Host nation Finland hope they can qualify for their first Paralympic Games, and will rely heavily on Leevi Ylonen when the 2015 International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) Wheelchair Rugby European Championship begin on Sunday (13 September) in Pajulahti.
While big size and the ability to reach far are essential factors for a wheelchair rugby player, Ylonen does not have either, but he is almost impossible to catch once he gets the ball.
Ylonen was named as the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 European Championship in Belgium, where Finland finished sixth. He had already made a name for himself long before then, and he credits his growth in the sport to his time playing in the US wheelchair rugby leagues.
“They scouted me in the 2010 World Championship in Vancouver,” Ylonen said. “After the tournament, I got invited to play in the United States.”
Ylonen, 29, has now played three seasons in the US; his first seasons were with Tampa Generals and the last one in St. Louis Rugby Rams. There are about 40 teams in the US league.
“The best teams have gathered so many quality players that they are even better than national teams,” Ylonen said. “We finished sixth and fourth with Generals and now we were sixth with St. Louis.”
Wheelchair rugby was founded in North America, and the USA and Canada are still the top teams, along with No. 1 Australia. European teams have never finished in the top three at the World Championships or the Paralympic Games.
“After each season I have come back to Finland as a better player,” Ylonen said.
Finland hopes to make it to Rio 2016, but they will have to get past 2013 European silver medallists Denmark, who are alongside them in pool B.
Defending champions Sweden and 2013 bronze medallists Great Britain are pitted together in pool A.
For Ylonen, he thinks Great Britain, Sweden and Denmark are the ones to beat in this year’s edition. But if the home team can get their game on track from the beginning, Finland might be able to shake up those expectations.
The top two teams from the European Championship get a place to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Every match will be broadcast live on the event website.
For more information on the IWRF Wheelchair Rugby European Championship 2015, visit the event website http://www.wrec2015.fi/en.