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Mark Zupan is one of the highly competitive quadriplegic rugby players competing in the Paralympic Games, in the documentary "Murderball." (Handout)
Mark Zupan is one of the highly competitive quadriplegic rugby players competing in the Paralympic Games, in the documentary "Murderball." (Handout)

London 2012

Murderball still resonates for Canada’s Paralympic rugby squad Add to ...

Murderball remains a calling card for wheelchair rugby years after the film was in theatres.

The documentary featuring the Canadian and U.S. teams was a raw, unflinching look at the lives of wheelchair athletes in a sport as laden with testosterone as the able-bodied version.

Several Canadian and American players in the film, released in 2005, still play for their countries and are in London for the Paralympics.

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Wheelchair rugby opens Wednesday with Canada facing Australia.

Murderball remains a defining moment in their sport.

“It’s got staying power,” says Canada’s David Willsie. “So many people have seen it and it gets re-played. People come up to me and say ‘Hey, I just saw it last week.“’

Murderball followed the Canadian and U.S. teams for four years heading into the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. An MTV production, it played up the players’ tattoos, sex lives and battering-ram wheelchairs.

“I thought they did a good job of making us look cool,” says Canadian player Ian Chan.

The bitter rugby rivalry between Canada and the U.S. framed an examination of the lives of U.S. players Mark Zupan, Adam Cohn and Scott Hogsett, as well as injured motocross racer Keith Cavill and Canadian coach Joe Soares.

Current Canadian players Willsie, Chan and Garett Hickling and coach Kevin Orr were in the film. Cohn and Hogsett are playing for the U.S. team in London.

Murderball was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to March Of The Penguins at the Oscars that year.

“People I meet on the street, if I say wheelchair rugby they still have no idea what I’m saying, but if I say Murderball they say ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that movie,“’ Hickling says. “We had cameras following us around for four years, videotaping Canada and U.S.A.”

“Murderball” focused on Soares because he was a former U.S. player coaching Canada, which fuelled animosity between the sides.

Ironically, Orr was coaching the American side in 2004, but joined the Canadian team in 2009. Orr believes Murderball has increased the number of people playing the sport worldwide.

“In Athens, we had 21 active countries and I think we’re close to 44 right now,” Orr said.

After Murderball, Chan was the subject of the Canadian documentary on wheelchair rugby Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.

The Richmond, B.C., native has used Murderball as a teaching tool at a University of British Columbia kinesiology class.

Willsie, from London, Ont., says the film is a fixture in the libraries of hospitals and rehabilitation centres he visits.

“It still has the same impact it had when it came out,” he says. “It’s a great recruiting tool for us.”

Both Willsie and Chan say their favourite part of the documentary is the reaction of Cavill when he gets in a rugby wheelchair for the first time and gently rams it into Zupan’s.

Wheelchair rugby gave the two Canadians the confidence to live the lives they do. That moment in the film sums it up for them.

“This really is, not the light at the end of the tunnel, but it just shows some possibilities,” Willsie says. “We’re doing some kick-ass stuff, whether it’s own a company, drive a sweet ride, or date really good-looking girls.”

The U.S. is the defending Paralympic champion in wheelchair rugby. Canada took bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

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