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

Liz Dunn Wheelchair Rugby
Lexi Branta Coon

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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