Shepherd Smash

Quad rugby team captivates attention.

It’s balanced perfectly. The 14-pound ball weight is just inches from his face. I am seeing this through the lens of my camera, shuttering ever so often when his arms push the weight out and then bring it back in. I observe the concentration on his face, the quivering of his biceps when he pushes and balances, the motion repeated several times. There is no grip in his fingers or wrist movement, just the forearm muscles pushing his hands together to hold the weight in place, hands threaded through special pockets on the sides of the weight to help with stability.

Smile for the camera,” I say, and then I’m rewarded with a beaming, cheerful grin. Snap. Another picture to add to my growing collection. I am a professional photographer, but recently, I have been volunteering and taking photographs at Shepherd Center. The images I’ve taken move me more than any pictures I’ve taken before.

I first met the hospital’s “Smash” quad rugby team members at practice in early September 2012. I had never seen a rugby game, much less a wheelchair rugby game. Some team members maneuvered through cones in figure-eight patterns; one was pulling a square block loaded with weights; and others were lifting weights. I was completely floored. These men were renegades on wheels.

After shooting photos at practices for several weeks, I knew the team fairly well. I could predict when Scott, the coach, was going to randomly dive his chair into another player – just by seeing the grin on his face. He coaches in a quiet, serene sort of way. Then there’s Rob, a gold medalist on the 2009-2010 USA Wheelchair Rugby Team, who blazes around the court like a madman. Combine those two with Duane, who is talented in his own right, both athletically and motivationally, and these three are powerhouses in the game.

Yet, the team’s core rests in the other players. Talbot brings a ferocious hit when trying to snag the ball from the opposition. Nate and Sam are quick and persistent on defense. James uses strategy to block opponents. Mike, Zac and Reid are fairly new, but all three have an inner determination to make things happen. They work together cohesively, a collective dance of metal and muscle.

I came into this environment thinking it would be just another photographic opportunity and a chance to meet people, but it turned into far more. When I see the Smash play, this thought always crosses my mind: Don’t hold back. It’s echoed in everything I capture with my camera. It’s represented by the scuffs on the players’ wheels, the dents and scratches in their chairs, the clash of metal as they careen into one another. I see it on their faces. It is grit and determination. These guys don’t hold back. Yes, they have quadriplegia, but I don’t see them as disabled. They know how hard one must push to succeed, to be the best at something, to persevere far beyond what each of us believes is possible. They are incredible. They are Smash.

More photos are posted at: http://megporterphotography.com/?p=3648.