SYDNEY — Justin Muschamp grew up playing the quiet sports. He tried golf for a while. He played lawn bowls. He tried to play school sports, but a boy with cerebral palsy all too often winds up toting the team bags instead.

When he reached his 20s, Muschamp found the horizons at the Paralympic level were not terribly broad for a young man with cerebral palsy either. Boccia was introduced specifically for such athletes at the 1992 Barcelona Games, but, again, it was a quiet sport. Muschamp wanted noise, action, lights.

Eventually, he found it — and, in the process, he may have become a pioneer of his time. After a five-year apprenticeship in New Zealand’s local leagues, he emerged in 1998 to become what is believed to be the first athlete with cerebral palsy ever to play in wheelchair rugby’s World Championships. He still has met no others playing internationally as he prepares for the Sydney 2000 Games, but head coach Tony Howe believes Muschamp has blazed a trail that others will follow.

‘I really hope they realise there is a lot more room for cerebral-palsy players in this game,’ Howe said after New Zealand completed a three-game Sydney test series with Australia in the lead-up to the Games, starting 18 October.

‘Justin’s paving the way,’ he said. ‘He’s like the first polio players that ever came along. The classifiers and the graders couldn’t grade polio players. They didn’t know how. They didn’t know how to grade Justin either.

‘He’s doing a great job. He’s come a long way — in his social outlook, in his performance on the court, in his confidence. That’s what the sport has given him.’

Muschamp, now 29, never saw himself as a trailblazer. He just wanted a sport that fulfilled him. He knew about boccia, and he knew a few cerebral-palsy athletes competing in athletics and swimming, but the options seemed to end there. Then, fresh out of university, he met some wheelchair-rugby players through his work at a sporting body for the disabled in Christchurch, New Zealand. They suggested he try the sport, and he hasn’t looked back.

The 1.88-metre (6-foot-2) Muschamp, who uses his wheelchair only for the sport, was selected to his first national team at the World Championships. Now, he has moved into the starting line-up.

‘The hand-eye coordination with cerebral palsy is always a difficult thing,’ he said. ‘Ball control is difficult. But I’ve been picked because of my height, my blocking and my speed. And, besides my height, because of my muscle and my physical make-up, I’ve got bigger wheels, too [to sit even higher].

‘I’ve adapted my game, and the team has adapted its game and the line-up, to use the strengths of the team,’ he said.

The combination has helped New Zealand climb to No. 2 in the world as it heads into the Games. Wheelchair rugby, the fastest-growing wheelchair game in the world, will debut as a medal sport after operating as a demonstration sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Muschamp has been deemed a 3-point player on the sport’s classification scale, similar to wheelchair basketball’s system. The scale ranges from 0.5 to 3.5 points per player, traditionally based upon the severity of spinal-cord injuries because the sport was developed for quadriplegic players. The four players on the court at any time cannot total more than eight points.

New Zealand has two 3.5 players on its 10-man roster, but Muschamp is the most highly classified player in the starting line-up. He takes no notice, though, just as he plays down the idea of being a pioneer.

‘I don’t think like that,’ he said. ‘I’m just one of the guys. I’m just out there doing it. It’s interesting to see [people’s view] on that, but I don’t care, I just think the whole idea of playing a sport is the developing.

‘A couple of the guys wondered what the heck was going on when I teamed up,’ he said. ‘But they got to know me as a person, and they realised my major goal was to develop, and they suddenly realised, ‘Yeah, this can happen.’

‘There are a lot of people with cerebral palsy who could play this game. You’ve got to be self-determined. I learned from an early age that goal-setting is very important, and, in sport, if you want to get a lot out of it, you’ve got to put a lot in — you can’t just be a taker. The reason I love this game is that it’s physical, it’s really physical. Others that keep away from it, I don’t know if that’s what puts them off, but that’s what I love. It’s physical, it’s loud, it’s got all the energy.’

Noise, action, lights. Muschamp has the action he wanted, and now the noise and lights are just days away. Seven of his team-mates were in Atlanta in 1996 and told him it was mind-blowing. His boss at work was there and told him it was the best time of his life.

Muschamp, the man who found golf, lawn bowls and boccia too quiet over the years, looked up at the seats of the arena in Sydney Olympic Park, and a wide grin spread across his face.

‘You can just imagine this place [during the Games] when we’re playing,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be absolutely pounding. You won’t be able to hear yourself think.’

Ron Sutton

Source: SOCOG