When you judge someone based on a diagnosis you miss out on their abilities, beauty and uniqueness.
-‘Addi, would you like to volunteer at the Mixed Ability Rugby tournament?’
(August 2015) Faster than the blink of an eye I agree to help out as an interpreter for both the Spanish and the Argentinian teams visiting Yorkshire that summer.
My teams make me feel extremely welcome, especially those with Down syndrome. They are curious about me and not afraid to show it. Their open affection feels like I am reuniting with a bunch of old friends.
For most this is the first time away from home, but they are brave and adventurous souls. It’s clear how much this experience means to them. More teams arrive that evening; French, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Italians etc. The language barrier is not an issue. Hugs, handshakes and exchange of warm smiles go on for hours. The body language is so powerful, I am witnessing a life lesson on exemplary human behaviour. The common goal is to embrace a game they all love and make new friends along the way. The air is intoxicating with love and positivity-
Never having watched a mixed ability rugby game I am uncertain of what to expect. The rules are simple, each team consists of abled and disabled players. Those not able to take contact wear different clothing to help identify them. It doesn’t take long to notice that through integrated and inclusive team spirit the disability barriers are quickly broken down. A fine example of how sport can indeed educate a society.
They call it dance, I call it LIFE- The Spaniards pave the way and have everyone dancing and tapping their heads whenever a point is scored. After all, a little dance and a sing-a-long is liberating and good for the soul! Worth mentioning the Welsh too did a fine job here; one of them says: ‘As long as we live there is never enough singing’
But truly great people are precious to find and hard to forget. Gentle giants that assist the disabled players day in and day out; come sun and come rain. The likes of people such as David Izquierdo (Spain), Daniel Fernandez (Argentina) Gwilym Lolo Lewis (Wales) and Simon Myers (UK). The silent everyday heroes whose love for the sport and empathy for others ignite the spirit of the players and bind teams together.
On the last day of the tournament I get asked to join in the game. My gut says ‘no’ in fear that there will be nothing left of me by the end of it (!) but in the spirit of true sportsmanship I give it a try. I have no special talent, I too have learning difficulties; both Dyslexia and Dyspraxia but I am passionately curious and take everything life throws at me. A couple of enthusiastic players get a little carried away and pin me down to the ground but it's all good fun; by the end of it I’d be lying if I said I didn’t LOVE IT!
The Irish win the tournament and the Spaniards win the award for the most inclusive team. Life is about getting motivation and inspiration from all different things and undoubtedly this tournament has enriched my life.
2 YEARS LATER
That summer I exchange contact details with various teams and promise to stay in touch. Two years later I recall with fondness those I met and how this inclusive sport gets to the very heart of what it takes to succeed as a decent human being. I too use sport to maintain a sense of self. One Saturday morning I return to the grounds where it all happened, home to the Bumble Bees.
I explain the purpose of my visit is to ensure the world hears about the amazing things they do. Minutes later there is a whole queue of chatty lads, eager to share their story. Because it is not adversity itself which destroys us, but giving in to prejudice. Here's a little sample of some inspirational stories:
‘The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do’
Meet Anthony (35). He is the founder; the one who came up with the idea of an all-inclusive rugby. His home was opposite a rugby league team and he dreamed of playing too. They told him he could only be the ‘water boy’ and he did this for a whole decade.
If one thing defines Anthony is his determination. ‘Rugby should be for everybody’ he says- One day wakes up ready to build his very own all-inclusive rugby team. This is how the Bumble Bees are born.
RFU are impressed with both his enthusiasm and how well it is received; they ask him to do similarly for other clubs across England.
To date he’s started 13 teams. But that’s Anthony, when the going gets tough he gets going. The man who was once covered in bruises and cuts and two stone heavier. Now healthier and steadier on his feet he continues doing what he loves whilst helping others. He is also a public speaker, educating others from first hand experience on the best methods to interact with mixed ability players.
‘People with disabilities have the right to take risks’
This is Ryan (28). Ryan has a pace maker and he is an ‘Attacker’. He too is one of the founder members. In the last 9 years he’s travelled to Scotland, Wales and France and participated in a staggering 100+ games. ‘Thanks to rugby I’ve made lots of friends. I like to socialise with these guys, it feels blocky’. Ryan is a confident young man with a strong sense of achievement.
Of course for every athlete we admire and draw inspiration from, there is always a family member and/or a coach behind; one can aspire alone but a team helps us achieve. Ryans’ mother fully supports his decision to play and adds: ‘He wants to be like everyone else. People with disabilities have the right to take risks. Having Down syndrome doesn’t stop him from playing.’
‘Give rugby a try; we are all equal’
It is evident that Leon (30) is endowed with strong self-belief thanks to rugby.
He is the first person with disabilities in the UK to receive a UKCC qualification, Level 1, RFU, Coaching license. What’s even more extraordinary is the fact that he can’t read or write. Despite this, using the SCRIBE method and in just three Saturdays he prepared himself for the exams.
For 3 years now he's been coaching the warm-ups before the games. ‘I like to do this because I like to boss my teammates around!’ he adds with a giggle.
Thanks to his excellent communication skills he presents with IMAS; sometimes in an audience as large as 70 people.
‘Make friends not only with your teammates but the opposition too'
Kevin (47) used to be a GB Paralympic Powerlifter. He received 5 medals in Beijing alone. Nine years ago the doctors advised him to retire due to health issues. It was then he discovered the Bumble Bees.
One of his proudest moments has been becoming a president of the club for a year. A man with his own views, he introduced the rule of ‘A president must always wear the clubs' blazer’.
He shares an anecdote with pride: "One time in Wales, the Scarlets were doing weights training and I patiently sat there observing from a distance. Without any hesitation, I approached the players and soon I was on the bench with them, lifting more than any of the professional players; showing them how it's done :)"
All these men are born survivors. The mere thought of a mixed ability team was once dismissed as insane. After all, rugby is a game for 'brutes', far too dangerous for 'less abled' players...?!?! But theirs is a fine example of human refusal to become obscured by prejudice, physical impediments or what some consider 'poor sporting performance.' They never lost faith in themselves and they persevered. For this reason, they have my all-time admiration.