Liz Dunn competes at USA Wheelchair Rugby practice.
Liz Dunn has a hard time describing what it’s like being the only woman on the U.S. national wheelchair rugby team, even though it’s something she gets asked about quite a bit.
For starters, she said, most people don’t realize that wheelchair rugby is a co-ed sport.
“So that’s kind of a big thing,” she said. “We’re still always kind of fighting against that.”
Plus, it’s just something that Dunn is used to. Even though the team has always technically been mixed gender, Dunn is only the second woman ever named to the roster.
If Dunn makes the Paralympic team this spring, she will be the first U.S. woman ever to compete in wheelchair rugby in the Paralympic Games. Thinking about that is a little overwhelming, she said.
“But super exciting at the same time,” said the 30-year-old research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. “Just being able to represent women in my sport is incredible, even in the position I’m in right now as a member of the (Paralympic) training team because it’s only the second time.”
Dunn, 30, suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident when she was 20 years old. The Warren, Pennsylvania, native first got involved in wheelchair rugby in 2013 after moving to Pittsburgh to pursue her master’s degree. A friend mentioned her local club team, the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, and invited her to check out a practice.
There had already been a few women on the team when she joined, she said, but that’s not the case with all club teams in the U.S.
“I feel like participation is getting better and better and more women are getting involved with rugby, which is awesome,” she said. “It’s exciting to see it’s going in the right direction. The other part of it is that because there are so few of us, we really stick together, which is fun. It doesn’t matter which team we play for, I have a really good friendship with a lot of the females who play rugby so that’s a really cool experience, too. But it’s definitely great to show that we can play and be competitive.”
Dunn always knew that the sport was co-ed at the national level but never thought of pursuing it that far until she was surprised by friend requests from Paralympic veterans Chuck Aoki and Joe Delagrave on social media. They introduced themselves, asked how long she’d been playing, what her classification was and whether or not she’d be interested in coming to a tryout in a few months.
The first time she tried out, there was one other woman. In 2019 and 2020, when she joined the team, she was the only one.
In order to progress in the sport, Dunn joined a United States Quad Rugby Association Division I team in Texas in 2019, although the 2020-21 season was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
Wheelchair rugby was invented in 1977 and was recognized as a Paralympic sport in 1994. It made its debut as a demonstration sport in Atlanta in 1996, where the U.S. won, and as a medal sport in Sydney in 2000, where the U.S. won again. Team USA has medaled in every Paralympic Games so far, winning a second gold in 2008 in Beijing, bronze in 2004 and 2012 and silver in 2016.
Of the 16 athletes on the roster, 12 will travel to Tokyo this summer.
Although women are a minority on international rosters, there have been several who’ve broken through at the highest level. Miranda Biletski, for example, was on Canada’s Paralympic roster in 2016, Daniela Luchina helped develop Argentina’s national team, Yeny Paola Martinez played in the 2015 Parapan Games for Colombia and Maia Amai was a member of New Zealand’s national team. A total of three women competed at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019. The only other woman ever named to the U.S. national team was Kerri Morgan in 2009.
Dunn said that in her experience, the sport has always been accepting of women. Her teammates treat her like anyone else on the court, and if that means she’s in a bad position then she’ll pay the consequences and learn not to be in that spot the next time.
“I’m still trying to learn the sport and play the best I can, and show that women are just as competitive,” she said.
After ten and a half months apart, the U.S. team finally reconvened for a two-week training camp at the beginning of February. Although the competition schedule is still a bit up in the air as teams navigate through continued safety concerns and protocols, Dunn said, they’ll be back together for another camp in March as they continue to build toward Tokyo team selection and preparation.
“The first few practice sessions were definitely a little rough, but I think muscle memory and regular memory kicked in pretty quickly and it didn’t feel like we’d been apart as long as we were,” she said. “Once we got used to playing rugby again it was just like any other camp, trying to see what we can improve on and working to all do our best.”