In wheelchair rugby, skill, team spirit and assertiveness count. The petite Kayla Saska had little interest in the rough sport to begin with, but all it took was a little convincing from her US coach.
Kayla Saska takes part in the shot put. Discus throwing is also on her agenda. “But to be honest,“ she admits, “it’s wheelchair rugby that I love the most. The team spirit is the greatest thing for me.“
It’s over 30 degrees outside. The US team is taking part in their first training session since arriving in Germany in the athletics hall. The air is stifling and so the programme is relaxed. To set the mood the athletes gather in a circle and the “Team USA!“ chant rings out. The athletes then form two rows of five, pass, spin quickly in their wheelchairs and reconnect at the back. The session is a little quieter than the Australian one that preceded it – then it was the sound of wheelchairs colliding which echoed loudly through the hall.
Kayla, who comes from Nevada, is one of two women on the US rugby team. Four players on each side occupy the 28 × 15 metres court. The aim is to carry the ball over the line between two pylons – which stand eight metres apart – without being blocked by a player from the opposing team.
This is the first time the US team is playing together with this line-up; they previously met for a week at the training camp and then flew from Washington D.C. to the Rhineland. A short tour of Düsseldorf was already on the agenda – a team building measure: “Beautiful city,“ says Kayla. She has found the jet lag bearable after sleeping for at least four hours on the plane. As for the local speciality Altbier, it took some getting used to but in the end was tasty.
The wheelchair rugby competition begins on Sunday, with eight nations taking part. “It’s going to be a big deal,“ Kayla suspects. Initially she wasn’t interested in the rough sport, but coach Troy Mcguirk believed it would suit her. And he was right: “At first I looked at him in shock. But now it’s an important part of my life, I love this sport.“
The 25-year-old has served in the US Navy for six years and a stable brace protects her injured left knee. “Sport gives me a lot, especially the experience in a team“ she explains. “You have to be alert and react quickly to changing situations, I like that.“
She also believes rugby helps her to concentrate better and to remember things, something that was previously difficult for her: “When Coach Troy says something, I remember it. Okay, sometimes he might have to explain it two or three times. But then it sticks.“
Then she’s off, setting the wheelchair in motion and grabbing a water bottle, satisfied with her first training session in Germany. And if the competition goes well, maybe there’ll be a beer or two at the Closing Ceremony on Saturday.
Author: Oliver Bitter
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