A.J. Nanayakkarra has his life back.
The 39-year-old Sri Lanka native moved to America when he was 10 years old and was active for much of the early part of his life. He joined the Army Reserves in 1993, he worked as a cable TV installer and he participated in martial arts.
However, it was while he was participating in martial arts that tragedy struck. He went down in what he described as a “freak accident,” but it was one that would result in a spinal cord injury and leave him paralyzed and depressed for the next 10 years.
Nanayakkarra said he “checked out of life,” but in 2002, he discovered the sport of wheelchair rugby.
“It’s like bumper cars on a basketball court,” Nanayakkarra said of the sport.
Initially known as “murderball,” wheelchair rugby is played with a volleyball. All participants are in wheelchairs, and the goal is to get the ball across the line on the other end of the court.
It’s played on a hardwood court, and incporporates aspects of wheelchair basketball, ice hockey, handball and rugby union. It has very little in common with the sport of rugby, but it is a physical sport, and contact between the wheelchairs is unavoidable. It was developed in Canada in 1977.
His introduction to the sport paved the way for Nanayakkarra to become an active member of his own life again. He now goes scuba diving, water skiing, has participated in the Broad Street Run and is getting ready to compete in a marathon.
He even participated on the U.S. national team for wheelchair rugby in 2005. Wheelchair rugby is a paralympic sport.
He went back to school and graduated from Temple University, and is now married.
“It really helped me get my life back,” Nanayakkarra said. “It didn’t make my disability go away, but it made it not as big a deal. It showed my I was able to do other things, and returned some normalcy to my life.”
Now as a member of the Magee Rehab Eagles, he’s hoping to do the same thing for others who might be in the position he was in from 1994-2002.
The Magee Rehab Eagles wheelchair rugby team will play an exhibition game against able-bodied students and professors from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township on Friday, Oct. 12 in the I-Wing gymnasium on the college’s campus.
The professors and students will also be in wheelchairs.
“This is the sixth year we have had the Eagles come to our campus,” Professor of Physical Therapy Dr. Mary Lou Galantino said in a release. “These folks are amazing athletes, and very courageous people. They do a good job of showing the abilities of people living with spinal cord injuries."
"As a club, we work closely with many rehabilitation centers in the region to promote events concerning physical therapy and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital is one of the most well known centers in Philly,” Stockton Physical Therapy Club President Greg Cardena said via email Wednesday night. “It is a pleasure to work with them each year and they always put on a great show.”
There will also be a silent auction to benefit spinal cord injury rehabilitation services. The Stockton Physical Therapy program and Bacharach Rehabilitation Hospital’s spinal cord injury support group are co-sponsoring the event.
Nanayakkarra now lives in Maryland, and while the Eagles’ players hail from four states, none hail from Atlantic, Cape May or Ocean counties. They enjoy their exhibitions at Stockton strictly for the experience.
“The Stockton students are incredible,” Nanayakkarra said. “When we practice or even for many of the games we play, there aren’t that many people in the stands. Stockton makes us feel like professional athletes, like we’re on display. They play music, there’s always a ton of students and the crowd’s always rocking.”
The Eagles also host one of the largest and longest running wheelchair rugby tournaments on the east coast, the Beast of the East tournament. That takes place Nov. 10-11 at RiverWinds in West Deptford.
“We do it to educate the public and recruit new players,” Nanayakkarra said. “A lot of people don’t even know we exist. We also do it as a fundraiser. This is a very expensive sport.”
It’s expensive and physical, but it’s also safe.
“The personalities are suited for the game,” Nanayakkarra said. “There are a lot of safety requirements, including how the chairs are built, we have to be strapped in. When we fall, it looks worse than it is.”
The Eagles are associated with Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, a center in Philadelphia that is part of the Jefferson Health System. Magee is dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with disabilities by providing high quality physical and cognitive rehabilitation services.
The Eagles, established in 1989, play in the United States Quad Rugby Association (USAQRA) a competitive league for individuals with disabilities. The USQRA has about 40 teams in eight regions across the country. The Eagles play in the Atlantic North region with teams from Connecticut and New York, among others.
“It’s nice to introduce new people to wheelchair sports,” Nanayakkarra said. “I like showing the sport to able bodied professors and showing them our capabilities.”
“I feel that the event has exploded over the past few years, bringing in more people and more donations each time it is held,” Cardena said. “By having participants actually get in the chairs and play with the team they gain a greater respect and understand for just how competitive the game is and just how mentally and physically strong these athletes are despite their diagnoses.”