By Alison Ryan
Don’t let the wheelchair fool you: Eric Newby is a hardcore rugby player.
“Smashing Stereotypes One Hit at a Time,” is the main message for players in the United States Quad Rugby Association. It’s not your traditional rugby game, oh no. Newby plays a version originally named “murderball” for its intense and full-contact nature. If rugby wasn’t already tough enough, these guys play in specially adjusted chairs designed to be used like battering rams. The athletes aren’t shy about using them either.
In fact, Newby’s athleticism and dedication has earned him a spot on the USA National Wheelchair Rugby Team where his team has won 3 gold medals, and in 2013 he was named player of the year in the U.S.
Now his focus is getting to the podium in the Brazil 2016 Paralympics.
In 2006, a then 18-year-old Newby was a passenger in a tragic motor vehicle accident. The injuries sustained in the wreck left him paralyzed from the chest down and greatly reduced the mobility of his arms, changing his life forever.
As Newby struggled with his new reality, a therapist at the rehabilitation hospital thought it might help him to watch the movie Murderball, a documentary about the heated rivalry between the USA and Canada National Wheelchair Rugby teams. It piqued his interest. As rehab progressed, a day trip to the Paraquad health and wellness center resulted in his meeting with the St. Louis Rugby Rams coach who asked, would he be interested in playing rugby? The answer was a resounding yes, and on the same day he was released from rehab, Newby went straight to practice. The rest is, as they say, history.
His introduction to the sport wasn’t without difficulty.
“When you’re an athlete with an able body, your body is used to running around,” Newby said. “You’re already pretty conditioned from being a kid, so running up and down the basketball court is no big deal. But when you first get hurt, it’s a really weird transition to get your arms and body conditioned to where you can even push a wheelchair for two hours in a rugby game. It takes years. You don’t start off as a baby running around on the basketball court. It’s kind of the same thing.”
Hooked from the start, Newby has a deep appreciation for the sport of wheelchair rugby and the hard work that goes into it.
“The stuff that you get out of [rugby] helps with everyday life too,” Newby said. “Rolling around in a wheelchair you need to be strong and in shape to even go places, so it makes just everyday life better.”
Wheelchair (or Quad) Rugby is a physically demanding, strategic and tough sport.
To qualify to play athletes must be impaired with tetraplegia or quadriplegia, having a minimum of impairment in three limbs. The team members are subdivided by impairment level with ratings from 0.0 as the most disabled, and a rating of 3.5 being the least disabled.
Newby is ranked at a 2.0, but at his level of athleticism, you couldn’t tell by watching him. The disabilities for Newby and the other players become an afterthought after you’ve seen their brutal offensive attacks and the finesse in their passing teamwork.
The game is played on the dimensions of a basketball court with four players from each team on the court at a time. The objective of the players is to pass, dribble, and push their way across the goal line with the game ball. They only have 40 seconds to make a score and the ball has to pass mid-court within 12 seconds. Players are not allowed to hold the ball for more than 10 seconds without dribbling or passing to a team member; and failure to do these things results in a turnover.
Newby trains constantly. Weight training sessions happen 3 or 4 days a week accompanied by sprinting drills and on days when he isn’t lifting, he works on long distance and endurance pushes. He said his strength and conditioning coach has helped him grow a lot, revamping his nutrition plan and helping him get his mile time down to 6 minutes, 30 seconds. His new personal goal is to get to a 5-minute mile.
High protein and high carbs are on the menu to help Newby’s body keep up with the intense physical demands.
“I have to eat a lot and I have to eat healthy. It’s kind of ridiculous,” Newby laughed.
A memory of a rough tryout in 2009 is what motivates him to challenge himself and push through.
“I embarrassed myself and realized how far away I was from the elite level,” Newby recalled. “I thought I was ready, and I wasn’t even close. Thinking back to that, just the feeling of when I left that tryout and got cut. That feeling motivates me.”
He says he’s not a good looser.
“It was the same feeling this year when we took bronze at world. It was gut wrenching to spend so much time on something, devoting hours and hours to working, pretty much giving up your life to be the best player you can be and then not finishing at the top.”
It’s that feeling, Newby says, which drives him to keep striving for excellence.
A Team Effort
The teamwork required to have a top performing rugby team is unquestionable. It’s also part of why Newby enjoys playing wheelchair rugby so much.
“I know I have to keep my training schedule and work out to stay at the top of my game,” Newby said. “Just the daily grid of it; and then there’s the camaraderie of being on team USA… It’s a team of twelve guys that are best friends and it’s something that’s indescribably, honestly.”
Newby talked about two fellow players he’s played beside on the USA Rugby team in particular: Andy Cohn and Chuck Melton.
Newby admires Cohn’s methodical and intelligent game play, saying that in the last two years, playing on the same team with Cohn he had learned more about the game than what he knew even existed. Melton is also a player for the Rugby Rams.
“It’s kind of cool that we worked together to get up to that top level and traveled the world together over the last few years,” Newby said. “I wouldn’t trade that guy for the world.”
For all the camaraderie, there is also rivalry.
Over the last couple of years, the St. Louis Rugby Rams have had an ongoing rivalry with the Minnesota Steelheads on the court. Off the court, Newby said one of the Steelheads’ best players is one of his best friends in the world.
Moving up to the national level the rivalries get a little more heated.
“When you get to Team USA, everybody is cutthroat, competitive, and screaming at each other. Everybody is in phenomenal shape. One bad decision, and you’re going to end up on your face and have a turnover,” Newby said.
At worlds, team USA lost to a long time rival in Canada, in overtime, which put Canada in second place and the US in third. (It’s still a sore subject for Newby.) Australia is currently ranked #1 in the world, but Newby thinks team USA is looking strong for Rio.
“To be successful in Brazil , we just need to stick to our guns. Everybody looks good, we just need to continue to push each other,” he said.
The Cool Down
Newby confessed his teammates would describe him as, ‘the nicest jerk you’d ever meet,’ only they chose a more colorful word than ‘jerk.’
“On the court, I’m very intense,” Newby said. “I will yell and scream, and then the second we get off the court, I‘ll apologize for yelling and screaming, and buy you a milkshake because I feel bad.”
Vanilla would be his pick.
To decompress in off time, Newby watches the NBA (he’s a big LeBron James fan) and roots for his hometown baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals. He says he’s in heaven between the NBA finals and baseball in full swing.
Newby’s advice to anyone interested in pursuing wheelchair rugby shines a light on his personal experience and his personal philosophy:
“You‘ve got to stick with it, put your heart into it, and as bad as it hurts when you start, it’s going to get better. Once that conditioning comes around everything gets way easier.”
To keep up with Eric Newby you can follow him on Twitter @ENewby9