When you look at the photo of the 16 athletes chosen to train together to try to make the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team in wheelchair rugby, something jumps out.
Front and center is a woman.
Technically, wheelchair rugby has always been a co-ed sport. There just haven’t been very many women to make it to the national level until now.
In fact, Liz Dunn is just the second ever. She was named to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Training Squad following a four-day selection camp last month in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Yep, I get a lot of funny looks when I tell people I play rugby,” said Dunn, 29. “They’re like, ‘What?’”
It doesn’t help that Dunn is by nature a quiet person, and not a very big person, and wheelchair rugby is, well, the sport on which the 2005 documentary “Murderball” was based. So how is Dunn, who lives in Pittsburgh and works as a registered dietician, not intimidated?
“Oh, I am,” she said. “It’s definitely intimidating because a lot of them have been around the sport for so long and know so much about it and I’m fairly new, especially to that level of rugby. It’s pretty intimidating but everyone’s been very welcoming and very helpful teaching me and helping me learn so it evens it out a bit.”
Dunn’s life changed when she was 20 years old and a student at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. She was asleep in the back seat of a car when it was struck by another vehicle and the accident shattered her C5 vertebrae. The spinal cord injury left her in a wheelchair with limited mobility in her arms and core.
She became involved in wheelchair rugby in 2013 after moving to Pittsburgh to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. She’d played sports and was active her whole life prior to the injury, Dunn said, so when a friend mentioned the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers quad rugby team she wanted to come to a practice and check it out.
It wasn’t until the following year, she said, that she began to practice with them regularly, but being active and being part of a team helped bring back elements of her life prior to the accident that she’d been missing.
Little did she know that in 2017 she would make an interesting connection on social media.
“Chuck Aoki and Joe Delagrave messaged me on Facebook,” she said. “One day they both just added me and I had no idea why, so they messaged me. It was really interesting. I never expected it.”
The two national team and Paralympic veterans asked her how long she’d been playing, asked about her classification and whether she had any interest in pursuing the sport with the national team, Dunn said.
“Which of course I did,” she said. “I was completely shocked, kind of overwhelmed, excited and terrified. Then tryouts were a few months later.”
At the first tryout there was one other woman in the camp. Last year she was the only one, and again this year she was the only female of the 37 athletes who participated.
James Gumbert is head coach of the USA Wheelchair Rugby Team and said that although the sport’s always been co-ed, there just haven’t been the numbers in the past, not only of female players but also of female quadriplegics.
As the sport has changed over the years and is now being played in increasing numbers on the international stage, he said, the numbers of women playing have increased as well; three women competed at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 for Canada, Chile and Colombia. Still, the only other woman who’s been part of the U.S. national team in the past was Keri Morgan in 2009.
One of the alluring things about Dunn, Gumbert said, is that her classification is .5, and women get 1/2 point deducted so she plays as a zero. The total number of points a team can have on the court at one time is eight, which means the points could then be divided between three players to get more function in the game.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Dunn doesn’t have to hold her own. Last year coaches told her that in order for her development to get to where it needed to be to play for Team USA, she’d need to do more. She transferred to a United States Quad Rugby Association league Division I team in Texas, and her work is paying off.
Gumbert said she made an impression at this year’s camp. Referring to Dunn’s heart, he said it’s a lot like the line in “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” when Maz Kanata says to Finn, “I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people.”
“Her actions speak louder than words,” he said. “She’s extremely quiet, she’s not going to be the vocal leader, but she has heart and if she doesn’t know something she’s not afraid to ask. That’s a big thing. She is very much on the fast track of learning.”
Of the 16 athletes selected from December’s training camp, 12 will be on the roster that travels to Tokyo for the 2020 Paralympic Games.
The prospect that she could be the first American woman to play wheelchair rugby at the Games is something that Dunn still finds hard to wrap her mind around.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “It’s hard to put it to words (what it would mean). It’s hard to believe that it’s possible but it’s definitely very exciting. Hopefully it raises some awareness that yes, females can play rugby and gets some more females involved in the sport in general. That would be a great thing.”