Two minutes into the quad rugby game Friday, Troy McGuirk’s wheelchair tipped backward and he crashed to the gymnasium floor.
His girlfriend, on the sidelines, barely flinched.
For two years Vera Krstic has listened to the metallic clang of chair against chair and watched one teammate after another take hard falls.
She’s learned to relax, despite McGuirk’s motto: “You hit me, I’m going to hit you even harder.”
“The only thing that scares me now is when a wheel pops,” said Krstic, referring to the occasional nerve-jangling blowouts.
McGuirk, 30, and his San Diego teammates are in Cheney this weekend to defend their national championship against the nation’s top wheelchair rugby teams.
The games continue today and end Sunday afternoon, when the 1997 champions will be honored at a 3 p.m. ceremony. Admission is free.
California voices mingled with those from Tennessee, New York, Alabama and Minnesota as a dozen teams, made up solely of quadriplegics, filled Reese Court at Eastern Washington University.
But McGuirk and the San Diego Sharp Shadows focused their attention on one team.
“The guys in the green pants,” said Shadows coach Reggie Richner, nodding toward the metal doors as the Tampa Generals rolled in.
The coaches for the two teams have met before. Together they coached the first-place quad rugby team in the Paralympics in Atlanta last summer. Now they’re competitors.
“We’ve come close to beating them all year,” said Generals coach Terry Vinyard. “We’re hoping to return the favor.”
Again and again, Vinyard and his team have watched videos of the Shadows, who deftly dribble the volleyball and twist and turn their chairs across the goal line.
Quad rugby is played on a basketball court with two teams of four players. Participants must have lost at least some control over all four limbs.
It’s scored like soccer, has a penalty system like hockey and is aggressive like rugby.
A favorite slogan among players: “The hit isn’t real if it doesn’t bend steel.”
“They have very few weaknesses,” said Vinyard, watching the Shadows bend a little steel Friday.
Players on both teams have immersed themselves in preparing for the playoffs.
The slogan on the back of Richner’s white T-shirt said it all: “Your arms hurt. Your chair might get dirty. It’s too hot today. You won’t. You can’t. But you will. GET OUT THERE.”
Four evenings a week, Mark Hickey, 38, rides his hand-crank bicycle down trails around his home near Tampa.
McGuirk, who broke his neck cliff-diving in Mexico, trains at least five days a week, bench-pressing 185 pounds at the gym and practicing rugby with his teammates.
He started dating Krstic two years ago. At first she was put off by his busy training regimen.
“The first year was really hard with having him gone a lot. I’d never really dated athletes, so this is really new to me.”
Mike Wyatt, a 29-year-old San Diego player, works out at two different gyms when he’s not water skiing, snow skiing, bungee-jumping, parasailing or river rafting. “And chasing girls,” a friend added, laughing.
Oh, and he also practices rugby twice a week.
Winning the national championship Sunday would be the perfect way to mark the ninth anniversary of the drunken-driving crash that put him in a wheelchair, Wyatt said.
Win or lose, he’ll celebrate the championship with friends. “These guys I play against are some of my very best friends.”
Although it’s the fastest-growing wheelchair sport in the world, quad rugby is in some ways a small world.
Top teams routinely fly across the country to compete, and they often find they can’t help but become friends.
“On the court, we’re against each other. Off the court, we go out and have a drink together,” said McGuirk.
“We’re all in a chair. And we’re all competitive.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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