Wheelchair Rugby, appropriately dubbed the toughest game on wheels, is a fast paced, full-contact game which sees players crash, block and trap their opponents in an attempt to stop them from scoring.
Not for the feint hearted, this ferocity is what Andrew Harrison thrives on.
Melbourne-based, Aussie Steeler Andrew Harrison OAM was first introduced to wheelchair rugby in 2004 after acquiring paraplegia following a diving accident as a 17-year-old.
When undergoing rehabilitation after his accident, he recalls hearing a noise coming from the basketball courts within the facility which he could only describe as sounding like ‘two cars crashing’ only to see battered wheelchairs rolling around the court at great speed, smashing into each other, depicting a scene that like of a Mad Max film. But that’s all it took, Andrew was hooked and couldn’t wait to try it.
Not long after leaving hospital he was asked to come along and play for a local team and sure enough, from here he was selected to attend additional training sessions with the Victorian Team.
“That year I went on to win Rookie of the Year 2006. The next year, I represented Australia,” said Andrew.
Unbelievably and quite remarkably, it only took Andrew 3 years of playing Wheelchair Rugby and learning the game before he was selected to represent his country. From there, his career quickly progressed, representing Australia at both the London and Rio Paralympic Games.
“Pulling on the green and gold means everything, I have always dreamed of representing Australia on the big stage and when I get given the opportunity, I love every moment of it,” exclaimed Andrew.
A gold medal winning performance at the 2012 London Paralympic Games marked the beginning of an incredible run of success for Andrew and the Steelers, culminating in the teams’ heroic 1-point victory over the USA in a double-overtime thriller in Rio, where they became the first team in Wheelchair Rugby history to win consecutive Paralympic gold medals and a world title in a four-year period.
Upon reflection, Andrew confirms that the USA outfit that the Steelers overcame that day remains the toughest opponent that he has faced.
“Over many years, we have had some very close games and if you look at Rio 2016 it went into overtime twice and is considered to be the best game of wheelchair rugby in its history.”
Reminiscing on his past Paralympic campaigns, Andrew remembers “the feeling you have when the final siren sounds is amazing, thousands of people screaming and cheering, and you know that all the hard work you put in has paid off.”
The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics closing ceremony was meant to take place tonight, concluding what would have been a fortnight of further celebration of disability sport and wider inclusion in the community and around the world. However, like with many 2020 plans, the COVID pandemic interjected and led to the postponement of the Games where Andrew and the Steelers were due to vie for back-to-back-to-back golden glory.
When prompted about how he and his team mates reacted to the postponement of the Games he explained: “We as a team were disappointed that the games were postponed until next year” but he acknowledges the silver linings of the delay, adding “the extra time allows us to be a better, stronger and more resilient team and allows us to give it everything to bring home a third gold medal.”
However frustrating and challenging this time continues to be, Andrew is grateful for the way in which the sport and his team have been able to pivot and reimagine training regimes.
“The Steelers have the best coaching staff in the world and they were able to tailor our programs to mean we could train from home; either going for a push in our rugby chairs or jumping on a hand crank machine to stay fit,” Andrew says. “We also use Zoom for group training sessions.”
With a cabinet full of sporting silverware and now a ‘lengthened pre-season’, does he feel added pressure heading to Tokyo?
He simply states, “I believe the Steelers are in a position to make history [in Tokyo] and become the greatest team ever”. Promising optimism for Australian fans and the greater rugby community to take into 2021.
For Andrew, after his diving accident, he never dreamed he would represent Australia, let alone go on to win two gold medals and an Order of Australia Medal for Sport, an honour and dream come true for the Bayswater North resident.
The OAM accolade “means so much to me because I put so much time and effort into training and becoming the best. It is amazing to have been recognised for my contribution to the sport that I love. It is a great achievement and something that I will never forget, I will always cherish this award and I am incredibly grateful.”
Despite considering representing the green and gold as one of his greatest achievements, Andrew, who at 33 is considered among the best 2.0 players in the game, explains that Paralympic gold isn’t his only measure of success.
“I believe success is measured in different ways, but for me success is the ability to overcome small challenges put before me and take them on headfirst. Sometimes they are small and other times they can be massive but if you take your time and give it 100% you will be able to accomplish anything in life.”
Not dismissing his Paralympic fame, Andrew’s name and rugby prowess may be familiar to some members of the Victorian rugby community, as Andrew is the Captain of the Power House Wheelchair Rugby Club and he led the Club to the 2019 Victorian Wheelchair Rugby Classic victory last November.
Deflecting from his own successes and talented abilities, Andrew was quick to acknowledge his Power House team mates as “amazing players who give everything for the team”, some of whom have joined him in representing Australia over the years. For anyone considering taking up wheelchair rugby, Andrew has one simple message; “Wheelchair Rugby is so much fun at any level or ability”, “have a crack at it and see where it takes you and just enjoy the mateship that comes from be a part of a great team and community.”
We wish Andrew and the Steelers all the very best in their preparations as they strive towards the Tokyo Paralympics, scheduled to commence on August 24, 2021. We’ll be watching!
Rugby Victoria are proud partners of Disability Sport and Recreation, an alliance committed to strengthening the community support of Wheelchair Rugby and showcasing this exciting sport to new spectators and fans. For more information about the Victorian Wheelchair Rugby competition click here