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Gautier's Anthony McDaniel embraces rough-and-tumble rugby at Invictus Games

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Sgt. Anthony McDaniel Jr. shows off the medals he has won in sporting competitions since he lost his limbs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The 2006 Gautier High graduate is representing Team USA in the Invictus Games.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Sgt. Anthony McDaniel Jr. shows off the medals he has won in sporting competitions since he lost his limbs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The 2006 Gautier High graduate is representing Team USA in the Invictus Games. SUN HERALD

Anthony McDaniel was caught in gridlock, the wheels in his mind the only things moving.

McDaniel, a retired sergeant in the U.S. Marines and 2006 Gautier High graduate, backpedaled to free himself, turned around and headed toward his goal, uncontested. He scored easily.

"It's just a give-and-take with the moves," said McDaniel, a wheelchair rugby player for the U.S. team at the Invictus Games this week at Disney World. "I take risks all the time. The move I need to take at that particular time, I just have to go for it.

"If it works, it works. If not, I know probably not to do it next time."

Wheelchair rugby is unlike any of the other nine adaptive sports in the Invictus Games, founded by Prince Harry in 2014, and mixes elements of other games with which Americans are more familiar. It is played with a volleyball on a basketball court, has more hit-and-runs than baseball and is, as retired Navy officer Henry Sawyer called it, "football with a wheelchair."

"It is a collision sport, isn't it?" New Zealand coach Phil Standbridge said. "That's part of the fun, because you can take all that competitive spirit and put it into something that is made of metal, and you can legally ram it into someone else.

"There are a lot of tactics involved. If you've got a clever head, you can work the ball around the court."

Players sometimes are blind-sided, with hits often propelling chairs into the air, causing them to topple over or damaging equipment.

"You get popped wheels, bent axles," said McDaniel, who lost both legs and his left hand after a roadside-bomb blast in 2010 in Afghanistan. "That's almost every play. We try not to because we want to keep the game going, but sometimes, when a chair gets a good angle on you, it pops the wheels constantly."

In wheelchair rugby, matches are four-on-four. Two cones each are placed at both ends of the court, and a team scores when a player crosses the goal line between those cones with the ball. A match during the preliminary round, with eight-minute halves and a mostly running clock, take about 30 minutes.

The pace is fast despite the stop-and-go traffic and metal-on-metal excitement.

"We are in wheelchairs now, so your arms are your legs," said Sawyer, who lives near Jacksonville and was paralyzed six years ago during a semipro football game in Melbourne. "You're not able to run like a regular football game, cut and move like that. You have to push."

Said Steven Boulton, who plays for the United Kingdom: "It is like a sense of you've done something. You hit someone, and you've got to get up and hit the next one. It is hard work."

The semifinals Wednesday will match the United States against Australia at 2 p.m. and the United Kingdom against Denmark at 3. The medal round will be Wednesday night, beginning at 7:30.

All matches will be in the HP Field House.

Expect sore players afterward.

"The triceps, the shoulders, the back, the hips, they all play a big part in getting some recovery and R&R after a good rugby match," McDaniel said. "A victory makes it feel slightly better, but when you get home and you get that massage, it's a little more worth it after that."

Anything to get back in the game.

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