Derek Taylor positions his wheelchair into the path of a charging ball carrier and braces for the crash. "I wonder," he says to himself, "how bad this one is going to hurt."
The percussion of chair ramming chair reverberates through the gym like a heavy, metal drawer slamming shut. Noise, but this time no pain. It's a successful goal-line stand by Taylor, a defensive specialist for the Potomac Panthers "quad rugby" team.
Yes, quad rugby, as in rugby for quadriplegics. One ball, two teams and countless sideswipes, T-bones and head-on collisions. Picture a wheelchair demolition derby.
"When you boil it down, it's just guys trying to knock each other out," Taylor confesses. "It's fun to just get out there and knock people around."
If you think sports for the disabled begins and ends with wheelchair basketball, think again. Thanks in large part to lighter and more mobile wheelchairs and sophisticated sports equipment, disabled people are enjoying hair-raising adventures and rough-and-tumble sports like quad rugby.
"Everybody has that little bit of urgency to be a risk-taker -- 'Let's push the envelope a little bit,' " said Pamela Lehnert, director of Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports, a program for the disabled.
Paraplegics play "sled hockey," using ice picks to propel themselves across the rink. They play wheelchair football, which is not so rough as quad rugby, although a Perry Hall man recently died from head injuries suffered in a game.
Disabled thrill-seekers ski, on snow and on water, with special equipment. They ride whitewater rapids on wilderness rivers, kayak coastline bays and scuba-dive.
Some race four-wheel "off-road mountain chairs" down rugged biking trails, taking the jumps and ditches at more than 30 mph.
"It's one of the most exciting things I've ever done," says Sarah Will, a Colorado woman who was paralyzed from the waist down in 1988 in a ski accident. "Scary? It can be."
And the disabled are no longer limited to shooting hoops or playing softball with only their disabled friends.
A skeet shooting program brings fathers and sons together at a range near Loch Raven Reservoir. Disabled shooters chock their wheelchairs, and those with limited upper-body strength and mobility place the barrels of their shotguns on metal stanchions to steady their aim.
At family sailing outings at Sandy Point State Park, the disabled handle the tillers in modified keels that are operated by Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.
Active with friends, families
"It's a revolution in lifestyles," said Kirk Bauer, director of Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit national athletic program based in Rockville. "It's a lot of fun. It's great for your health and it's great for socialization. We can do these activities right along with our friends and families in a mainstream setting."
Over the past three decades, his organization has grown from 13 to 86 chapters of disabled skiers with programs for 20 sports. Bauer, who lost a leg in combat in Vietnam, skis and recently ran his first marathon using the latest in prosthetics.
For inspiration, the disabled can look to the paraplegic who this year scaled 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, or the amputee who last year reached the summit of Mount Everest.
Gerry Herman, co-director of the Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation Program for children and young adults in Baltimore, remembers when the disabled had few options other than wheelchair basketball.
"Now the choices are limitless," he says. "The barriers are being trampled down. If someone has an interest in it, there's someone who will help you find a way to do it."
Last year, Herman's program added sled hockey, where players move about the ice on sleds that are affixed to skate blades. Using two short hockey sticks, they shoot and pass the puck.
The program also operates a six-team wheelchair football league. The sport is similar to flag football, but played in a gym. When a ball carrier's wheelchair is touched, he is down. Some players use Styrofoam swimming "noodles" as bumpers on their chairs.
New love of sports
A few months ago, wheelchair football captured the imagination of a frail young man named Bryce Riley.
When he was age 6, Riley was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare muscle and tissue disease. At age 20, he weighed 60 pounds and could not move his head from side to side or lift his arms. He had virtually no muscle.
Riley was a fund-raiser for Johns Hopkins Children's Center and an artist whose drawings graced the center's holiday cards. Otherwise, he was a homebody who spent hours playing video games, his parents said. Growing up, Riley was no outdoorsman; he could not shoo bugs from his face. He was no athlete.
But two years ago, he began playing wheelchair soccer, where players use their chairs to bump a large ball toward a goal line. And this fall he joined a football team. He was the captain, and he named the team the Black Hole, a nod to his love of science fiction.
His mother, Gina Riley, had misgivings.
"I didn't want him to play, I must admit," she said. To her, the sport seemed too aggressive, and she questioned whether the other players appreciated how frail her son was.
During a game Nov. 20 at the Bennett Institute gym, Bryce Riley's heavy power wheelchair was knocked on its side. The accident, said his father, Bill Riley, was a "fluke" that just as easily could have happened during a soccer game. That day, Bryce Riley died during emergency brain surgery.
'He loved it so much'
Looking back, Gina Riley knows she had no choice but to let her son play football.
"I didn't want to stop him because he loved it so much," she said. "I would have never taken it away from him."
The disabled's desire to play, and a shortage of programs, prompted Lehnert to form Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports (BARS) in 1991. The group has grown from 25 to about 150 active members since then. Skiing is one of its more popular programs -- about 80 are expected for the group's annual "ski bash" in February at Wisp.
Twenty years ago, disabled people used "sit skis" that resembled toboggans more than skis. These days the disabled ski in seats attached to single or double blades, with responsive suspension systems that allow them to descend the mountain as well as any other skier.
"I pass by able people. I whiz by them and they say, 'Wow, what's that?' " said Wayne Beachy, partially paralyzed from the chest down since a car accident 22 years ago. "If you were a doer before, you'll be a doer after. If you were a sports guy before, you'll be a sports guy after."
In the summer, Beachy motors his 20-foot Chaparral to Rocky Point for BARS water-ski outings. The ski looks like a narrow surfboard with a chair attached. Swimmers on personal watercraft follow the skiers to help them when they fall.
Derek Taylor, the Potomac Panthers quad rugby player, became active in BARS at the group's ski outing last winter.
The 21-year-old student at Carroll Community College broke his neck three years ago after diving into the shallow end of a pool during a lifeguard training exercise. The doctors told him he'd probably never be able to get into his wheelchair without help. He can do that in six minutes.
On a recent Saturday, Taylor, strapped to his rugby chair, joined men with spinal cords pinched in car crashes or cut by a bullet as they ferried a ball down the basketball court at a Rockville gym. The wheelchair's footrest is surrounded by bars that resemble a football helmet face mask.
The sport, invented in Canada, was originally called "murderball." Quad rugby players say "flip-overs" are common, and are part of the thrill.
"Once you flip, you find it's OK, it doesn't hurt, you don't care anymore," said Blaine Coblentz, a quadriplegic from Gaithersburg. "You just go hit the guy."
At one point Taylor grabs a pass and wheels down the court untouched for a score. A while later, he and Coblentz join forces for the goal-line stand.
In the past year, Taylor has skied and gone kayaking at Chincoteague and whitewater rafting in West Virginia. He wants to try mountain biking and sky-diving.
"I'm an adrenalin junkie. I always have been," he said. "I can't sit around all my life and wait for something to happen."