Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The I In Team

Sport is something that is enjoyed by billions of people across the world, whether it be playing, coaching or simply watching. Sport is about more than just keeping fit and the desire to win; it brings people together from all walks of life; it unites them regardless of ethnicity, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation. Put two golf fans from completely different backgrounds in a room together, stick the Ryder Cup on television and a few hours later they will emerge as best friends. Stick two rival football fans in a room during a derby match and a few hours later they probably wouldn't emerge at all, but that's beside the point! The recent Rugby World Cup saw fans of opposing teams congregate together: drinking, singing, laughing and bonding. On the pitch were players from opposing teams, each desperate to beat the other, but at the same time holding complete respect and admiration for their fellow athlete. And of course there was the famous Christmas Truce of World War I that saw enemy soldiers on both sides of the trenches put down their guns and engage in a friendly game of football in no mans land. Last Sunday I returned from Leicester where our team had taken part in the opening wheelchair rugby league weekend of the season, so I thought now was as good a time as any to talk about disability sport and the profound effect it can have on an individual.

I've briefly spoken about disability sport before, in particular wheelchair rugby, something I've been mastering (in much the same way a turkey masters flying!) for the past decade. It's something that I tried out at the Spinal Games whilst still in hospital and began playing as soon as I was discharged. I was drawn to it because you get to smash into people and tip them out of their chairs it is a team orientated sport with a strong physical aspect, the only full contact wheelchair sport, specifically designed for people who have a disability in all four limbs. As a quadriplegic who had previously enjoyed playing football and rugby at school, along with the occasional manly wrestle at university (I was frustrated and single okay, don't judge me!), wheelchair rugby, formerly known as murderball, sounded right up my street! And I've said it before, so I'll say it again: it was one of the best decisions I've made since the injury...

...unlike this hairstyle!
 It's by no means just wheelchair rugby that's out there either. There are dozens upon dozens of sports and activities on offer to people of varying levels of disability, from basketball to boccia, visually impaired football to powerchair football, table tennis to er...tennis tennis! And the number is just going up. Next year at the Rio Paralympics nearly 4,500 athletes from around the world will compete in 22 unique sports. At home in the UK, disability sports clubs are sprouting up all over the place and there really is something for everyone, no matter your level of disability, thanks to the numerous companies that provide sporting adaptions and aids (looking at you Active Hands). Yet there are still those who suffer debilitating injuries, who come out of hospital and then simply go home, unsure of the next step, their lives on permanent pause. There is no doubt in my mind that if I hadn't taken up sport post injury, I wouldn't have acquired the mental and physical strength required to live an independent life, and I cannot adequately verbalise the significance of this.

Yet as important as it is to find an activity that gives you muscle fitness, lung fitness and exercise goals to aim for, the physical benefits aren't even the most significant aspect, at least not to me. Imagine the shock at suffering a spinal injury: a large part of your body is no longer willing to do what you tell it, your legs won't move, you can't feel your feet, you're unsure of even when you need to go to the bathroom, and this is just the tip of the iceberg! You will have questions that you don't feel like your pre-injury friends and family would be able to help you with, and you will likely experience problems or incidents that you would feel embarrassed talking to them about. Well this is where the friends and connections you make through sporting activities come in. The vast majority of them will have had the same queries or suffered similar embarrassments to you and so you feel at ease to open up and discuss these things, often in horrendous detail, but almost always ending up in fits of laughter as you take turns recounting the horrors you've seen and experienced, each trying to one-up the other. And then everything feels okay. What may have initially felt like a cataclysmic event that had left you praying for the ground to swallow you up, was now a trivial source of laughter because you were surrounded by people who'd gone through it all before and you no longer felt alone or ashamed. And it is this sense of camaraderie that is the most important thing I have got out of sport since the injury.

Without the people I have met through sport, in particular my wheelchair rugby teammates, I wouldn't have the confidence I do now, I wouldn't have the independence and ability I do now, I certainly wouldn't have the emotional strength and mental willpower I do now, and I wouldn't have travelled anywhere near as much as I have during my time in a chair; whether it be for rugby tournaments around the UK and abroad, gigs, music festivals or other social events. In fact even as I type, tickets are being bought and flights and accommodation are being booked to watch the Paralympics in Rio next year, because lord knows, I'm not going to get there off the back of my ability on a rugby court!

And before I start getting accused of going all sentimental and coming across overly saccharine whilst painting a nauseating an idyllic picture of a bunch of guys who are 100% supportive and emotionally in tune with one another, I should point out that the vast majority of our interactions involve mercilessly ripping the piss out of each other to such an extent that in any other circumstance, we would be under investigation by social services! And don't even get me started on tipping each other out of our chairs...

Hitting the deck in 3...2...1...
Man down!
 So that, in a rather bloated nutshell, is why sport has been so important to me post injury and why I implore people of all abilities and disabilities: Give sport a go. Even if you don't think it's for you. Take a deep breath and jump into the action. You never know, it might end up surprising you and you might end up surprising yourself!


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