The two new members of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby national team show swift progress
The 2020 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Training Team has put its 16 players through their paces, but only 12 will travel to the Tokyo Summer Games in less than 50 days. Four alternate players will stay behind when those named to the team collide against the world in Japan. Two of them are jersey No. 20, Liz Dunn (0.5 classification), along with jersey No. 9, Montrerius “Boonchie” Hucherson (3.5).
The 31-year-old Dunn is the second woman, following Kerri Morgan, to play on the co-ed U.S. national team and would have been the first female to earn a Paralympic spot, since Morgan didn’t play in a qualifying year.
“Several countries have females competing in wheelchair rugby, so while it is disappointing, I’m also new to this level,” Dunn said.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic complicated things for both players, since many competitions leading up to Tokyo were canceled.
In addition, there will be no overseas International Paralympic Committee classifications at the Games. This bumped the 31-year-old Hucherson, who joined last July.
“COVID got the world shook up, and especially for athletes, so that really had my mind doing flips,” he said.
But for both Hucherson and Dunn, who each recovered from bad vehicular accidents before finding wheelchair rugby, it’s all part of playing this game.
Joe Delagrave, the 2020 team captain, 2012 Paralympic bronze medalist and 2016 alternate, said he met Hucherson in club ball and that he fit in fast.
“From the get-go, he has shown athletic talents, sheer strength and an ability to be a great teammate. He will be a force over the next quad,” Delagrave said.
Dunn said last year felt similar to the days following her C6 level spinal-cord injury (SCI) 10 years ago.
“A lot like COVID, it changed everything in my daily routine, and there were so many unknowns about what was going on,” she said.
She stayed busy doing different therapies at home, including shoulder exercises using bands, using her functional electrical stimulation bike and stretching, in addition to pushing her rugby chair.
“I am so proud of Liz,” Delagrave said. “She has come a long way over these last two years and has been a huge light for the program.”
Count Him In
For Hucherson (Tallassee, Ala.), it was a motorcycle accident on May 20, 2018, while riding his Suzuki sport bike that resulted in his feet and nine fingers being amputated after a car ran a red light and Hucherson ran into its back door. He also sustained a punctured liver and injuries to his pelvis, wrist, femur, scapula, forearm and right eye. He said he didn’t realize he’d broken his neck (level C1-C3) until he couldn’t turn his head during his three months in rehab.
“There were a lot of painful days,” Hucherson said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, I just wanted to get out of the hospital, so when they set goals for me, I made sure I met them.”
Hucherson’s “Patient Independence Day,” was July, 20, 2018, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Spain Rehabilitation Center — not far from where the U.S. team trains at the Lakeshore Foundation.
Hucherson was introduced to wheelchair rugby in May 2019, fresh off of a national championships wheelchair basketball win in Chicago with Auburn University’s Division III team.
For him, there is a big difference between being blessed and being lucky, and that informs his approach to life.
“Being lucky is making something go in your favor, but being blessed is attributing any situation to the goodness of God,” he said. “After my accident, I got really down. Wheelchair sports gave me life again. I chose basketball because it’s all I played growing up.”
He still saves the text on his phone from coach James Gumbert that led to the tryouts in December 2019, during which he was selected to the national team.
Wheelchair rugby is a full-contact sport that involves ramming into members of the opposing team, sometimes tipping each other over. This daredevil mentality was not new to Hucherson, whose favorite movies are The Fast and the Furious and who in 2013, placed first in a local ATV competition as the fastest rider out of a field of over 20 four-wheelers.
Today, Hucherson is watching his 4-year-old son, Amir, grow up and said during a “Captain’s Chat” YouTube segment with Delagrave that he had to learn patience with more time at home.
“I look up to my whole team. What I learn from players makes me better,” Hucherson said.
A tattoo across his chest reads, “Trust The Process,” which Hucherson said got him through his lowest point.
“Never count me out, because no one can take what God has already planned for me,” he said.
The Hometown Girl
Dunn (Warren, Pa.) was in college when she sustained her SCI. A driver running a stop sign hit the car where she was sleeping in the back seat. In 2014, while attending graduate school, she began playing wheelchair rugby. After graduating, she committed to five tournaments a year.
Dunn’s participation in sports started early with YMCA youth soccer at age 6. Prior to her injury, she played soccer in high school and spent a lot of time snowboarding.
She said becoming involved in adaptive sports was a natural fit but that people don’t realize wheelchair rugby is a co-ed game.
“I always knew it was a mixed gender sport because a female friend introduced me to it in 2013,” Dunn said. “My first experience with the other players was at USAWR [USA Wheelchair Rugby] tryouts in January 2018. I learned the basics with Pittsburgh, but this level of play was faster than I could have imagined.”
Dunn may not have the shoulders of a rugby player and has limited core and arm mobility, but that hasn’t stopped her from pushing her weight against the boys.
“I love that she is a role model,” said Delagrave, who has played for Team USA for 13 seasons. “She’s small, doesn’t scream on court and doesn’t look physically intimidating. Yet, she is an example that you can excel at this sport in unique ways.”
In 2019, Dunn transferred to play with the Texas Stampede Division I team in Austin, Texas, to get more experience playing at a higher level and was named to Team USA for the 2020-21 season.
January was the team’s first camp back together in over 10 months.
“The first day of that camp was rough, but we all settled back in like we were never apart,” she said.
Virtually, the team met via Zoom for game nights and for workouts while gym access was limited.
“I am grateful for everyone who helped me improve,” Dunn said.
She now lives in Pittsburgh, where she played on the Steelwheelers wheelchair rugby team, is a registered dietitian and is working at the University of Pittsburgh’s Model Center on Spinal Cord Injury as a research associate. Instead of preparing for Tokyo, Dunn enjoyed a leisurely return from a recent camp in Birmingham, Ala., June 10-21, her third in 2021. She toured Shenandoah National Park (her 10th of the 63), and she tried out its accessible trails with her boyfriend, Brian. She’s also spent more time with her Boston terrier, Lucy, and kayaking.
“It’s relaxing to be able to float down the Allegheny River,” Dunn said. “Rugby is such a hard-hitting sport, it’s nice to do something that is the opposite. Outdoor activities are what I enjoy most about my hometown.”
USAWR’s final camp is Aug. 7-17, before the team competes overseas, but Dunn is already planning to try out again during selections Dec. 1-5.
And Hucherson’s roster spot?
“That’s when I show up, when the odds are against me,” he said. “They’re going to see a lot of me.”
To follow Team USA to Tokyo, visit: https://usawr.org/.