Three-time Paralympian Jason Regier, who began his Rio de Janeiro 2016 campaign with wins against France and Sweden, knows how important it is for a sports program to have a home base.
For the U.S. wheelchair rugby program, the Lakeshore Foundation in the Birmingham, Alabama metro area, has served as its home base since becoming a U.S. Paralympic Training Site in 2003, shortly after Regier took up the sport competitively.
“Lakeshore has been a special place for me in my international career,” Regier said.
Historically a rehabilitation hospital, the Lakeshore Foundation transitioned to an athletic facility for people with a disability by the turn of the century. Now, three renovations later, it’s synonymous with wheelchair rugby, holding tryouts, training camps and competitions for the U.S. national team on a regular basis.
The complex, which sits on about 45 acres just south of downtown Birmingham, includes a field house with three hardwood courts and an indoor track, aquatics center, fitness center, shooting range, research lab and dormitories.
For Regier and his teammates, it has everything they need.
“To have the dorms right there by the facility, and the food there is great,” he said. “We know everybody by first name there; they’re part of the wheelchair rugby family. They’re part of something special, and home for us has always been Birmingham.”
That sense of home in the greater Birmingham area encouraged Regier to take time during his Road to Rio to help the Paralympic Games’ host nation lay the foundation for a home base of its own one day. It began back in 2005, when Regier and teammate Seth McBride hosted a wheelchair rugby demonstration in Brazil.
Now the host nation is in the midst of its Paralympic debut in wheelchair rugby, the hardest-hitting sport at the Games, featuring crashes that would do NASCAR proud.
Brazil entered the competition ranked No. 19 in the world, automatically qualifying as the host nation in a sport where only Team USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have previously won medals on the Paralympic stage.
“Here we are 11 years later at the Paralympics in Brazil, and their team is playing high-quality rugby, and it’s just awesome to see what a decade of development has done since we were last there,” Regier said, referencing the creation of roughly 10 Brazilian wheelchair rugby leagues.
Regier, paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident in 1996, almost didn’t embark on his own Road to Rio, though.
Prior to the London 2012 Games, the Denver native toyed with those Games being his last. But he quickly changed his mind when there was no “fairy-tale golden ending” in the British capital, instead leaving with a bronze medal.
Regier committed to another Paralympic cycle as the U.S. team captain, and he bought a new competition chair worth roughly $6,500.
He sold his old chair at a negotiated price to a 0.5-classed wheelchair rugby player named Renan Prestes, who was trying to move up the national ranks in — you guessed it — Brazil.
Regier kept in touch with Prestes, developing a pen-pal type relationship to help the Brazilian develop an athlete pathway to his national team one day.
What unfolded shortly before Regier left for Rio was only fitting.
“I got a cool email from him saying he was excited that the U.S. Embassy reached out to his local team to see if they wanted to do something with the U.S. team during the Paralympics to help launch their programs and gain more resources,” Regier said. “So I sent it on to our team leader to see if it was true, and she said, ‘Yeah, we’re working on it,’ and then a couple of days ago she confirmed that we’re going to meet that team.”
The entire U.S. wheelchair rugby squad met with Prestes’ local team last week, inspiring them to embark on Paralympic journeys of their own one day.
With Regier and McBride the lone holdovers from the Beijing 2008 title-winning team, Team USA opened competition Wednesday, beating France 51-42, and following that with a 54-44 win over Sweden Thursday.
The U.S. is the most successful wheelchair rugby team in the world, having won medals in all four Paralympic tournaments it has competed in, including two golds.
However, for perhaps the first time in history, Team USA did not enter Paralympic competition as the favorites after falling short of a third consecutive world title in 2014 and settling for silver at the Parapan American Games in 2015.
“This is one of the most overall competitive tournaments we’ve ever seen,” Regier said. “The biggest thing I see when I look at these Games versus London, is that the rest of the world has gotten better. There’s no longer a great divide between the top two or three teams. We now have a good six or seven up there. I don’t think anybody takes anybody lightly anymore.”
Regier, the oldest member of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team at 41, will wait until after these Paralympics to make a retirement decision.
But no matter the competition outcome on the court, he’s already made an impact in Rio. He’s passed along knowledge and resources from his own home base to help the Brazilians begin a search for their own.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.