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a wheelchair rugby player’s tale

My name is Jason Roberts. I was born in Wrexham on 12 August 1973. I now live in St Martin’s, near Chirk. When I was just eighteen, I had an accident, about half a mile down the road from here. One night, I was driving with some friends, and it was a little wet, the car lost control and I ended up breaking my neck. I got taken to Wrexham hospital, then to the Orthopaedic Spinal Unit in which I spent five and a half months, a really fast recovery for someone with my break. I left hospital on the Monday and I started playing a sport called wheelchair rugby on the Tuesday. As a child, I was more into fishing, really, not active sports. I did like to play a little bit of cricket, but all my types of sports were – lots of people don’t call it a sport – fishing and being out in the countryside. I used to spend a lot of time on my own in rivers, just fishing and wandering around.
If there was ever any rugby training at school, I would always shy away from it, because I always was aware of people breaking their necks and backs, really conscious of it for some reason. It would be rugby day and I’d be, like, “Oh, I’ve got an injury”, or something. I never knew anyone who’d broken their neck or back. But, for some reason, it was just a fear in my head. It’s ironic, I know.

a little bit crazy

I first saw wheelchair rugby being played in hospital. The team used to come down and do some practice. I was still lying in bed with steel callipers screwed into my skull, and they were, like, “Come and watch us”, and I’m, like, “Ah nah. Come on, give me a break. I’ve just broken my neck. I can’t move my arms or anything”. But when I went down and saw it, I thought, “Wow! This looks a little bit crazy”. All the guys looked so fit and strong and they were able to do stuff that people who had the same accidents as them but who were sitting at home and doing nothing, watching TV and playing computer games, couldn’t. And I thought, “That ain’t going to be me. I want to get back to an active lifestyle, as soon as possible”. I started playing when I was eighteen, when I left the hospital, and by the time I was late nineteen, I’d already been selected for the Great Britain squad. To be the rookie, one of the youngest players in the country, and the only Welsh player, and going off to the European games and the World games, the first ever World games and European games in wheelchair rugby, it was fantastic. I stayed in the squad until 1995, so that was three years, going places, and improving, and doing really well.

worse than prison
I went to America and stuff, and then, unfortunately, I had some problems. I had an infection in my hip, which took me back into hospital. They told me I was going to be in for about three or four weeks. It turned out to be three and a half years! I was stuck in a side ward, pretty much on my own, in bed for three and a half years! They just didn’t know what to do. One of the main things to get me out of there and stay focused and positive was wanting to get back and do what I loved, playing wheelchair rugby. I went into hospital at twenty-one and came out almost twenty-five, so I’d lost a lot of time. I missed out on the first Paralympic Games for wheelchair rugby, which was demonstration in Atlanta in ’96. When I came out, I spent six months just acclimatising and enjoying my life, again. I got back into rugby and, within eight months, I was back in the squad, and, since then, it’s been non-stop. For some reason, it sounds weird, I had been out for years and I was already at the top of my game almost, winning best in class and most valued player [mvp]. But, it was just a month too late to be picked for Sydney 2000. I was already playing at the top of my game and I could have been a great asset out there, so that was disappointing. But I still went out there and supported the team, and I knew I’d get back in. It’s been crazy. Anyone who knows me around the world and they were, like, “Oh, Jason’s on the scene”, and then, “Whoa, where’s he gone?”. And, three and a half years later, I turn up again, and they’re, like, “Wow, what happened?”.
The first time round was easy. It sounds mad but, when I broke my neck and had to go into hospital, five and a half months turned around. I went through some dodgy days, like everyone does, but that was easy for me, really, to get back into it. But the big part was the second time, when I was in there for three and a half years. That was tough, you know. I was on the verge of going insane, lying in bed in a room on my own. I think I just got out in time. I really don’t think I could do it again, you know. I’ve never been in prison but it’s got to be pretty close, if not worse.

