January 23, 2011

The Fastest Sport on Four Wheels

by Paul Krome | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Convention Live Blog

Wheelchair Lacrosse, a San Diego-based organization, stages games on hockey rinks with a goalie, two defensemen, two middies and two attackmen per side. The movement could soon reach the East Coast, with a camp in Richmond in May.

BALTIMORE -- “All we want to do is play. We are so addicted to this.”

Ryan Baker talks like any other athlete that has recently fallen in love with lacrosse. Like many, he picked up a stick for the first time two years ago. In California. At age 36.

From his wheelchair.

He won’t be the last to do so if he can make his dreams come true, and his presence at the 2011 US Lacrosse National Convention, presented by Champion, was a big step in that direction.

Baker is the founder of Wheelchair Lacrosse, a San Diego-based organization endeavoring to make the fastest sport on two feet the fastest sport on, well, four wheels. He and co-founder Bill Lundstrom have welcomed approximately 15 disabled athletes to join their program for regular lacrosse action at a roller hockey rink. They flew to Baltimore and set up a complimentary booth, courtesy of US Lacrosse members, alongside more than 100 other vendors in the sport’s largest exposition hall.

“We’re trying to maintain the integrity of the game by not changing anything,” said Baker, who lost the use of his legs as a passenger in a car accident the day after he graduated high school 20 years ago. “The sticks still have to be 40 inches long. There is a little bit of contact, which is appealing for us.”

We live in a world saturated by media, but there is no substitute for the person-to-person interactions that connect us best. Baker and Lundstrom, the latter injured in a 2002 motorcycle accident at age 27, have shared their stories with a healthy portion of some 5,000 convention attendees. And not unlike the growth of other segments of lacrosse, wheelchair lacrosse can spread based on the inherent love of the game -- something that may not be as evident in other wheelchair sports.

“We have guys who play with us and don’t do anything else,” Baker said. “They’re not interested in basketball or tennis or golf.”

Wheelchair lacrosse is played with a goalie, two defensemen, two middies and two attackmen. (Scroll down for a series of videos to see it in action.) The group began playing in 2009 and has been through its share of trial and error, since adjusting play to use an indoor lacrosse ball, prohibiting checks from behind and moving goals a few feet closer to midfield to allow more operating room behind the cage. Players must learn to push themselves up the floor while handling ball and stick.

“With tennis, you have to learn how to push with the racket in your hand. So why not a lacrosse stick?” Baker said.

With a share of wows among the reactions of convention visitors, Wheelchair Lacrosse hopes to continue reaching out in person. The group has lined up a camp May 21-22 in Richmond, Va., thanks in part to a financial contribution by the Richmond Chapter of US Lacrosse. The camp will entail Baker, Lundstrom and perhaps others traveling east, along with a supply of lacrosse equipment, to expose the wheelchair version of the game to the disabled community in Richmond. Sport-ables, a non-profit organization, will supply wheelchairs.

“There is a hope that Richmond could be an East Coast center for wheelchair lacrosse,” Alice Dixon, president of the Richmond Chapter, wrote in an e-mail to US Lacrosse.

Baker said these educational camps also are in the works for San Jose, Calif., and Denver. In two or three years, he’d like to see eight or 10 communities develop wheelchair programs as a prelude to a national tournament.

“To be at the US Lacrosse National Convention and to have Wheelchair Lacrosse here so people can see what we’re doing – it’s amazing for us,” Baker said.

“What we were shooting for here is just awareness,” Lundstrom said. “People come up and say, ‘Wow, we had no idea. I know people in chairs that would love to play but didn’t know it was available.’ Hopefully they take some literature and get a little buzz going, and a couple teams start just because of us being here.”

Sounds similar to other growth stories involving America’s first sport.

For more information, visit www.wheelchairlacrosse.com.

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