Paralympians part of wheelchair rugby team

Denver Harlequins play fast and hard in physical sport

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Littleton resident Jason Regier was driving his way back to Corvallis, Oregon in 1996 where he played soccer for Oregon State University. When he was driving his Jeep about 75 mph, he reached down to change the radio station in his vehicle. Next thing he knew, his Jeep rolled over three times — leaving him paralyzed.

“Just like that, in a split second, life changes,” said Regier.

During rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Regier was introduced to wheelchair rugby. Regier's passion for the game grew and led to him medaling three times with the USA Wheelchair Rugby team, with his most recent medal coming from the 2016 Summer Paralympics.

As Regier prepares to coach the Denmark Wheelchair Rugby team in the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, he is spending time in Lakewood at the Charles Whitlock Recreation Center each week, where he coaches the Denver Harlequins wheelchair rugby team.

The Harlequins, who practice at the Charles Whitlock Recreation Center, are made up of 16 players who all have a different story about why they are in a wheelchair. Nonetheless, the team competes in a fast-paced, hard-hitting, high-scoring sport. Wheelchair rugby is played on something similar to a basketball court, and it involves four players on each team who are ramming their wheelchairs into each other, trying to stop the opposing team from scoring.

“You have some of the most severely impaired individuals that play the fastest, hardest-hitting game. It grabs people's attention,” said Regier after he got done barking instructions for a drill for his team to run at a Nov. 7 practice. “It's high-level, and (wheelchair rugby has) an amazing amount of strategy and athleticism. Just like the Olympics, you get world-class athletes.”

Practices for the Harlequins look like this: Players participate in drills and scrimmages, as well as conditioning exercises for matches by wheeling their chairs up and down a gym floor for minutes.

The Harlequins are full of players who compete for the USA Wheelchair Rugby team, including Adam Scaturro and Chuck Aoki, Lakewood residents, Eric Newby of Bailey and Jake Daily from Illinois.

Regier called Aoki the USA Wheelchair Rugby team's top player. Aoki was born with a rare genetic condition called hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type II. It's a condition that affects sensory nerve cells, which transmit information about sensations like pain, temperature and touch to the brain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Aoki started using a wheelchair when he was 9, and has been part of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team since 2009.

“It's been an incredible ride. I'm just trending in the right direction, and we're hopefully going to go get gold in Tokyo,” said Aoki. “Rugby is physical, it's hard-hitting, it's intense, and it's passionate. It's the most exciting Paralympic sport out there.”

Aoki's teammate Newby broke his neck in 2006 the night of his high school graduation in a car accident. While he was in rehab, he met the coach of the St. Louis Spartans wheelchair rugby team. Three weeks after that meeting, he got in a chair and hasn't stopped playing wheelchair ruby since. Newby has been part of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team since 2012 and joined the Harlequins in 2016.

“Rugby was my new outlet, and my new thing to focus on and work toward. It was helping me get stronger in everyday life,” said Newby. “I encourage people to not sit at home. That's the worst thing you can do for yourself — just find your passion.”

In February, the Harlequins won their second straight Tampa International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament. The USA Wheelchair Rugby team earned a gold medal after a victory against Canada in the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima over the summer. The victory secured a spot for the team in the 2020 Summer Paralympics.

“(Wheelchair rugby) is one of the coolest sports most people have never seen. I think the games coming up in Tokyo will be of the highest levels of competitions put on,” said Regier.

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