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Grand Rapids Thunder captures first national championship

The Grand Rapids Thunder rumbled into Phoenix for the United States Quad Rugby Association national tournament and emerged with the 2018 Division II championship. It’s the first national title for Mary Free Bed’s quad rugby wheelchair team.

The No. 2-seeded Thunder defeated the top-seeded Northridge Knights of California, 58-52, in the wheelchair rugby tournament April 21 at Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center.

“I’ve played rugby for 15 years, and this was the most exciting finish to a season ever,” said Thunder coach Nick Long, who has coached and also played for the team since its inception seven years ago. “I’m really proud of my teammates and what we’ve accomplished.”

Long, of Essexville, was named to the all-tournament team, and Wyoming resident Matt Milstead – also a member of the USA Wheelchair Rugby Training Squad – was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Team members who traveled to Phoenix for the tournament also include Lars Merens of Muskegon; Tyler Cumings of Montague; Jim Lewis of Big Rapids and Dan Fulmer of Kalamazoo.

Quad rugby is not for the faint of heart. Designed specifically for quadriplegics, the sport is fast-paced and highly aggressive. Using heavy-duty sport chairs, contact often results in collisions that flip players on their sides.

The Thunder, made up of players who range in age from 24 to 48, is sponsored by Mary Free Bed’s Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports program. The team’s annual fall tournament – dubbed Thunderfest – draws teams from all over the United States and Canada.

Christy VanHaver, the Thunder’s team coordinator, was thrilled with their win.

“This is the most amazing group of athletes – they practice and play with passion,” VanHaver said. “They’ve worked so very hard to bring their skills up to this level of competition. I am so proud of them.”

One of the largest programs of its kind in the United States, Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports serves more than 1,200 people annually through competitive teams, clinics, classes and events. WAS also hosts five annual events, including the upcoming Fifth Third Riverbank Run 25k wheelchair and handcycle races.

Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center shared a video about the Thunder’s win. Watch it here.

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