Is the end finally in sight? – The impact of COVID-19 on wheelchair rugby
It’s nearly one year since Bolt Burdon Kemp were delighted to announce sponsorship of the Stoke Mandeville Maulers Wheelchair Team. The Maulers, headed up by twice Paralympian, Bob O’Shea and experienced wheelchair rugby competitor, Ian Hosking are based at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium which is recognised as the birthplace of the Paralympic Movement. The Maulers’ aim is simple – to encourage as many of the spinally injured community as possible to engage with sport.
Understandably, both Bob and Ian were concerned about their team mates, many of whom are high level tetraplegics whose ability to cough is compromised. Even a mild cold can have a significant impact on a tetraplegic and so the risks associated with COVID-19 were daunting.
As cases increased Bob and Ian realised that the writing was on the wall and they took the difficult decision to stop training. This was before any formal lockdown was announced or any formal request was made by their governing body GBWR (Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby). In fact, when Bob and Ian informed GBWR of their decision they were told that they were the first to do so.
Like the whole of the SCI community the Maulers faced a number of challenges during the various lockdowns. Those with a spinal cord injury have never been formally required to shield during any of the lockdowns. Whilst this was not an issue for some, for those with higher level injuries affecting their respiratory function or those with secondary complications, the impact was profound; especially during the first lockdown when, quite frankly, the world went a bit crazy and supermarket shelves were being routinely stripped. Without the requirement to shield there was no entitlement to the additional support offered to others shielding, such as priority slots for online shopping.
To help support their team Bob and Ian set up a WhatsApp group and arranged weekly training sessions via Zoom. Fellow teammate Ella Beaumont also set up her own online ‘at home’ workouts using everyday items such as broom handles and beans which have proven to be extremely popular. Bob also phoned every team member for a wellbeing check and to make sure they were okay.
As time has moved on, the team, along with the rest of the country, watched as the first lockdown was slowly lifted however, this was of limited help to the Maulers who found they were no closer to returning to training or playing. Whilst other sports, including other wheelchair sports, were able to return to playing, Wheelchair Rugby was not. One of the difficulties teams like the Maulers face is the fact that wheelchair rugby is an indoor sport, due to the need for a smooth surface. Indoor sports carry an increased risk during the current pandemic. Additionally, after the lifting of the first lockdown the Maulers faced a further challenge in that their court space was being used as an overflow gym, due to the need for social distancing.
The 25th March 2021 marked the anniversary of the Maulers’ Zoom meets. Ian and Bob very kindly extended an invitation to the Spinal Injury Team at Bolt Burdon Kemp to join the team and take part in one of Ella Beaumont’s infamous workouts. With tins of tuna as weights; tights as resistance bands and Pinky the unicorn as a broom stand in, we logged on with some trepidation about being put through our paces. We were not disappointed. Ella’s session soon had our arms and shoulders aching.
However, what became quickly apparent was that the zoom session was so much more than a workout. It was a chance for the team to come together; to have that banter that comes from being teammates and to check in on each other.
Both Ian and Bob and the rest of the team are chomping at the bit to get back to playing. Ian recalls going into his garage and seeing his specialist rugby chair sitting there with a semi flat tyre and feeling quite despondent. However, the end, and I say this very tentatively, is in sight. With the route map out of the third lockdown having been set out, the Maulers are already looking at how they can bring the team back together safely and in line with the government and GWBR guidelines. There is finally a glimmer of hope that the end is in sight and all those Zoom training sessions will turn into in person training sessions. The buzz about that happening amongst the Maulers was palpable.
As a sport, wheelchair rugby is quite unique and I say that from personal experience. It’s mentally and physically challenging and, quite frankly, exhilarating. Sport offers physical advantages for the able bodied and disabled bodied alike but one must not underestimate the positive impact sport can have to mental health; something that has been constantly challenged in the present climate.
I know I speak on behalf of the whole Spinal injury Team at Bolt Burdon Kemp when I say that I cannot wait until when I can go along and watch the Maulers’ train and maybe even play a match. We will be there cheering from the side-lines. Appropriately masked up and socially distanced of course!