By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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"Come on, Kerri," coaxes her athletic trainer, Steve Bunn, as he holds her spindly legs steady. A second passes then two before a grimacing Morgan can eke out the next pull-up in a set of eight. "Five! Let's go!" Bunn barks as she clears the bar.
Morgan is 32, a plucky quadriplegic who sometimes speaks in threes ("Yup, yup, yup") and curses only under duress. She's a woman who can't pass the pinstripe suits at Nordstrom without spotting one she'd like to hang in her wheel-in closet the same woman who, when her chair was knocked over by an able-bodied runner during a Houston half-marathon, finished the race, bruised and bleeding.
Quads to set the oft-confused record straight have spinal cord injuries, and (as many will tell you) they're not all Christopher Reeve. Typically paralyzed from the upper chest down, quads boast varying levels of function in their torso, arms and hands. Some, like the deceased Reeve, are solely dependent on caretakers. Others can make a salad and handle a keyboard.
Morgan, an occupational therapist and instructor at Washington University, has good mobility in her reedy arms and long, piano-player fingers. She can clasp jewelry and fasten buttons, and her thumbs excel at sending BlackBerry messages all the better for her full-time infatuation, quadriplegic rugby.
The premise of the game (better known as "murderball") is simple: Hold the ball and get two wheels of your gladiator-like wheelchair over the goal line. Smash the hell out of your opponents. Slam them into the hardwood and keep going.
The very injuries that make quads impervious to a stab in the leg suit them well for this fast, fiendish game. It's the perfect fit for extreme-sports enthusiasts whose competitive inner clocks keep on ticking after their bodies take a licking. The game's motto: "Give Blood."
Morgan has spent the past five years honing her murderball skills, and she works out with Bunn each week in preparation for the ultimate quad-rugby challenge: the U.S. Paralympic Team tryouts.
By all accounts she faces an uphill climb. For one, the national team is a powerhouse, currently ranked number one in the world and a consistent medaler at the Paralympic Games. Then there's the matter of size: Despite her frequent intake of large cheese pizzas from Maurizio's, the five-foot-one Morgan barely clocks in at 100 pounds.
Finally, there's her gender. Quad rugby is coed, but as Morgan's coach and roommate, Sue Tucker, explains: "Kerri's definitely playing in a man's world." One can count the number of female players in the U.S. on two hands, and most of the coaches are men. The national team currently has twelve players, and not one of them sports a pair of X chromosomes.
Earlier this year, though, the International Paralympic Committee announced that beginning with the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, twelve-player rosters must include at least one woman. The new rule has stirred controversy in the United States. James Gumbert, the Texas-based national team coach, says a female should have to earn a spot on the team just as a man would.
Veteran murderball players believe women need a few more years to elevate their play. Notes Ed Hooper, the Florida-based president of the U.S. Quad Rugby Association, "I think most of them couldn't play at the elite level with the males."
Still, some coaches say if any woman has a shot, it's Kerri Morgan.
"She's the best female player I know of," says Mike Sells, coach of the Tennessee TNT. "Her determination's her best strength."
"She's got the right personality," agrees Kevin Orr, the former U.S. Paralympic Team coach. "She needs speed, and she needs to be more confident with the ball."
To start, Morgan's trainer says she needs to put on at least six pounds of muscle. She'll have to push a mile in under eight minutes and fire a torrent of accurate half-court passes, one after another.
"I don't want you to be the girlthat makes the men's team," Bunn tells her.
Clearly fatigued, Morgan is struggling to finish the pull-ups, and her exhalations are growing louder. Between completing graduate-school applications, traveling to weekend tournaments and coping with the recent death of a 31-year-old teammate, it's been a grueling couple of months. The night before this workout, Morgan rolled off a plane from a four-day business trip to Boston and went straight to rugby practice, then out for beers at Blueberry Hill. She returned home at 1 a.m.
But when Bunn finally plops her back into her chair, Morgan reaches for a water bottle and smiles.
"I've been wanting her to commit to this for a long time," Bunn says.
Of the estimated 250,000 quadriplegics in the U.S., only 500 play murderball. "It'd be the difference between a figure skater and a hockey player," explains Kevin Orr, the former Paralympic rugby coach. "You've got to want to pop somebody."
The requirement for eligibility is a disability in at least three limbs. Quadriplegics, certain amputees and athletes with birth defects can play. Paraplegics cannot.