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Watch NZH Local Focus: Belts on for the Waikato Wasps

By Hunter Calder

It's not just a pair of trainers and a ball that's needed for the Waikato Wasps to play their favourite sport, first they need to kit up, and get their wheelchairs secure, ready to play.

A safety guard and extra wheels are attached to thirteen year old Liam Gleeson's chair and then he's ready to buckle himself into his seat and head onto the court, "I really like playing it because it's just fun, and you have to use your brain to work out what to do to get goals by getting past the opposition."

Teammate twins Alex and Jesse Buchan are only eleven, but both have got their sights set on getting a gold medal, "or just a medal" Alex says.

The pair also play wheelchair rugby and basketball, but say wheelchair football is their favourite because "you don't have to use your arms as much".

"It gets tiring and you have to pass the ball and then your arms get really tired," Jesse says in regards to the other sports he plays.

Jesse and Alex's father, Alan Buchan says wheelchair football is about freedom and everyone on court is equal "which is perfect".

"It brings out the competitive spirit, makes everyone even on the court, whereas when you're on a manual chair, the abilities are a lot different, but this just evens it up."

Wheelchair Football is played four a side, but only one player from each team can be going for the ball at a time to avoid crashes.

Sports Force Parafed Development Officer Carol Armstrong, says the sport is set up so everyone can excel, despite their abilities.

"They may have weak joints, or bones, brittle bones," Mrs Armstrong says. "While they make it look so easy, it's actually not. When you're starting out learning to be accurate going forwards and backwards, spinning and trying to make contact with the ball".

Coach David Ireland agrees. He's been involved with football for "quite a while" and says the principles of wheelchair football, "are exactly the same", but there's an added challenge controlling a motorised chair that reaches speeds of 10 kilometres-per-hour.

"Honestly it's like learning to drive a car in some respects, you're all over the place, you don't have understanding of the acceleration, how quickly they turn, turning early or late, or whatever."

"A lot of the players have lived in their chairs, or required their chairs all their life, so they don't know any different really, so from that aspect it's no different from an able- bodied person doing what they do. They [wheelchair football players] do it from within the skillset they have," Mr Ireland says.

Currently there is no national tournament - but there are plans for one to start next year.

At 37, Tyrone Cook is the oldest player in the team. He says he can help guide "the younger ones."

Eventually he would like to see "it as a Paralympic sport, so I'd like to be able to go to the paralympics".

But in order to do that Mrs Armstrong says the sport needs to grow and "get really good players."

"The more competitions that we can get nationally then that gives them an opportunity to develop themselves, their team, so they can represent further, greater bigger, international events."

Already there are six teams across New Zealand and Mrs Armstrong is hoping to sign up additional teams from Taranaki and Otago soon.

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- NZ Herald

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