Wheelchair rugby player Liz Dunn is aiming to make U.S. Paralympic history

Liz Dunn Wheelchair Rugby
Lexi Branta Coon
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This story is the third in an On Her Turf series called “Groundbreakers,” which highlights female athletes who compete in sports or events that 1) are primarily contested by men or 2) aren’t currently open to women at the highest level. Today’s story features Liz Dunn, who could become the first woman to represent the U.S. in wheelchair rugby at next summer’s Tokyo Paralympics.

Groundbreakers #1: Unequal footing in track and field: Jordan Gray’s fight for a women’s decathlon
Groundbreakers #2: Is there a future for women in the national pastime? Baseball player Malaika Underwood hopes so

Wheelchair rugby: a mixed-gender sport that isn’t always mixed-gender

Wheelchair rugby is open to men and women, but that fact is not always immediately evident when players take to the court. Since the sport debuted at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, just five women have competed at Games:

  • 2008 Beijing Paralympics: Josie Pearson (Great Britain)
  • 2012 London Paralympics: Kylie Grimes (Great Britain) and Bieke Ketelbuters (Belgium)
  • 2016 Rio Paralympics: Coral Batey (Great Britain) and Miranda Biletski (Canada)

Next summer at the Tokyo Paralympics, Liz Dunn could become the first American woman to accomplish the feat. In January, she was one of 16 players named to the U.S. training squad. With less than 10 months until the rescheduled Tokyo Paralympics, she remains in contention for a spot on the final 12-athlete U.S. roster.

Dunn’s path to wheelchair rugby

Dunn hails from Warren, Pennsylvania. She grew up playing a variety of sports, snowboarded in the winter, and was a member of her high school’s varsity soccer team. “There wasn’t too much to do other than getting outside,” she recalls.

She attended college at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. During her junior year, she was sleeping in the backseat of a car when the driver ran a stop sign, and their car was struck. The accident resulted in Dunn breaking her neck and sustaining a spinal cord injury.

She was introduced to wheelchair rugby about two years later when she moved to Pittsburgh to resume her undergraduate degree. “I knew about some adaptive sports, but I just never thought of trying it,” she says.

Eventually though, in the fall of 2013, one of Dunn’s friends brought her along to a “Pittsburgh Steelwheelers” wheelchair rugby practice. At her first practice, the most she did was sit in one of the rugby chairs, “just to see what it would feel like.”

“When you first sit in our chair, you can’t just push it right away and be able to pass or catch a ball,” she explains. “It took a lot of practices to be included in some of the other drills without me just fumbling a ball.”

A paradoxical strength

As with all Paralympic sports, wheelchair rugby uses a classification process to help ensure that winning is determined by skill and fitness, rather than degree of disability. Wheelchair rugby players are classified on a scale from 0.5 to 3.5, depending on the severity of their disability. Four players from each team are allowed on the court at a time, but the sum of their classification points can’t exceed eight. However, when at least one player on the court is a woman, that team is allowed up to 8.5 points. In other words, female players essentially have 0.5 points deducted from their classification score. Because Dunn is a women, and is already classified as a 0.5, she plays “as a zero.”

“It’s kind of funny being a zero. Usually you wouldn’t think that’s a good thing… but it’s a benefit for me. You can have higher point players out on the court since I don’t count against that eight points.”

In general, offensive players tend to have higher classification numbers, while defensive players have lower classification values. “I play a more defensive role just because I’m not able to throw the ball half court,” Dunn explains. “It’s just not possible for me.”

Still, Dunn has embraced her on-court role. “I love being able to just turn my chair and stop someone,” she says. “It’s definitely a lot of fun that it’s a contact sport.”

Gender equality in wheelchair rugby? It’s complicated

The number of women’s Olympic and Paralympic events has grown significantly in recent decades. In some cases, Paralympic sports have led the way. For example, women’s wheelchair basketball debuted at the 1968 Paralympics, while the Olympics didn’t include a women’s basketball competition until 1976.

But the growth of women’s wheelchair rugby isn’t quite as straightforward.

Wheelchair rugby – also called “quad rugby” – is open to athletes with disabilities that affect both their arms and legs. According to the sport’s international federation, “Most players have spinal cord injuries with full or partial paralysis of the legs and partial paralysis of the arms.”

Given that close to 80 percent of spinal cord injuries are sustained by men, wheelchair rugby’s player pool isn’t exactly gender balanced. “It’s more likely that more men are going to play rugby, and women are a much smaller pool,” Dunn explains.

Even without dedicated women’s teams, though, Dunn says one of her goals is to “help show that there are women in rugby.”

“From my experiences, everyone’s been really open and welcoming to females playing in the league.”

Still pushing to Tokyo

At the start of the 2019-20 season, Dunn began playing for the Texas Stampede, a more competitive club team that is based in Austin. The decision resulted in a lot of time spent on the road; between January and mid-March of 2020, she went on seven trips for wheelchair rugby (either tournaments with the Stampede or U.S. national team camps).

And then, of course, came COVID-19.

Dunn, a registered dietician and research associate at the University of Pittsburgh, has always been able to work from home, but she’s had to get more creative to sustain her rugby career.

With her normal indoor facility closed, she has done much of her training in a nearby – and recently repaved (!) – parking lot. “I’ll just do like a few laps to warm up and then maybe some sprints or a few other conditioning drills… start/stop drills using the parking spaces.”

The U.S. national team has also held virtual camps, with players gathering online to watch footage and discuss plays. “At first it was a little hard, but after we settled into it, we were able to pick up and start talking about rugby just like before.”

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.