KELOWNA – Despite only coming to the Okanagan a couple years ago, the Kelowna wheelchair rugby team is fast becoming known for having a thriving program.
Colleen Bryant is the program and team manager for the Kelowna KOs. The KOs — pronounced chaos — are a group of nine athletes at the forefront of an emerging sport.
The club was started in January 2011 by Colleen Bryant and Randy LeBlanc. Bryant and LeBlanc managed a similar club in Calgary, but Bryant says so far Kelowna is responding far more positively than they ever saw in Alberta.
“We’ve developed tremendously quickly,” she says. “We’re just amazed at how much opportunity and exposure we’ve gotten. Calgary was a bit more of a struggle getting people to participate and getting the community interested but here (in Kelowna) it’s a little bit easier.”
Aside from having a good base of volunteers, Bryant says the climate here is another major advantage.
“It’s a lot easier for people with disabilities to get out and about here,” she says. “Some of our athletes come all the way from Kamloops and Armstrong.”
The wheelchair rugby season extends from September to May, with four tournaments held a year.
The sport is only open to quadriplegics nationally and internationally but within B.C. it is open to able-bodied players as well if needed to fill the roster.
“So far we haven’t needed to put able-bodied people in too often,” she says. “Some of the Vancouver and Victoria teams don’t have enough players sometimes, which says a lot about (Kelowna).”
“In the last couple years we built our roster up to be bigger than a lot of the major cities. We have a great group of people here.”
Wheelchair rugby is played indoors and although not entirely similar to traditional rugby, it shares many of the same objectives and challenges.
“It’s similar in that it’s a contact sport and very aggressive,” she says. “There are time limits for possession and it’s also similar to hockey in that you can’t cross a line and pass the ball back. It’s an exciting sport.”
Points are earned by crossing at least two wheels over an 8 m by 1.75 m key while carrying a wheelchair rugby ball, which looks similar to a large volleyball. How the players get into the key is where the excitement lies.
“The ball isn’t thrown into a basket or anything, it needs to be carried in your lap or you have to have control of the ball,” Bryant says. “As long as your hand is on the ball and the ball is connected on to the wheel you can score.”
The ball is not the only specialized piece of equipment used. The chairs, which run upwards of $5,500 each, also vary depending on the position played.
“For the offensive players the chairs are in kind of a circular shape and defensive players they’re oblong shape with a picker on front to hook onto the offensive chairs.”
Bryant says there are many benefits both to players and spectators.
“It’s really good for team building and it’s exciting to watch,” she says. “It keeps the athletes active and fit and lots of them say it’s a great way to get out aggression.”
The Kelowna squad are known for being a tight-knit group, but have another claim to fame as well.
“One of our newest players is only ten years old,” Bryant says. “He’s actually the youngest player in the Western Hemisphere and his mom plays on the team with him.”
The sport is open to all ages, men and women, and even able-bodied players are encouraged to try out at any of the Saturday practices.
“We’re always looking for new volunteers whether able-bodied or not,” she says. “We have six extra chairs so if people want to try out the sport they can just come out to a practice. Once spectators get in a chair and are pushing for a little while, they quickly realize how much effort it takes and how strong these athletes are.”
Practices are held every Saturday during the regular season at Parkinson Recreation Centre.
Visit the Kelowna KOs website for tournament dates and locations as well as for information on how you can get involved.
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