center.”

Known around campus as the DRC, the Disability Resource Center creates inclusive learning and working environments to facilitate access, discourse and involvement through innovative services, programs and partnerships. Groups served include disabled veterans, athletes and anyone with a disability, with the goal of integrating such individuals completely into the campus community. 

Falnes has found that not only are the services helpful, but the entire campus – designed around accessibility – works to her advantage.

“Living on campus has proved to be the easiest for me since I’m in the middle of everything,” she says. “I can get to any class within five minutes just by pushing. I can get to any kind of restaurant on campus just by pushing. And I can get to the Rec Center, which is where we practice.”

While developing herself for great tomorrow as an educator, the rugby court is where Falnes feels the most powerful today.

“Being on the court it’s your coach, it’s your teammates and it’s you showing what you can do and proving what you can do, to disprove what society thinks of people in chairs.”

Learn more about Adaptive Athletics at the University of Arizona.
Visit the UA Disability Resource Center.