Head Coach James Gumbert discusses IWRF Americas Championship, wheelchair rugby experience

Today, USA Wheelchair Rugby began its quest to win the American Zonal Championships in Asunción, Paraguay. It has been a rebuilding year for the team, but we feel like we have an excellent squad heading into the competition. We hope you’ll support us in our pursuit to win the gold.

My story with wheelchair rugby began much like I hope yours will – as a fan. I found rugby later in life when I was in my 30s. In 1991, I decided to try it out for myself. During my first practice, I flipped out of my chair, and there was no one there to help me up. The other athletes had to go out onto the street to find someone to get me back on my wheels again. And I have to be honest – I was scared. But looking back, it was an empowering moment. I had been sheltered after my injury. I went from thinking I had to live in a glass case to realizing I wasn’t as fragile as I had once thought.

After that first practice, I was hooked. Eventually, I left my job in real estate so I could focus all of my time and energy on rugby. After two years of playing in Austin and three of commuting back and forth to play in Houston, my skills had developed and I tried out for the national team. In 1997, I had my first international exposure in Australia and New Zealand. It was awe-inspiring to discover that I could really do this. The sport gave me the confidence and consistency to have the courage to play my heart out. I started to reclaim my life.

Later, I transitioned from player to coach. I’ve served in numerous capacities over the years from assistant coach to commissioner and president of the league. Because the sport has given me so much, I feel like I’m paying it forward to my players and our fans. Of course, winning is great, but after getting the gold at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, I started to realize that there is so much more to being involved in adapted sports than that. It’s a chance to give the athletes their lives back. It’s about being able to watch people who have been told all their lives what they can’t do discover what they can do.

Last year, USAWR won the silver medal in the Rio Paralympics. As great as that was, it left a bad taste in our mouths. Much of this season has been focused on our foundation in preparation for today and in the future. We are bringing six new athletes into the elite program and I am excited that we are taking six young athletes that are experiencing their first American Championships to Paraguay. A true testament that USAWR continues to “change lives one hit at a time.”

In sport, there are many positive aspects that athletes get to enjoy, including staying active, being competitive and gaining social experience. But oftentimes in our world – for individuals with disabilities – those opportunities aren’t out there for us. Sport in the adapted world is limited; it hasn’t reached its potential. What wheelchair rugby does for these athletes is amazing – it gives them a chance to reclaim their lives and find an identity that they have lost. By supporting USA Wheelchair Rugby, you can get these athletes back on the track of living again through sport and through a supportive community. Those opportunities can change a person’s life. Reaching more athletes and developing our program requires support from rugby fans like you. However, I can assure you that when you make a gift to USA Wheelchair Rugby, you will feel rewarded in a way that is unmatched. It’s truly incredible to be a part of this program and to change another person’s life.

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