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Wheelchair rugby tournament in Tampa is intense, uplifting

TAMPA — The first time Briona Keeshan watched wheelchair rugby, she hesitated.

The predominantly male sport is rough.

A mash-up of several sports, including basketball and hockey, wheelchair rugby was originally called murderball due to the heavy contact players use against one another.

Petite with a ponytail that curls at the end, Keeshan, 20, had never been an athlete. Now, in a wheelchair and paralyzed from the waist down, she was contemplating pushing herself even further from her comfort zone.

"I worried about getting hurt," she said.

But, it didn't take long for the game to change her mind.

"I don't know how to explain it," she said. "I just go on that court and forget everything else. It's an escape, I guess. I love the adrenaline rush."

Keeshan's team, the Tampa Generals, played Saturday in the 22nd annual Tampa International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament at the All People's Life Center on Sligh Avenue. The tournament continues today from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the championship game taking place at noon. Admission is free.

For Keeshan, of New Port Richey, the sport has helped her heal. Injured in a traffic crash four years ago, wheelchair rugby allowed her to make new friends and learn from others in the same situation.

"I can watch how other people do things," she said. "And by getting more fit, I can get around better by myself."

The game of wheelchair rugby is played on a basketball court with four players for each team. The goal is to score by carrying the ball to a space between two cones on either end of the court. The ball must be dribbled or passed every 10 seconds.

Competitors play offense or defense depending on their physical level, said Justin Stark, a Tampa Generals team member.

Rugby chairs, which are custom built for each player, are built with a front bumper to help with hits. Players regularly spill onto the court after a hard hit, tipping over in their chairs. It takes two people to help get them back into an upright position before play can resume.

"It was originally called murderball because everybody crashed into each other," Stark said. "But with a name like that, nobody wanted to play or sponsor it, so they changed it to wheelchair rugby."

After the release of the 2005 documentary Murderball, however, the name grew again in popularity, Stark said.

The roughness is one of the things that the audience likes most.

"It's a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport where the average score goes to the 40s or 50s," Stark said.

And the sport is highly competitive. The Tampa Generals, who are based out of Tampa General Hospital, are ranked fifth in the nation.

This weekend's tournament included eight teams from across the country and the world, including ones from Brazil and Germany.

"It's so much fun to be able to get out there and play a competitive sport against some of the greatest athletes," Stark said.

Spending time with people who understand what it's like to be in a wheelchair is a bonus.

"Everywhere we go, we're kind of in the minority," Stark said. "This flips the coin."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

.Fast facts

If you go

The last day of the 22nd annual Tampa International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament is today at the All People's Life Center, 6105 E Sligh Ave. Games begin at 9 a.m. with the championship match at noon. Admission is free. For more information, go online to tampagenerals.org.

On the Web

For a video report, go to Links in today's Times at tampabay.com.

Wheelchair rugby tournament in Tampa is intense, uplifting 01/11/14 [Last modified: Sunday, January 12, 2014 12:11am]
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