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St. Louisan becomes the first woman to make the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby squad

Woman sitting in wheelchair in "Team USA" shirt in front of an American flag.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Adam is the first female player on Team USA's Paralympic wheelchair rugby team. “I'm actually really excited to go to Paris to be around other elite athletes who are just, you know, amazing at their craft and obsessed with their sport and the best at what they do there,” she said. “I love being around those types of people.”

When the American wheelchair rugby team takes the court in Paris later this summer, they’ll be fighting to continue a streak that’s lasted as long as the sport has been part of the Paralympics.

“It's a phenomenal motivator,” said Sarah Adam. The assistant professor at St. Louis University will head to the games for the first time, one of six American rookies this year. The otherhalf of the team returns from the 2022 silver medal-winning squad.

“I try to look at it more as that motivator and an opportunity than letting some of those nerves creep in on what that really means, and the pressures of it.”

The Paralympics feature some of the world’s top athletes in adaptive sports. In wheelchair rugby, two teams of four compete on a basketball court in specially-made wheelchairs, working to pass and carry a ball across a goal line. Like more traditional rugby, physical contact is considered essential. The sport was initially called “murderball.”

“I actually tend to focus more on the strategy and tactics and trying to think three steps ahead,” said Adam. “I do love the fact that it's full contact, and they're going in and reaching out with arms and trying to grab the ball on your lap and punch you in the face and whatnot. It kind of breaks down that stereotype of what people typically think of when you hear about a disabled athlete.”

Sarah Adam, the first female player on Team USA's wheelchair rugby team, trains intensely with her coach, Brett Kelly, for the upcoming Paralympics in Paris, representing both her country and women in the sport.Photographed on May 31, 2024 at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Adam trains alongside her coach Bret Kelly last month at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights.

Though it’s male-dominated, wheelchair rugby is one of the few Paralympic sports that’s co-ed. Adam is the first woman to make Team USA.

“It's an exciting story, particularly right now with the rise of women in sports and females and the equity of it, which is really exciting,” she said. “I love being able to be a part of a small part of that conversation.”

But she says that’s also been a motivator of its own.

“It actually forced me to work harder,” she said. “I was like, if I'm going to get the attention for being a female on this team, I want to make sure it's because I'm a relevant athlete, honestly, like athlete first, a contributor for this team, and, oh yeah, she's a female.”

Adam says she has nothing to do with the “Feminist Friday” playlist blasting over the speakers during a recent training session in Maryland Heights – though, she admits she loses count of weights lifted when she sings along.

“Lizzo builds me up,” she tells her coaches.

In every other way though, with the games just weeks away, Adam is in the zone. Lifting weights, hurling ball passes, wheeling through agility obstacles, and practicing giving and taking hits in her chair are all part of making sure she’s in peak physical condition. Agility training Bret Kelly said he’s been working with the Paralympic coaching team on Adam’s regimen.

“We even specifically put in what we called our hell week, to basically push her as hard as we could for a week and really see how that body recovers,” he said. “And that would really give us data on how we can push her throughout the whole training cycle and how the coach can utilize her on the court as well.”

Sarah Adam on what it means to represent her country, and women, in her sport

Sarah Adam, the first female player on Team USA's wheelchair rugby team, trains intensely with her coach, Bret Kelly, for the upcoming Paralympics in Paris, representing both her country and women in the sport.Photographed on May 31, 2024 at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Adam, the first woman on Team USA's wheelchair rugby team, trains intensely for the upcoming Paralympic Games in Paris alongside her coach with her coach Bret Kelly.
Sarah Adam, the first female player on Team USA's wheelchair rugby team, trains intensely with her coach, Bret Kelly, for the upcoming Paralympics in Paris, representing both her country and women in the sport.Photographed on May 31, 2024 at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Adam runs through drills alongside her coach Bret Kelly last month in Maryland Heights.

For adaptive sports athletes, training typically needs to incorporate special considerations, often due to a lifelong disability or a body-altering injury. Adam’s mobility issues are due to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The relapsing and remitting condition that can make even the most detailed training plan complicated.

“I could have a relapse that makes it so that I can't even go compete in Paris, or we can be in Paris, and I have some days where I'm feeling really good—we’re playing five games in five days, that's a lot to put my body through, I think we know that there's going to ebb and flow,” she said. “And so being really close with my teammates and transparent with them on where I'm at, and we adjust how I'm playing in my role on that court, depending on how my body's feeling. I'm sort of listening to my body, but I'm pushing it.”

She said staying connected with those teammates around the country helps bridge the gap between in-person training and competition ahead of Paris.

“It's like texting each other even if it's not rugby stuff,” she said. “You need to know that you trust that person."

The community is what drew her to the sport in the first place. She first became involved with St. Louis’s adaptive sports network because of her work as an occupational therapist.

“The people that play it and are getting a chance to see how important adaptive sports was improving their quality of life, not only physically, but also socially, and having peer support, in a way that's just really real and authentic,” she said. “They're surrounded by all these guys that have a lot of physical limitations and are still out there being independent and living life and living happily and successfully. And so I love being a part of that community.”

Sarah Adam, the first female player on Team USA's wheelchair rugby team, trains intensely with her coach, Brett Kelly, for the upcoming Paralympics in Paris, representing both her country and women in the sport.Photographed on May 31, 2024 at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Adam runs through drills alongside her coach Bret Kelly last month in Maryland Heights.

As her symptoms progressed—and her interest in the sport intensified---the Chicago-area native says she became more thankful to be in St. Louis.

“I almost went to school up north and in a different university. And I would have never been as connected to adaptive sports because there weren't as many adaptive sports opportunities up there,” she said. “So I would have still had MS and a lot of the challenges that I have today, but I would not have already been connected to an adaptive sport and a community of people with disabilities that helped me feel comfortable with my identity as a person with a disability.”

But as more people learn of her story in the lead-up to the Paralympics, she said she doesn’t want that disability to define her or her fellow competitors.

“I don't want people to say that we're an inspiration, or that I'm an inspiration. I think we're just out there competing and doing what we love and doing it at a high level,” she said. “We are parallel to the Olympics. So we train just as hard, we are the best at our sport in the world.”

Abby Llorico is the Morning Newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.