Jesse Lind - USA
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your current rugby life?
My name is Jesse Lind. I am the Vice Captain of the USA wheelchair rugby league Hawks. The team is currently based out of Columbia, South Carolina (SC), but we have practiced, trained, and played in Conway, SC as well. We have been practicing twice a month leading up to the Rugby League World Cup in England.
My journey to the Rugby League World Cup has had its ups and downs. Columbia is three hours away from where I live, so traveling can be tiresome. Rugby League is brand new to the United States, so we are basically starting from the ground level.
We are the pioneers of this sport in the United States. That has been challenging in itself. It can be frustrating when you are not developing, advancing, and becoming a better player as rapidly as you would like to. When it is taking longer to understand certain philosophies, rules, or play. When the same mistakes are happening repeatedly. When your team is not forming chemistry the way you would like it to. It gets frustrating. These things do not happen overnight. It takes time. But time is a luxury we do not have at this point.
The Hawks are a dedicated group. We all come to practice extremely motivated and ready to grind, trying to get up to game speed with the World Cup rapidly approaching. But this journey has also been a lot of fun. Learning and participating in a new sport has been exciting. Getting to know my teammates and becoming friends on and off the field has been rewarding. Competing is a thing of beauty to a competitor. And this team is full of them.
I am a United States Marine Corps Veteran (I was retired after an automobile accident left me with a spinal cord injury). It is an honor to represent my country. I have always been very patriotic, so wearing that USA across my chest will be a phenomenal feeling.
How did you discover rugby league? What attracted you to the sport?
I heard about rugby league at our conference tournament for wheelchair basketball. I was told that a team was being developed for a brand-new sport, but it would be based out of Columbia, so I did not consider it as an actual possibility. I was reluctant to commit long term to that commute, but I figured I would at least try it out.
It is a funny story. The very first rugby league practice was cancelled the morning it was scheduled. Practice was scheduled for 9am on a Sunday. I live 3 hours away, so I woke up at 5am and hit the road. I got to the facility in Columbia and there was not a soul there. I checked my email and saw the cancelation had been sent out that morning. I was extremely upset about making that drive literally for no reason. Angry enough that I said, “To hell with rugby league!”
I refused to attend the rescheduled practice the following month. But a friend of mine went and he was really excited about it. He convinced me to give it another try. I went to the following practice and I have been at every one since!
When I tried rugby league, it was basically crash derby meets rugby. I have always been aggressive, so it was right up my alley. I liked that it was a fast paced, high stamina, contact sport. I had never seen anything quite like it and I am always up for a challenge. I feel I have decent speed, sufficient endurance, and great hands. Those are very important aspects of this game. So it catered to my strengths. I also liked that it was a brand new sport that I could get into at the very beginning. Literally only a handful of people had ever heard of rugby league in the USA at that time.
I had never played rugby before. I played football as a kid. It was not until I became paralyzed and moved to the Carolinas that I discovered adapted sports. I wish there were more opportunities when I lived in New York. Better late than never though.
What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with any of the photos?
The photos depict players past and present who came out to practice, train, or take part in our domestic competition. We have had 40-50 athletes come and try the sport in the past 18 months. Some loved it and stuck around. Others did not. Most of the photos were taken at Seven Oaks Park recreation center in Columbia, South Carolina.
I tried showing resilience - athletes of various disabilities overcoming their injuries and competing for the love of the sport. I wanted to capture what sport is like for disabled athletes, from practice moments to game time scenarios. Loading and unloading equipment. Getting ourselves mentally and physically prepared to play. Comradery and the love between teammates.
What did you want to show about the life of a wheelchair rugby league athlete?
A lot of effort goes into loading, transporting, and unloading equipment. I showed what it is like for a disabled athlete transporting multiple chairs and making them fit into a vehicle like puzzle pieces.
People do not understand what it is like being a disabled athlete. Nothing is ever easy for us, and we regularly suffer physically as a result. We must bring our chairs, our tools, spare parts, and extra tubes pretty much everywhere we go. It is inconvenient but we do it anyway because we love the game.
