Wheelchair rugby helps UNE students in Portland learn how to break barriers

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PORTLAND — Sidney Bast had a wide grin on her face as she wheeled herself to the penalty box April 27.

“I expect nothing less,” she said as the quad, or wheelchair, rugby game resumed without her at the University of New England Finley Recreation Center basketball court.

Flagged for illegal use of hands during a game that brings elements of basketball, ice hockey and handball to what appears to be rolling mayhem, Bast was the driving force behind invaluable lessons for UNE graduate students in physical and occupational therapies.

“I want people to put themselves in our clients’ shoes,” Bast said as students joined members of the Northeast Passage Wildcats for an exhibition game of quad rugby. The four-on-four games featured two students on each side.

Last year, Bast invited the Wildcats to school without really clearing it fully, saying she preferred to apologize later rather than pass up the learning opportunity.

This year, the invitation was her leadership project, needed before she graduates this month with a master’s degree in occupational therapy.

A Wildcats press release noted the players use hand-driven chairs that cost at least $6,000. The large rear wheels are set at angles of about 60 degrees, with smaller ones up front. Some are equipped with what resembles a “cow-catcher” on a steam locomotive.

The goal is to roll across goal lines at either end of the court while carrying a volleyball. The action is quick and furious, even when the Wildcats take a more playful approach. The combinations of passing and carrying can lead to fast breaks for scoring, and crunchy, jarring collisions are common.

“These visits are fun; we can show everyone what we can do,” Wildcat Ryan Coy said during a quick break in the action. Then he rolled off, propelling himself into what looked like a one-on-one duel with Bast.

Formed in 1990, Northeast Passage is a nonprofit with a mission of “developing, delivering, and evaluating innovative barrier-free recreation and health promotion programs,” according to its website. In 2000, the nonprofit merged with the University of New Hampshire.

Many of the students who played were not rookies.

“I still don’t know how to do this, and it’s my second year,” Sara Schilke said after playing.

Players must have “a mobility-related disability in at least three limbs,” according to the Wildcat release, and Schilke said the effort required to roll, spin and shift directions is a great way to get beyond simply observing.

“It is a workout, I’m soaked,” she said. “Last year, my arms were sore for two days.”

Wildcat Ashley Perkins has been playing for 14 years, after having played basketball and soccer.

“It is a little more brutal,” he said of games that are not exhibitions. “When I first started playing, it took a long time to get used to.”

Kira Schollenberger is studying physical therapy and was rolling with the Wildcats for her second year.

“This teaches you patience,” she said. “You have to trust your teammates and your chair to keep you safe.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

UNE student Sidney Bast tries to make a break for it while playing quad rugby with the Northeast Passage Wildcats on April 27. Grad students joined team members for an exhibition game in Portland.

UNE student Sidney Bast is chased down by Northeast Passage Wildcat Ryan Coy in an exhibition of quad rugby played April 27 in Portland.

UNE student Sara Schilke hauls in a pass before breaking for the goal in a game of quad rugby April 27 in Portland. The students learned the game from the Northeast Passage Wildcats.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.