TAMPA — Briona Keeshan is a rare commodity in the sport of wheelchair rugby.
When she started playing the game just more than a year ago, Keeshan had no female role models to emulate.
That didn’t deter the New Port Richey resident from becoming the only woman on the Tampa Generals, a wheelchair rugby team sponsored by Tampa General Hospital.
“I actually like being the only woman on the team,” said Keeshan, 20. “It’s really cool. The guys act like they are my older brothers.”
Keeshan and her 11 teammates get a chance to build on their winning reputation — the team is ranked fifth nationally — when the 22nd annual Tampa International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament begins today at All People’s Life Center, 6105 E. Sligh Ave. The event runs through Sunday.
This year’s tournament will feature eight teams; one each from Germany, Brazil, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Missouri, along with a U.S. team with players from various states.
Tampa General Hospital, Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department are tournament sponsors.
Wheelchair rugby, also known as quad rugby, was invented in 1977 by Canadians. It was introduced in the United States nearly a decade later and has grown in popularity around the world. It is played in more than 20 countries as a Paralympic sport.
The sport has little in common with rugby football except in name.
Quad rugby is a contact sport for quadriplegics, athletes who have disabilities that include at least some loss of function in at least three limbs.
Initially called Murderball, the sport entails four teammates advancing a modified volleyball down an indoor, hardwood court with the intent to cross the opponent’s goal line, while fending off four opposing players.
“People fall out of their chairs; it’s really rough,” said Keeshan, a defensive player who has experience her share of injuries.
Keeshan, who described herself as a “girlie girl,” developed interest in the sport when she met Justin Starks, the Generals’ team manager and captain, at a disability conference in Orlando a year and a half ago.
“He told me to come check it out,” said Keeshan, who has been an advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries since recovering from a traffic accident in Michigan four years ago.
Keeshan said she hopes at least a half-dozen women will participate in this weekend’s tournament.
The public is invited to watch the tournament, which is an important competition for many teams seeking to qualify for national and international championship contests.
Admission to the tournament is free.