Working on your chair is the equivalent of stretching your legs and lacing up your cleats for a game. That chair is an extension of our bodies. It is how we move, how we compete. Seeing a disabled athlete seated on the floor, making the proper adjustments to get his chair ready to roll is a powerful image to me.
I also wanted to show our coach Geoff Mason smiling - a rare occurrence during practice, believe me!
Are there any good stories connected with the people you photographed?
William Johnstone was getting himself stretched out before practice. I call him the Bill-Dozer. He is just a humongous man that plays extremely hard, aggressively, and intensely. The impact of a head on collision with Bill has left many players on the floor. So any time a new player experiences this, I always yell “Let me introduce you to the Bill-Dozer!” Wales, Scotland, and France will be acquainted soon enough.
Does the team also include able bodied athletes?
Our team has a real diversity of backgrounds which is beautiful. It shows what being an American is all about. Wheelchair rugby league is not solely for the disabled. It is an all-inclusive sport, and we have one able bodied teammate – Micah Stewart. We also have had quite a few able-bodied players in our domestic tournament.
I think able bodied athletes just get curious. They want to see what it is all about. They typically have played sports their entire lives and this is just a different kind of experience. An athlete is an athlete, regardless of a disability.
Disabled athletes are flattered when an able-bodied person participates. It is putting your feet in our shoes, so to speak. It gives them an understanding and appreciation for what we do. I have heard able-bodied players ask if it offends us when they get in a chair to play. It is quite the opposite for the disabled athletes that I know. We love it.
What role does rugby league play in your community and country?
Rugby league is brand new to our country, so it has not caught on just yet. But we are doing our best to get the word out. We have had a domestic tournament. We set up an informational booth at the National Veterans Wheelchair games. We have reached out to the Challenged Athletes Fund as well as the Paralyzed Veterans of America. We are slowly networking to grow the sport. It is just a matter of time now.
In the future, we would like to see rugby league as another adapted sport with teams competing all over the country. Right now, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball are probably the biggest adapted sports in the USA. Rugby league is predominantly played in the Carolinas at present, but we would like to see it expand and become popular throughout the rest of the country too.
What do you think the future looks like for rugby league after the Rugby League World Cup? What would you like to change?
I think the sport will continue to grow in the USA. It may take a while. Funding may be our biggest challenge going forward (hint-hint to any perspective sponsors out there!). The Rugby League World Cup is our first major event. Our introduction to the world. We are already having discussions about the 2025 World Cup in France. There has been talk about traveling to Brazil to compete. There has even been a conversation about the Ireland national team coming to Boston, Massachusetts on Saint Patrick’s Day next year for a match.
So we have some very exciting opportunities developing behind the scenes for our players. If I could change anything about rugby league in the USA, it would be to eliminate the distance players have to travel to practice. But the only way to do that is by growing the domestic league so there are closer teams and options for everyone. I do not think players mind traveling for games. But traveling a great distance for practice gets old and costly quickly.
What are the biggest changes happening now in Wheelchair rugby league?
The biggest change in wheelchair rugby league that I have seen is with the players. The game is starting to click for some of us. As that happens, our confidence grows. I look forward to seeing the quality of play as we get more and more experience.
How would you convince people to participate in Wheelchair rugby league?
I would say, “What do you have to lose?” I feel like people are always talking themselves out of things. If you are an athlete that enjoys competing, you should absolutely try new sporting opportunities when they present themselves. You may love it and discover your new favorite sport! If it is not for you, it is not for you. But at least you experienced something new and hopefully made a few new friends while you were at it.
What are the opportunities for Wheelchair sports in the USA?
There are many opportunities for wheelchair players in the U.S depending on which part of the country you live in. Wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball are probably the most prominent. They both have established leagues with huge National tournaments to end each season.
Wheelchair football just started here in recent years, but it is picking up momentum mainly in larger cities. There are other opportunities including but not limited to quad rugby, sled hockey, track and field, archery, seated volleyball, adapted surfing and hand cycling.
There are also multiple National competitions for disabled Veterans annually - National Veterans wheelchair Games, Valor Games, and the Warrior Games. Which is wonderful! But I would like to see the same kind of opportunities open up for non-veteran disabled athletes as well.