Female players take spotlight in wheelchair rugby as record numbers take up sport

The 2022 Wheelchair Rugby World Championship featured a record number of female athletes. This month, an international women’s tournament saw more than 40 athletes from 10 countries, opening a new chapter in the sport 21 Mar 2023
Two female wheelchair rugby players compete
The Women's Cup was held between 9 and 11 March 2023 and featured five teams.
By Ayano Shimizu | The IPC

Before the 2022 Wheelchair Rugby World Championship, Kylie Grimes counted the number of female players set to compete in the tournament. The British athlete - the first female Paralympic champion in the sport - was surprised at what she found.

Imagining the players from each of the 12 teams, Grimes counted up to 11 but later saw that there were 13, a record number of female participants at the World Championship.

“I was trying to add up all the female players. I was like, ‘This is amazing. There’s even more than I thought’,” Grimes said.

Wheelchair rugby is a mixed-gender sport at the Paralympic Games. Four women were named to the team squads at Tokyo 2020, where Great Britain won their maiden gold medal in the sport.

Grimes competed and won gold at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. @Alex Pantling/Getty Images

While the number of female participants is small compared to their male counterparts at the Paralympic Games and the World Championship, athletes said they have seen more women taking up the sport and playing at an elite level.

In another milestone, more than 40 women from 10 countries gathered in Paris for the third edition of the Women’s Cup in March 2023. The tournament featured five teams, including the national teams of Great Britain and Canada.

Lucky 13

When Grimes took up the sport in 2011, there were not many women in the sport. But she remembers seeing how Canadian Paralympian Miranda Biletski played and how much impact she created on the court.

“She was fighting for her country and I was like, ‘I can do it because there are other women’,” Grimes said at the 2022 Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Vejle, Denmark.

“For me, a long-standing female who has been around for many years, to see more representation has been unbelievable. I’m so proud and so happy.”

Australia won the 2022 Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Vejle, Denmark. @Lars Møller for Parasport Danmark

Australia had three female players in Denmark – Shae Graham, Ella Sabljak and Emilie Miller. Liz Dunn and Sarah Adam also made history for Team USA as the first female players to be named to the team at the World Championship.

Kae Kurahashi helped Japan earn the bronze medal, while hosts Denmark, Germany and New Zealand also had women in their squads. After the tournament wrapped up, all 13 players gathered for a group photo to celebrate the moment together.

“I looked around and there were all these women in chairs that you don’t see that often. Once I saw that there were 13, I was like, ‘Wow, we are really making a difference, paving the way’,” said Adam, who was also selected to USA’s National Training Squad for 2023.

USA's Sarah Adam made her World Championship debut in Denmark. @Lars Møller for Parasport Danmark

New milestone

In March 2023, Grimes was among the 42 women who competed at the Women’s Cup, which saw five teams playing a total of 12 matches.

For the first time in history, two national women’s teams were created and played against each other. Great Britain and Canada fielded full national teams while three teams were made up of athletes from different countries, including Australia and the United States.

Great Britain won the gold medal, while Canada took bronze in their debut tournament.

Team sport

Wheelchair rugby, which was developed in Canada in the 1970s, was presented as a demonstration sport at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games. It made its debut as a medal sport four years later in Sydney.

Players are classified on a point system from 0.5 to 3.5 depending on restrictions in arm and trunk function. Teams of four players can play with a maximum point score of 8.0, while the rules allow coaches to get an additional 0.5 point for every woman on court.

“The landscape is changing. The sport has always been mixed gender, but we’ve never had as many women as we have now,” said Joe Delagrave, the interim head coach of Team USA. “I think it’s great for the sport. I think it’s great for the Paralympic Movement. I think it’s great to show what inclusion looks like in a real way.”

Delagrave, who competed at two Paralympic Games, said it is important for women playing in mixed-gender teams to have a sense of belonging.

“You don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh well, you’re the girl of the team’. Yes, you’re a woman. Yes, we’re going to respect that, but at the same time, you’re a part of this team, you’re a part of this community,” he said. 

New Zealand's Amai-Marshall competed at the Women's Cup in France. @Laurent BAGNIS

As more female players take up wheelchair rugby, New Zealand’s Maia Amai-Marshall, who has been one of the trailblazers for women in the sport, has some advice to those who are interested.

“Just give it a go. It’s fun and (we) give the boys a run for their money,” she said. “There were hardly any (women) when I started playing. Now it’s growing and hopefully it keeps growing.”