MIKE WHITEHEAD: TEAM CANADA PARALYMPIAN AND NASHUA Y MEMBER, INTRODUCES WHEELCHAIR RUGBY TO INJURED SOLDIERS TO HELP WITH RECOVERY, OVERCOMING CHALLENGES AND OPENING DOORS TO NEW LIFE OPPORTUNITIES
If you’ve been at the Nashua Y on Tuesday or Thursday mornings, you’ve probably seen some fierce competition in the gymnasium: the wheelchair rugby players are fierce, and fun!
A group of four wheelchair rugby players has been training at the Nashua Y since the fall on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, from 8:30 to 10:30am. If you want to see some fast-paced and competitive athletes, this is the place to be. “Wheelchair rugby is such a fun sport. It’s like bringing a kid to go on bumper cars. To play competitively, you have to have an impairment in three or four of your limbs, meaning in a fully organized, competitive level, like the Paralympics or U.S. Rugby League,” said Mike Whitehead, who organized and coaches the wheelchair rugby players.
Last April, when many venues were closing due to the pandemic, Mike moved his wheelchair rugby practices outside. “We started training outdoors in Medford, Dunstable, Westbrook, and Medway. We were outside when it was raining; one day we had some snow. As fall came we were looking for space. We looked at large indoor venues like warehouses. It’s difficult to find court space,” he said. As a member of our Y since 2013, he inquired about using the gymnasium at the Nashua Branch.
“I felt like the Y was super safe. I got three of my friends to be members. They joined and we got down to work in the winter. We’ve fallen in love with available space and recreation,” he said. Their workouts consist of conditioning for 35 minutes, and the remainder of the two hours is working on fundamentals and strategy of wheelchair rugby. Mike loves when people inquire about playing, whether they are in a wheelchair, or not. “Just last week we had Becki (Y member Becki Parkhurst Lynn) jump in a chair and play. She loved it! One of my goals is to bring wheelchair rugby to the Y, the Boys & Girls Club and corporate partners in Boston – to bring it to everybody to play. You can have zero impairment and have an hour of pure happiness. Becki was so focused in the chair for twelve minutes. This sport brings out the kid in you. It breaks stereotypes.” He added that it takes years to get your arms strong and to build upper cardiovascular strength.
Mike’s belief is that recreation and sport helped him recover from a spinal cord injury suffered in 1999 – recover both physically and mentally. Mike works with injured and ill soldiers through Canada’s version of the Wounded Warrior Project, called Soldier On. Soldier On is a program of the Canadian Armed Forces which contributes to the recovery of ill and injured CAF members and veterans by providing opportunities and resources through sport, recreational, and creative activities. “It’s all about adapting and overcoming from an injury or illness. We do that through sport. Sport leads to recovery,” he said. “It’s changed my life because I can see what sport can do. Sport skills are life skills. I like to share that.”
He loves playing the competitive sport of rugby wheelchair, but what really brings him joy is his work introducing soldiers and others with helping in their recovery, overcoming their challenges, and opening doors to new life opportunities. Giving back is where it’s at … there’s so much more value in that.”
About Y member Mike Whitehead:
Before his spinal cord injury, Mike Whitehead was an avid multi-sport athlete who enjoyed basketball, volleyball, hockey, soccer and badminton. He was introduced to wheelchair rugby when his future Team Canada teammates, including David Willsie, came to visit him at the Parkwood Rehabilitation Hospital in London, Ontario. He quickly became hooked on the contact and the level of competition and made the national team, just one year after his injury.
Mike has been a mainstay in Team Canada, have competed in four Paralympic games (2 silvers & 1 bronze), five World Championships (1 gold, 1 silver & 2 bronze) and two ParaPan-Am Games (1 gold & 1 silver). He has taken on a mentorship role with his younger teammates in recent years, by his sharing his experiences and knowledge of the sport. Most recently, Mike coached Canada’s wheelchair rugby team at the Toronto Invictus Games and was a guest speaker at a TEDxBeaconStreet event in Boston.
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