RAF veteran Stuart Robinson aims for Tokyo 2020
Stuart Robinson's been killing it at Invictus, club and Team GB level since he tried 'Murderball' for the first time Five years ago. His next target? The Paralympic Games in 2020...
Stuart Robinson’s first experience of wheelchair rugby – a sport that has been nicknamed ‘murderball’ because of its intense collisions– was much more full-on than he was expecting. The former RAF Gunner, who completed four tours of both Iraq and Afghanistan, was looking for an activity to get involved in after being severely injured by an IED on operations in 2013.
“I sent an email to the Invictus team to see if I could come to training and find out what wheelchair rugby was all about – I was looking for a bit of fun,” he says. “They invited me to Leicester for a weekend, but what I didn’t know was that training weekend was also the final selection camp for the London 2014 Invictus Games team!"
“I was thrown in at the deep end, with just a weekend to pick up a new sport. I didn’t have a clue at first – I thought you played with a rugby ball and had to pass it backwards, but wheelchair rugby is played with a round ball which you can bounce and pass in any direction. Luckily, I learned quickly!”
Elite wheelchair sport
Stuart impressed enough over the weekend to become a key member of the Invictus side that won gold at the Olympic Park in 2014, defeating the Americans in front of a partisan crowd.
It was quite clear that Stuart, who had been an excellent sportsman before his injury, had massive potential. He was invited onto the GB development squad, and attended the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games as part of the Paralympic Inspiration Programme. After that, he was promoted to the elite GB national squad and, as a professional sportsman, has dedicated every moment since to a career he hopes will culminate with an appearance at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.
“It’s been amazing. When I started playing the game, I just wanted to show my three kids that I was still their dad, that I could get on with life, and that they could look up to me,” says 37-year-old Stuart. “I saw leaflets at Headley Court advertising local clubs and thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t expecting anything from Invictus, but I really picked up the sport. I was strong and fit, which helped. Now, having watched the Paralympic Games in Rio, I’m very excited to hopefully be selected to take part in Tokyo. The Games are such an amazing spectacle.”
Stuart is quick to dispel some of the myths about wheelchair rugby. “A lot of people think it is just about collisions. They do happen – you can hit chair-to-chair as hard as you like, regardless of whether you have the ball – but person-to-person contact is not allowed.
“There is much more to the sport than that though: it’s physically demanding, you need a high aerobic capacity, you’ve got to be strong and have good hand-eye coordination, and it’s very technical. As well as making passes and avoiding hits, you have to remember lots of timing issues, so you’ve got all these numbers going through your head, as well as trying to work out which pass to make.”
The game’s timing rules mean that the ball must be bounced or passed every 10 seconds. Players have 12 seconds to get out of their own half, and then another 28 seconds to score a point before the ball goes to the opposition. And they’re not allowed in the opposition’s ‘key area’ for more than 10 seconds.
“You’re constantly making calculations because you’re time-limited, and it’s exhausting at the same time,” says Stuart. “You’re trying to control the chair, stop yourself from going out of bounds, you’re taking hits... and you’re up and down the court all game! I love it.”
Stuart has gone from beginner to winner in one of the toughest sports around
The Paralympic version of the sport is four-a-side, with one point scored when a player takes the ball over the opposition’s line with both hands. Each athlete is given a classification based on their functionality, ranging from 0.5 for those with the least functionality to 3.5 for those with the most. The four players on the court cannot exceed a total of eight classification points.
As functionality is assessed in half-point graduations there are many combinations of players that a coach can use to try to gain a tactical advantage. “I’m classed as a 3.5,” says Stuart, “so I’m looked on to do most of the offensive work on the team. Different teams have different tactics. Australia are current Paralympic Champions, and Japan are World Champions, and they both play with two 3.5 players who are fast and agile, and two 0.5 players whose role is mostly defensive.”
The GB team is currently ranked fourth in the world. “Australia, Japan, and USA are the top three teams, and we recently overtook Canada to claim fourth place,” says Stuart. “We meet once a month for a training camp in Lilleshall, and we worked hard this summer for the European Championships in Denmark. We won the competition for the third successive time, which was great because the top two teams automatically qualified for next year’s Paralympics in Tokyo!”
Stuart, from Morecambe, plays club rugby for West Coast Crash, a side based in Southport. They’re part of the top GB division – with three leagues overall containing 19 teams. “We don’t play every weekend,” says Stuart. “Instead, we meet every couple of months and play every team in the league over the course of a weekend – which is pretty tiring!
“I also train twice a week; once in Southport and once in Sheffield. It’s a full-time job. I’m in the gym most days, aiming to get fitter, stronger and faster – anything that makes it easier once I’m in the chair.”
Playing elite wheelchair rugby isn’t open to everyone: upper body injuries are a pre-requisite, so many lower limb amputees don’t qualify (Stuart lost both legs in the IED blast, but also sustained shoulder injuries that allow him to compete). For those who do qualify, there is fierce competition to get into the GB squad. “It’s unbelievably tough, but I want to be the best,” says Stuart. “When I started I wanted to be as good as the best guy on the Invictus team, now I want to get as good as the best in the world. A couple of my fellow club players have been on the GB team longer than I have, so I’m always looking to learn from them.”
But away from the elite level, the sport is open to anyone. “There are various clubs and leagues that newcomers can play in and which accommodate all kinds of injuries,” says Stuart. “Anyone who wants to take part should have a look on the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby website for their nearest club.”
Stuart hopes the sport can change more lives in the way it has changed his. “The sport has given me so much. It’s kept me fit and healthy, and has got my life back on track. Mentally, it has helped me massively. When you leave the military, where you’re used to teamwork, banter and camaraderie, you fear you are never going to get that again. Lots of injured military people suffer because they miss it so much. Getting involved with a local team puts you back into that zone. Luckily for me, I fell right back into it with sport. The fun is there, and you are looking out for one another. I can’t recommend it enough.”
Find out more about how to get into Wheelchair Rugby here
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