How these athletes overcame obstacles to find a love of competition: 'Don't give up on it'

Sportable Wheelchair Rugby 2.jpg
Sportable Wheelchair Rugby 1.jpg
Posted at 11:03 PM, Apr 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-15 10:28:26-04

RICHMOND, Va. — The new gym at J.R. Tucker High School was recently used as part of a showcase for Sportable to help introduce people to their adaptive programs.

"I think about what a great sports town Richmond is, and I feel like our work and our mission is very much a part of that environment. And I feel like that's one of the reasons our work is so important," Hunter Leemon, the executive director of Sportable, said.

This particular demonstration included wheelchair rugby, which is a combination of basketball, tag and dodgeball — and has very little to do with the sport that shares its name.

"It used to be called Murder Ball, but you can't market a sport called Murder Ball so it got changed to wheelchair rugby," explained Joshua Burch.

Burch joined the Marines almost 10 years ago. He was wounded with a spinal injury that left him in a wheelchair and with a decision to make: Feel sorry for himself or figure out how to adapt to his new normal.

"Not sitting inside doing nothing all day. Being able to live a normal life again, getting out and staying active," said Burch.

Through Sportable, Burch took up swimming, archery and kayaking, among other pursuits. He considered himself active before his injury, but nothing like he is today.

"I've done so much more after I've been injured than before it, and I did a lot before it. All the opportunities I've had, I've traveled way more now," he said. "I've skydived. I've done a lot."

Wheelchair rugby captured his full attention. Four players on a side try to score using just about any means possible.

It has given Burch what he found in the Marine Corps — a sense of togetherness and common bonds, not to mention a positive pursuit for both his body and his mind.

"I think my favorite part was the brotherhood and family that you make there. I have friends that I talk to five, six, and seven years later now. We do a lot together so we stay real close," said Burch. "It's definitely helped. Obviously, physically and mentally it puts your head in a better place. Oh, I can do this and it makes daily tasks easier."

"It has been a huge help physically and mentally just building that strength back, but also mentally being around people who understand what you've gone through and you can learn from and have a good time with," described Mandy Marchiano.

She was paralyzed in middle school and took longer to discover adaptive sports. She used a power wheelchair and saw no reason to switch to a manual one. Until she was introduced to this version of rugby.

"I had been in a power chair for so long. When they approached me with playing wheelchair rugby, my first thought was I use a power chair, I don't think I can push this manual chair. As soon as I got in it I thought, this is manageable."

Marchiano is the only woman on the team, but as such, is not afforded any special favors. And that's exactly the way she and her teammates would like society to see them.

"They don't treat me any differently. I feel like an equal teammate with them," said Marchiano. "I grew up with three older brothers. I'm used to being around the guys and it's fun."

She added, "It's a platform to show your strength and that you don't need any special treatment. It shows how tough we can be."

Tough is just the tip of the iceberg for these athletes. What they have been through has been difficult, but they've found strength in each other and a sense of purpose not only for themselves but for anyone else who might benefit as they have.

"While they can be inspirational and they are role models, especially to people that have disability profiles that would like to compete, I think just like you and I, they want to compete for the camaraderies, the friendships and the opportunities in which to be active," Leemon said.

Burch said, "This is what you can do. This is what I've done. I've done way more in a chair than I've done able-bodied. So just don't give up on it."

"You don't know until you try. You'd be surprised at what you can do when you try," said Marchiano.