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Sarah Adam bids to be first woman on U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team

Top-10 Olympic, Paralympic moments of 2023
From record-breaking achievements to heartwarming triumphs, relive the top-10 Olympic and Paralympic moments that defined 2023.

Sarah Adam loves wheelchair rugby, a sport nicknamed “murderball.” In wheelchair rugby, it’s part of the game for players to be flipped over in their chairs and even accidentally punched in the face.

Adam, a 32-year-old from St. Louis, started playing full-time in 2019, made the national team two years ago and this year can become the first woman to play on a U.S. Paralympic team in the sport.

The sport is co-ed, but overwhelmingly male. At the Tokyo Games, four of the 96 wheelchair rugby athletes across all teams were women. Three women have won Paralympic wheelchair rugby medals — Brit Kylie Grimes in Tokyo (gold), Japan’s Kurahashi Kae in Tokyo (bronze) and Canadian Erika Schmutz in 2008 (bronze).

“It’s important to show that females can compete in adaptive sport, even the ones that are typically thought as male-dominated and really physical,” Adam said.

Wheelchair rugby, commonly played on basketball courts, also combines elements of handball and ice hockey. It was developed in the 1970s by Canadian quadriplegic athletes looking for a sport for people with reduced arm and hand function to participate equally.

Many of today’s wheelchair rugby athletes found the sport through the 2005 film “Murderball.” That’s not how Adam was introduced to it.

In 2013, she began volunteering with a wheelchair rugby team in St. Louis, looking to combine her love of sports and her studies to become an occupational therapist. She was a doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis at the time.

Adam wanted to become a coach before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2016.

“Initially was very able-bodied with some minor things, like not being able to feel my right hand, couldn’t move my right hand that well, but it slowly progressed to having more difficulty with walking, which is now why I use a wheelchair to get around,” she said. “I might continue to lose function. It’s a progressive disease, but, for now, that mindset of this is what life will look like for a really long time.”

So Adam transitioned to playing the sport.

Kerri Morgan was the first woman to make the U.S. national team in 2009, but did not make a Paralympic roster. Coincidentally, Adam was a student in one of Morgan’s classes in 2013 – before Adam became a wheelchair rugby player -- and later did a project in Morgan’s lab for several semesters en route to becoming a professor herself.

“Wheelchair rugby takes a balance of not just being athletic, but also being able to process information quickly,” said Morgan, who also won four Paralympic track and field medals from 2008 through 2016. “So there’s a lot of strategy, a lot of being able to kind of anticipate what the other team is going to do several plays before they do it. She just has this ability.”

Adam initially played on the team in St. Louis that she had volunteered for. The head coach, Sue Tucker, was an assistant coach for the national team.

In December 2021, two years into her new sport, Adam was invited to try out for the national team as one of a few women in a group of about 40.

Early in the tryout camp, everybody gathered for a mile endurance test on a track of a few lanes. Adam was put in the front of the line. She pushed her wheelchair for those six minutes out of fear of those men chasing and trying to pass her. She finished third overall and eventually made the team.

“Especially for people that are coming in new, it’s usually a spot for them to usually look really good or really bad,” U.S. coach Joe Delagrave said. “She absolutely crushed it.”

Once on the court, Adam was unsure how she would handle hits from national teamers in game action.

Over the last two years, she’s been in such violent collisions that she flipped over and landed on her head. At the 2022 World Championship, she believes an opposing player intentionally got her hand stuck in one of his wheels, pinned it down and almost broke her wrist.

She was accidentally punched in the face one game, something she didn’t even notice until seeing it on film afterwards.

“It doesn’t faze me,” she said.

Adam has also flipped male players over in one-on-one hits, which is considered a normal part of the game if not done to the back of a chair.

“I think it does hurt their ego a little bit,” she said.

She’s gained the respect of teammates.

"(Adam) has dove into wheelchair rugby with the most gusto, passion and intensity like no one I’ve ever seen,” said co-captain Chuck Aoki, a three-time Paralympic medalist. “She deserves everything she gets. … Sometimes people see a woman on a team and be like, oh, it’s politics. I hate that. I cannot stress enough how Sarah has earned her place.”

Adam competed in pool play at the world championship 10 months after her first national team tryout. She was one of two women on the team.

Last month, Adam was the lone woman named to a 16-player national team for 2024. The 12-player Paralympic team will be chosen by May 1.

“We’ve played her a lot, she’s up and coming, has a great shot of making the team, so that would be really cool to see,” Delagrave said. “It’s going to open doors for women to play this sport more and more.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.