by James Sa
James Sa is an aspiring writer and quad rugby player who currently plays with the Sharp Edge rugby team. He is already famous for his excellent form as a tackling dummy and penchant for devouring his entire meal before his peers even start eating. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, working out, and harassing Jeff Odom.
My legs aren’t too fond of me these days. Living with quadriplegia gave me a new appreciation of the human physique’s versatility; all the tasks carried out by different muscles were suddenly delegated to only a quarter of my body. My rotator cuffs are now ACLs, my biceps, hamstrings. A low slung seat and girdle substitute my paralyzed trunk, perched between two wheels cambered wide to allow for high speed turns. The transformation from my everyday chair to my rugby chair is startling.
It’s hard to explain to my able-bodied friends the draw of rugby; it’s certainly easy for them to “get” that it’s a cool and fun way to continue my love for competition, but to really “get” it requires a deeper explanation.
I remember the first time I got a real bike. It was a 21 speed mountain bike with 26” wheels, an impressive upgrade from what I had been terrorizing my neighborhood on. At ten years old, I had to jump just to get on the seat, but my father promised I’d grow into it. I felt like I was riding a motorcycle. Being able to gear up and conquer hills with ease made me feel powerful and fast—pedaling furiously to barely make headway on any ground while my brother effortlessly glided around quickly became a distant memory. My world exploded, yielding exciting new territories behind hills that previously served as impenetrable gates.
There is a marriage of sorts between a disabled athlete and their equipment. The best track and field amputee will never be competitive without prosthetics tailored to their height and weight. A rugby chair that does not compensate for a lack of trunk muscles in a player leaves them a sitting duck while their opponent cuts and leaves them in the dust. The days of playing soccer barefoot in the park are gone. We must not only train to maximize our potential, but also trust in the integrity of our gear and its ability to carry us as far as we have prepared. Conversely, it is impossible for an athlete to ever realize what they can achieve if they’re never given the opportunity.
This is where Challenged Athletes Foundation helped pick up my life from the aftermath of a tragic accident. Being the strongest or the fastest takes hard work. Through CAF, the right to work hard is no longer denied to the disabled. With steep medical fees that haunt the disabled for a lifetime, a grant to fund athletic equipment becomes a beacon of hope and a reminder that something better is attainable. I had no idea I could be fast or strong again. I just wanted to go to a rugby practice to take my mind off being crippled.
Jeff Odom, a mentor for CAF, happened to be the first person I met. An experienced and accomplished athlete, he took me under his wing immediately, opting to sit out the entire practice so I could try out his rugby chair. Suddenly, I was turning on a dime, able to reach both arms above my head to catch passes, and push the length of the court in a blink of an eye. I was actually quite awful, but after spending months in a bulky hospital chair, I felt like an Olympic sprinter. At the end of practice, Jeff offered to be my mentor through a CAF program (Project N.Ex.T.) which would help fund a rugby chair of my own. The same feeling I received from my first bike resurfaced, a powerful and uplifting contrast from the depression I suffered from being paralyzed. I started to notice that there were quads with broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms that could not be described by any other word than simply, “athletic”. These were physiques impossible to develop by merely sitting around all day.
I get my speed fix now by hopping into my rugby chair, gunning around nearby trails and hills with just my arms. It’s been about two years since the last time I walked. I figured all the years I spent in the weight room were wasted now that I was condemned to a life of being sickly and frail, but here I am, living independently and chasing a dream with a new set of “legs” strong enough to overcome any hill in my path.