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Northeast Passage ‘Cats: ‘Capable of doing whatever I want’

By Tom Spencer, Staff Writer

photo coutresy of northeast passage  The Northeast Passage Wildcats mid-play in a quad rugby game. The team is part of an umbrella organization, Northeast Passage, that helps people with disabilities participate in action sports and activities.
photo coutresy of northeast passage
The Northeast Passage Wildcats mid-play in a quad rugby game. The team is part of an umbrella organization, Northeast Passage, that helps people with disabilities participate in action sports and activities.

Keeping cool in February is the least of concerns for most New Englanders, but it is a pressing concern for the Northeast Passage Wildcats.

The Northeast Passage Wildcats are a rugby team made up of athletes with quadriplegia, a spinal injury that results in partial or total wparalysis of the limbs. They are part of USA Quad Rugby Association in the Atlantic North Conference and play the games in wheelchairs. They are organized under Northeast Passage, a program dedicated to helping people with disabilities do extreme sports and high adventure activities. Because signals about body temperature regulation travel through the spine, athletes with spinal injuries won’t break a sweat below their point of injury no matter how intense the workout. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the athletes are staying cool. If quad rugby players overheat, they can suffer nausea, congestion, loss of concentration, slowed reflexes, and reduced heart rate.

Keeping the rugby players cool is a team effort. The Northeast Passage Wildcats team is made up of not only players and coaches, but also therapeutic recreation majors from the University of New Hampshire.

Natalie Bilynsky began helping the rugby team a year and half ago for her practicum in a course. Now she does the same work as a volunteer.

“Some practicum students never leave,” Bilynsky said. “It’s such a supportive atmosphere.”

Bilynsky discussed the challenges of regulating body temperature for a person with a spinal injury.

“[A spinal injury] makes cooling your body down very difficult if not seemingly impossible,” Bilynsky said.

Bilynsky said she is part of the team’s “pit crew.” That means she helps with duties such as: preparing the athletes for games; bringing them frozen towels or spray bottles; taping wrists and mending the wheelchairs.

Michael Wright, a player of seven years, is a 2-pointer, a position that could be compared to a point guard in basketball. Wright is more mobile and has greater ball control than many of his teammates, according to Bilynsky.

Wright said he has an injury on his sixth and seventh cervical spinal nerve, also known as a C6, C7 injury. This left him with no leg movement, but full arm movement. His fingers have limited movement as well. Wright has a few adaptations for keeping cool and other challenges of general game play.

Weather-allowing in the spring and fall, Wright will sit outside during breaks and let the wind and shade keep him cool.

But when the weather is as bitterly cold —as it has been lately —Wright could freeze if he sits outside.  That is why during breaks in game play, pit crew members like Alejandra Herrera, a therapeutic recreation major from UNH, will gather the team and pass out frozen towels, water bottles and spray bottles.

To cope with the limited finger movement, Wright wears a pair of white gloves with a red stripe across the middle three fingers, not too dissimilar from golf gloves. The surface is then covered with pine tar, a sticky brown substance to give athletes like Wright traction on the ball

During the game, Herrera’s tasks include smearing pine tar on the athlete’s hands, swapping out tires if one bursts after a brutal hit and generally keeping things moving.

The ball itself is not a traditional rugby ball, but instead a volleyball. There are a few other variations from traditional rugby as well. The field for quad rugby is roughly basketball court sized, and cones mark the end zones rather than goalposts.

While hitting is part of this full-contact sport, personal contact including slapping, hitting, punching, gouging out eyes, biting off ears, etc., is forbidden according to USA Quad Rugby’s official website.

Wright can move up and down field by using his hands to spin the wheels of his chair, which are spread out at an angle closer to 45 degrees to the ground rather than 90 degrees like a typical wheelchair.

Wright handles the ball smoothly while he is warming up with his teammates on Feb. 28 in the Hamel Recreation Center during a three-hour practice. He can roll the ball up the side of his wheel to carry it in his lap, or deftly catch a teammate’s pass on the back of his hand.

The welded metal of his wheelchair has many dings, scratches and dents, all evidence of Wright’s favorite part of the game: “hitting people.”

Hits certainly are memorable. It is not uncommon to see a player knocked back on his or her wheels, spun around and dropped to the court’s floor with a crash during a game. From this position, the players can right themselves or get assistance, if necessary.

There is more to the game and organization than that, according to Chandler Bullard, the team’s coach. More importantly, there is more to the game than the wheelchairs.

Bullard has been coach and program manager to the Northeast Passage Wildcats for 8 years. This last season, the Northeast Passage Wildcats placed second in the three tournaments they played: Rugby Rampage, which is hosted at UNH, Beast of the East in Philadelphia and a third place finish in Baltimore.

The best part of the job?

“Winning,” Bullard said. Beyond that, Bullard is proud of the community the team provides. 

“It’s not just about having a disability,” Bullard said. “When guys come to play rugby with us, they learn they have a peer group.”

He continued: “It’s a group of guys who work jobs, have girlfriends just like anyone else. They play for a couple hours a week, and they go home from a game saying ‘I’m not alone. I’m capable of doing whatever I want.’”

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