Fast-paced and rough, with constant collision and physical contact, wheelchair rugby seamlessly blends together hockey, football and basketball, with an added element of a demolition derby thrown into the mix.
Showcasing their grit and athleticism with these skills, the wheelchair rugby athletes on Team Navy and Team Air Force took the court on June 6, for the gold medal match of the 2023 Department of Defense Warrior Games Challenge on Naval Station North Island.
For the first time in the history of the games, San Diego is the host city and Naval Air Station North Island is the venue for the athletic events that include eight individual sports and three team sports including wheelchair rugby.
The point-for-point nature of the game, paired with the tight outcomes of the preliminary rounds, emphasized the cut-throat competition among the athletes on each team.
Yet, deeper than this desire to win, ran a sense of mutual respect among the players, who all understand the reality of life with visible and invisible disabilities.
Serving as an outlet of recovery through adaptive sports competitions, the annual Warrior Games, which started in 2010 and rotates locations in the United States every year, celebrates the resiliency and mental toughness of wounded, ill and injured active duty and veteran U.S. military service members.
Developing recovery skills
James Sa, co-coach for Team Navy’s wheelchair rugby team, said that the sport, which was originally designed in 1977 for quadriplegic athletes, is a great avenue for active duty military members and veterans alike to compete with a team, while simultaneously developing recovery skills needed to help invisible challenges.
Adaptive sports is the launchpad to open the door to having the confidence to trust yourself to go do other things outside.”-James Sa, co-coach for Team Navy’s wheelchair rugby team.
“Adaptive sports is the launchpad to open the door to having the confidence to trust yourself to go do other things outside,” Sa said. “Being put in an environment where [athletes] can be competitive, be with each other, support each other, and learn to overcome that, is ultimately the goal of our culture, and rugby is just a really fun way to have them do it.”
Point-for-point gold medal match
After a neck and neck fight between SOCOM and the Marine Corps in the bronze medal wheelchair rugby match, where SOCOM took the 40 to 39 point lead with 14 seconds left in the game, the energy in VADM fitness center on Naval Air Station North Island was high.
The intensity peaked, however, once the Navy and Airforce took to the court for the gold medal match.
Team Air Force came into the game with a hefty list of credentials as the defending gold champs of wheelchair rugby in the 2022 Warrior Games. They also made it through the preliminary rounds unscathed.
Second seeded Team Navy, silver medalists in the 2022 games, beat the Marine Corps in an overtime victory, propelling them into the gold medal match.
Fans came prepared to match the energy with bells to ring, pompoms and hand clappers to wave, dance moves to show off, and flags from each respective military branch to run across the length of the court.
Team Navy starts hot
After the tip-off, Team Navy started off hot in the beginning until Team Air Force closed the gap and came to a 12 to 10 point lead at the end of the first quarter.
Senior Airman Darryl Holley led Team Air Force with five tries in one quarter of play. For Team Navy, Intelligence Specialist Andrew Garcia, Master at Arms Christopher Lorenz and Yeoman Aaron Gomez each had three tries.
The teams inched within points of each other throughout the second quarter.
Team Air Force’s Senior Airman Moses DeBraska pulled a 20 to 19 point lead 42 seconds before half, and then Team Navy’s Luis Cervantes recovered a loose ball on a breakaway to tie the game at 20 to 20, at 8.4 seconds before halftime.
A game that saves lives
Not only was Cervantes a leading player on the court for Team Navy, but he also served as a mentor to the other new team members, since this was his second year participating in the Warrior Games.
Now a U.S. military veteran, Cervantes served eight years of active duty in the Navy as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Handling officer.
After having a kidney transplant in 2018, Cervantes found a sense of belonging through the Warrior Games team sports, surrounded by other wounded, ill or injured active duty and veteran U.S. military service members.
I can say for myself, this was a life changing opportunity that I got. If I wasn’t introduced to these games, I would probably be in really dark places.”– Team Navy’s Luis Cervantes, who served eight years as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Handling officer.
“We’re all here for recovery. We’re all here to help each other compete because honestly, this game saves lives for a lot of athletes,” Cervantes said. “I can say for myself, this was a life changing opportunity that I got. If I wasn’t introduced to these games, I would probably be in really dark places.”
Derek Bolton served with Cervantes on the USS Germantown and was stationed with him in Japan from 2012 to 2014. He came to support Cervantes on the court, admiring his drive for the game.
“He’s just a warrior,” Bolton said. “His determination to continue to be a part of a brotherhood like this is something special. It talks alot about his moxy.”
Team Air Force and Team Navy continued to battle hard all the way to the end of the match, with the Air Force inching ahead in the fourth quarter.
Intelligence Specialist Andrew Garcia scored off of a nice assist from Cervantes with just 24 seconds left in the game, closing in on the four point lead the Air Force had over the Navy.
With a few seconds left in the game, Team Air Force’s DeBraska scored one last point to finish the game with a final score of 41 to 37, giving the Air Force the title of back to back gold champs.
Sa said he would love to raise awareness about the importance of adaptive sports, especially the importance in investing money in tools that serve to help the recovery of those with visible and invisible disabilities.
Eventually the wall will break, the dam will burst.”Sa on others learning about the importance of adaptive sports.
“That’s a huge problem, [that] ultimately, people just don’t know,” Sa said. “And the more people who understand what it does, the bigger those doors open. Eventually the wall will break, the dam will burst.”