Wheelchair lacrosse gains steam

Wheelchair lacrosse was invited in 2009. (Courtesy of Wheelchair Lacrosse USA)

Wheelchair lacrosse was invented in 2009. (Courtesy of Wheelchair Lacrosse USA)

For two hours each Tuesday afternoon, a small group of wounded troops meets in a gym at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, strapping on helmets, pads and gloves to get physical, battling one another to move a small orange ball down a court and hurl it into a goal.

The game is wheelchair lacrosse, and for these military laxbros — some novice, some experienced — the fast pace and demanding workout is just what the doctor ordered.

Similar to its field counterpart, wheelchair lacrosse calls for players to swing sticks, poke check each other and slam into each other to force possession of the ball.

The often brutal contact is what many of the players crave.

“Most of us grew up playing team-oriented, competitive, physical games. You enter the disabled sports world, it lacks those competitive team sports. Sure, you’ve got quad rugby and sled hockey, but this gives guys another option to go out there and play hard,” said Army Spec. Calvin Todd, 25, a former college lacrosse player who is at Walter Reed recovering from injuries sustained in an IED blast in 2012.

Wheelchair lacrosse was developed in 2009. Four years later, Wheelchair Lacrosse USA fields seven teams around the country, hosts workshops and has participated in tournaments nationwide.

Military participants just may be a key to reaching the goal of establishing a team in “every major city,” the organizers say.

Coach and founder of Maryland-based Freestate Wheelchair Lacrosse Mark Flounlacker said the sport has much to offer military personnel in recovery both physically and mentally.

“It keeps in tune with the warrior nature of the sport,” Flounlacker said, referring to its founding as a Native American sport in which it was perceived as cowardly to avoid an opponent. “It’s aggressive.” Plus, he said, “mentally, it’s an opportunity to learn that you are able to return to recreation and have fun.”

“You’d be going nuts even if you were a couch potato and paralyzed. But when you’re not that, and these guys aren’t, it’s a completely different dynamic. You could dwell on how bad you have it, but the faster you realize there is life out there, the better,” Flounlacker said.

The first wheelchair lacrosse clinic at Walter Reed drew 20 attendees last spring. This fall, organizers returned for another workshop and conducted a similar clinic at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Todd, who lost his left leg, says he’s excited to be part of an emerging sport. He plays regular lacrosse with his prosthetic leg and coaches youth teams in the Bethesda, Md., area.

But he enjoys wheelchair lacrosse for its unique challenges, he says.

“You need to be a little more coordinated playing in a chair because you have to maneuver the chair and still have to catch. … It really captures the essence of the sport.”

Interested service members — even able-bodied personnel are welcome (if they can hack it in a chair) — can find information on upcoming tournaments and clinics at www.wheelchairlacrosse.com or local organizations’ sites, such as Freestate Wheelchair Lacrosse’s Facebook page.

Patricia Kime is the health reporter for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.