It’s Time for Murderball to Fly (World Wheelchair Ultimate Championships)

An introduction to Wheelchair Ultimate ahead of the inaugural WFDF World Wheelchair Ultimate Championships at the end of September!

Flying Disc Italia (FIGeST) introducing adaptive ultimate to kids and adults. Photo: Bebe Vio Academy

This article was written by guest contributors Valerio Iani and Laura Cincotta.

The movie Murderball put the spotlight on rugby in wheelchairs and celebrated the spirit of athletes who face mobility challenges. With the first ever World Wheelchair Ultimate Championships around the corner, it’s time to get to know an adaptive team sport that holds great potential for people with disabilities, especially for youth.

The rules of Wheelchair Ultimate are similar to ultimate, but is often played on a smaller field or court with five or six players to a side. All movements such as sprinting, stopping, pivoting, and changing direction can be executed with the wheelchair.

Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, schools and city recreation departments don’t offer adaptive sports, even though children with disabilities are one of the most at-risk groups in the U.S. According to an article by the Global Foundation for Sports Development, “while the Department of Disability and Human Development recommends youths get 60 minutes of physical activity per day most days of the week, kids with disabilities aren’t logging in near this level.”

Accessible physical activity is perhaps even more critical for these young people than for those without disabilities. In the article cited above, Mary Kate Morgan, a therapist working with disabled youth in a Chicago hospital, says, “It’s important to build habits of being physically active because sometimes with kids with disabilities, it gets even harder to be physically active as they get heavier and older and their tolerance to exercise can decrease, so encouraging it for the long run is important.”

The outcomes of sports participation are indeed positive for a demographic that faces severe economic challenges. A recent study suggests “a substantial economic benefit would result from increased participation in adaptive sport, and therefore may justify additional funding to expand adaptive sport programs.” To improve the lives of youth and adults with disabilities, we must work to provide both competitive and recreational opportunities and match the sport to the individual.

Wheelchair ultimate can help meet these needs and easily scale nationally and internationally. In 2014, the World Flying Disc Federation (representing Ultimate and other disc disciplines) was recognized by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and included in the International Federation of the IPC Family. Several programs and initiatives in the U.S., Canada, France, and Italy are promising and show how much adaptive disc sports have to offer.

Kids at the Mary Free Bed Center in Michigan playing disc golf, another wheelchair disc sport. Photo: Adaptive Sports Camp

One successful example is the Wheelchair Ultimate Program at University of New Hampshire, which runs for two 4-week sessions each spring and fall. When Director Cameron Forys was asked what makes ultimate a great adaptive sport, he said, “I like ultimate because once you have the chairs and the court there is little equipment needed to play and you can change the disc to accommodate your players if need be. You can easily adjust team size to accommodate the amount of people. You can keep the rules simple and it can accommodate a wide range of ability levels.”

Jean-Levy Champagne, who was involved with Wheelchair Ultimate in Montreal, recalls: “I’ve presented the sport to 15 to 20 kids and it was super fun. At the highest point we had a fun league with rec and competitive players and people in wheelchairs…[who] were better defenders and had more ability in cutting.” In another nod to the sport’s adaptability, Jean-Levy shared they would sometimes switch from a regular plastic disc to a dodgebee (a soft disc) to support players with smaller arms and hands.

Recent developments on Italian soil are bringing Wheelchair Ultimate to the forefront in Europe as well. In 2021, Flying Disc Italia (FIGeST) kicked off a project called Wheelchair Flying Disc, a national level plan offering several disciplines: Ultimate, Disc Golf, and Accuracy. Andrea Sambruni, of FIGeST’s Health Commission, developed the program in collaboration with A.S.D., AUSportiva Niguarda (Milano), one of Italy’s leading organizations promoting sports access for athletes with disabilities. Program Manager Alessando Somaini told me he “literally breathed ultimate” as a player, organizer, and school instructor for 16 years before an accident in 2019 put him in a wheelchair. As soon as he heard Flying Disc Italia was gearing up to create a new section for wheelchair athletes, he “dove headfirst into the new adventure.” Says Alessandro, “It’s one of the most inclusive adaptive sports that I know of. Within minutes of learning the basics, people are playing games. I have high hopes that [Wheelchair Ultimate] will engage more and more people to become a first-level discipline.”

What will it take to grow wheelchair ultimate? For Jean-Levy it’s clear: “More financial support to promote it like ‘Murderball’ where they’ve created stars around the sport… Actual ultimate players who try [playing wheelchair ultimate] and strong leaders that will grow the sport.”

The next milestone is already here: The World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) is hosting the inaugural World Wheelchair Ultimate Championships in Italy this fall. Lignano Sabbiadoro’s Bella Italia Efa Village will be the site of the event from September 28 to 1 October 2023. Four European teams are on the lineup, and volunteers are flocking from Italy and beyond. In a thrilling twist, WFDF is also inviting individual wheelchair athletes from around the world to compete for Wheelchair Ultimate gold. Expressing his excitement for the inaugural World Wheelchair Ultimate Championships, WFDF President Robert “Nob” Rauch said, “With the objective of growing the competitive breadth of this parasport discipline, we have decided to open up an international roster.”

The 2023 World Championships promise to give wheelchair ultimate and its athletes their most international coverage to date, showing people around the world how wheelchair ultimate can change the lives of many kids and adults. The countdown has begun: get psyched and spread the news!

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