watch out for jason roberts!
When I started off, really young, I was winning mvps and getting noticed, and in newsletters and stuff saying, “Watch out for the guy from Wales. Jason Roberts is coming through!”. I was working hard and I started to play for a team in the Midlands called the Black Country Bandits. Then, I moved on and played for various club teams in Great Britain, North Wales Dragons, quite a few.
I went to Athens in 2004. We came fourth, which was a little bit disappointing but, you know, we were so close. It was a great experience. We’ve just done Beijing, fourth again. We seem to be just on the fringe. And we did the World Games in 2006 and we came fourth! But we’re playing against the USA, the number one team in the world, and we’re losing out by two or three goals. Everyone else who plays them, even in the final, are beaten by fifteen, you know. They’re getting smashed. I think our time will come when it’s in our own country, and we can prove what we’ve got in London. It’s going to be great. Leading up to Beijing I had a couple of problems, silly little health issues, but I managed to crank up a treble best in class leading up to Beijing, in mock tournaments in Canada and Australia. I want the team to win, but winning personal awards too, you know, it proves that you are working hard and you’re at the top of your game.
I’ve been doing this since I was eighteen, half my life already, and sometimes I just want to chill and go on holiday with my family or my girl, my little girls, you know, but I’m definitely going for London. I want a gold medal. I want a medal from an international tournament before I quit, and I’m not retiring before I get one.

chess with violence
The game is called wheelchair rugby but there’s not really any comparison to able-bodied rugby. I think it’s just called that because it is an aggressive, rough game. At first, it was called ‘murder ball’, but we couldn’t really keep it called that. Promoting it was a nightmare. People are, like, “Murder ball? That’s not going to work!”. So, that’s why we came up with wheelchair rugby.
If you watch it from above, it’s like a game of chess. I’m probably one of the most aggressive people you’ll see play. You’ll probably look at me and think I’m crazy, but I play on adrenaline, right on the limit. That’s how I like it. It gets me there, you know. I really have to be up. The game is full-chair contact, so it’s full-on, as much as you can give. I can show you when my chair’s six feet off the floor, in mid air. I can come down reaching between twelve and fifteen miles an hour, some people twenty miles an hour. Imagine two chairs hitting each other at twenty miles an hour. That’s a pretty massive impact, forty mile an hour, so it’s serious aggression, probably one of the most physical disabled sports.
Our rugby chairs, their technology has just gone crazy in the last ten years. I’ve been playing from eighteen, and the chairs we used then were pretty much just everyday chairs, but now everything you could do to a wheelchair that you’d never think of, we’ve done. And it’s working brilliantly. It’s making the game much faster.

In Beijing, I was close to some of our Welsh athletes. We’ll chill together, and if anybody wins that medal, you know what flags are coming out! It was actually banned in Beijing but they still did it. I had mine ready, as well, because I really thought we were going to win a medal this time. I had my flag tucked away in my pocket, waiting, and it was going to come out, along with the GB flag.
I think it was fantastic how well Wales did in the Paralympics in Beijing. We are a very proud people and strong and, you know, we want to show people that we’re not just a little part of the country. We can kick it with the big boys, which we did. I think it’ll be great for pushing forward sport in Wales. Everyone knows about us now, and we’re standing out a lot more than we have in the past generations of sport. I think we do so well because we have a lot of heart.
We go out there and we give it everything we’ve got. You see countries like Australia and America, they’ve got so much backing for their sport. But, now we’re getting the same with the English and Welsh Institutes of Sport. We go to camps and we have our own strength and conditioning coaches, and we’re getting what they’ve always had. So, now it’s our time to show them. All we needed was the backing.

the future
I’m pretty much flat out at the minute with my sporting career, with my club team, which is The European Giants, which a friend of mine from Germany and me set up. We’ve just started, and we’re travelling around in Europe at the minute, and we’re also heading out to Canada, soon. So, I’m very busy with that and the Great Britain squad, picking back up, now. We’ve had six months chill time after the Games in Beijing and now it’s time to roll again. We’ve got our European Championships in October. That’s the only big international thing this year and then it’s going to be 2010. We’ve got the Worlds in Canada and, then, 2011 is just going to be hectic. We’re all over the world, you know. We’ll probably do 50-60,000 miles travelling in 2011, getting ready for London.

after london
I’m going to head to 2012, definitely. Without a doubt I’m going to be there and I’m going to be part of the team and get the medal. After that, I think maybe I’d like to chill a little and maybe retire, move aside and let someone else come through. I want to spend more time with my family, my girlfriend and kids. So, yeah, I think after 2012 … but you never know. I’ve got some great stories and stuff that’s gone on in my life, and I think it would be an interesting read. And I definitely want to get myself a little place, a retreat in the sun somewhere, and definitely do a lot of fishing.

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