The painful memories of returning home from Athens without the expected gold medal have never been far from the mind of USA Wheelchair Rugby captain Bryan Kirkland, continually driving him and his team-mates on over the last four years.
All that hard work and determination to banish those memories finally paid off on Tuesday when USA beat Australia 53-44 to be crowned Paralympic champions for the third time, having won the demonstration event in 1996 and the first official gold in 2000.
Kirkland, who was part of both the gold medal winning side in Sydney and that which came away with bronze in Athens, scored 13 goals in the final at a packed USTB Gymnasium in Beijing as USA claimed gold with an unbeaten record.
“The feeling is awesome, we have been basically putting this together for the last four years, looking forward to come back and redeem ourselves from Athens,” Kirkland, at 37 the oldest member of the USA squad, told Total Rugby.
“That was the first time the USA had lost the gold medal standing and it has been a four year journey for us. The guys came in; we played hard and lucky and were fortunate to come out with a gold medal this time.
“You are being challenge and in return you are going to try and prove you are the better player and in the better team and today for the USA team that is what we did. We came out and played our game and got our gold medal.”
The four days of Wheelchair Rugby action in Beijing have been fast and frenetic with plenty of hard hits and the sound of metal crunching in tackles, drawing packed crowds eager to see this fast-growing sport with their own eyes for the first time.
“It is a fast paced game, very hard hitting and definitely people take spills and go over,” added Kirkland, whose side beat China 65-30, Japan 44-37, Canada 37-32 and then Great Britain 35-32 in the semi-final.
“There is a lot of noise, it kind of sounds like firecrackers going off in a metal garbage can so the crowd loves it. Whenever we hit each other, the crowd you hear them erupt so it is a very exciting wheelchair sport.”
Kirkland admits that someone watching the sport for the first time and not knowing its name would no necessarily recognise it as Wheelchair Rugby, given there are no scrums or any rules carried over from the able-bodied game.
“Probably the best definition I get from people who see it not knowing the name of our sport, they call it almost demolition in a wheelchair because we are banging into each other.
“A lot of people wouldn’t really recognise it as the name it is called Wheelchair Rugby.
“It doesn’t have really any rules from able-bodied rugby, but it is the closest nature of the sport that we could probably come up with that is related to the contact, the physical part of it and it is a very fun sport, the crowds love it and it is definitely not disappointing when you watch it.”
Camaraderie shines through
One element that both Rugby and Wheelchair Rugby have in common though is the camaraderie and friendship, something that International Wheelchair Federation President Brad Mikkelsen believes shone through during the Paralympic competition.
“This is a contact sport, but encapsulated by a strong sense of fair play, team work and friendship,” explained Mikkelsen, who was a key figure in taking the game from its origins in Canada over the border into the United States in the early 1980s.
“That’s what the Paralympics is all about and I think that Wheelchair Rugby perfectly fits the bill from the players through to the officials, referees and of course the supporters. The level of sportsmanship in Beijing has been a highlight.”
The competitive nature of the games, with the odd turnover the difference between winning and losing in many, also points to an exciting future for a sport now played in over 20 countries worldwide to a high standard.
“This really is just a recent development and underlines the strides that are being made by all of the nations,” added Mikkelsen. “It is not just the top teams that produced the close results, buy they all are.
“There were six teams that realistically could have won gold and that is a first – it’s fantastic. The level of competition in Beijing suggests an exciting future for the sport in terms of development and competition.”
Kirkland echoed this sentiment, saying: “As each year goes by it seems like the bar is being raise and other countries are raising their bar too and the competition is definitely a lot stiffer today than it was four years ago.”