8B - The Michigan Daily - SportsMonday - January 23, 2006
Michigan medical student Jaf-
fer Odeh redefines what it means
to be not only a physician, but also
a potential Olympic athlete.
The overall concept of
wheelchair rugby is sim-
ple: get from your goal
to your opponent's as many
times as possible. Sounds
easy enough. But throw in
a couple defenders whose
only focus is to ram into your
chair, shake you up and force
you to give up the ball, and
that journey from end to end
becomes far more daunting.
"When I was trying out (for
the United States team), I took
a nasty hit," Odeh said. "It was
an illegal hit. Two people came
at me at once, and one sent me
up on one wheel, and the other
one kind of finished me off. I
went off and tumbled, and land-
ed face first on the ground."
There is no way an every-
day chair could stand up to
this kind of impact. Without
a souped-up wheelchair, a
rugby player wouldn't stand
a chance of competing, let
alone excelling in the sport.
But an athlete can't just
stop at a local sporting
goods store and pick up a
chair that will put him in the
game. Each player must have
a custom-made wheelchair,
built based on approximately
By Megan Kolodgy I
Daily Sports Editor
he third year of medical school is often
the turning point of a budding doctor's
career. After four semesters of ter-
rifying classes, the student begins his
rotations, working in various disci-
plines while getting his first real taste
of hospital life - and politics. A try-
ing schedule with varied hours is often
enough to prevent students from seeing
parts of the outside world not on the
path from home to the hospital.
Third-year Michigan medical student
Jaffer Odeh resides in Ann Arbor and
does his rotations in Jackson. But last week, he traveled to West
Palm Beach, Flint and Pittsburgh.
The fact that Odeh is constantly on the move not only makes him
an anomaly in the medical school world - it also illustrates how far
he has come since a car accident in 1998 attempted to keep his body
Odeh's injuries left him with impairment in all four of his limbs,
but he has long since become adept at maneuvering in his wheel-
chair, which is the ironic reason for his travels.
Odeh is a member of the Great Lakes Storm, the state of Mich-
igan's wheelchair rugby team. Since the program serves the entire
state, practices are held at a gym in centrally-located Flint. Tourna-
ments consume several weekends each year and keep Odeh away
from Ann Arbor.
The future doctor became interested in the sport, in which athletes
are tightly strapped into contraptions that more closely resemble
racecar frames than any wheelchair you've ever seen, shortly after
his accident, when he attended what he referred to as a "disabled
sports extravaganza." He tried it out, and was instantly attached.
When he was an undergraduate at Michigan, Odeh couldn't make it
up to Flint, so he put his desire to play on the backburner and instead
tried his hand at basketball and cycling.
B ut Odeh couldn't stay away for long.
"Three years ago - I don't know what it was - I just
thought, 'I've got to check into rugby again,' " he said. "I
went out to a practice, and after that, I was hooked. I've been playing
In just a short period, Odeh has transformed himself from a
novice into an Olympic hopeful. In November, he was one of 40
American athletes invited to try out for the national team, which
will play at the 2006 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in
"It was an honor just to be invited," he said. "Playing with that
level of skilled athletes was just really cool."
Unfortunately, despite his notable speed and agility, the offensive
player failed to make the cut. Not surprisingly, the news didn't keep
him down for long.
"I would love to make it to the Olympic team for Beijing," Odeh
said. "The coach said he would have me back (to try out) for the 2008
games - and that's the big one anyway."
En route to achieving this dream is lots of time spent at tourna-
ments. The facilities are often less glamorous than those typically
envisioned for prospective Olympians. To keep costs down, tourna-
ments are sometimes held at community centers, or in high school
But the intense nature of wheelchair rugby quickly enables both
the player and the spectator to forget the less-than-state-of-the-art
surroundings. Even though most of these athletes have experienced
serious injuries and physical impairment, they play with relatively
little protection - a tribute to the original version of the sport, which
is known for its roughness and lack of safety equipment. Players can
opt for elbow or knee pads, but the chair and adhesive pine tar they
smear across their hands are their primary tools.
It is easy, when Odeh's eyes light up talking about the future,
to forget that he has more than a full plate of medical training in
front of him as a potential anesthesiologist. Although rugby has
required him to become extraordinarily skilled at time manage-
ment, he has never had to take on a schedule as daunting as the
one he is currently facing.
"The first two years in med school were all classwork," Odeh said.
"I could just miss class, and it wasn't that big of a deal. Now I'm at least
working Monday through Friday - and on certain rotations, you're
working on weekends too. It's been difficult to finagle it, but I've done
alright so far."
Wheelchair rugby presents threats to Odeh's career that go beyond
logistics. The fearlessness with which the athletes attack the sport
leaves them open to a slew of injuries. The object of the game is for
the defensive players to keep the offensive players from rolling into the
goal area at the end of the court. The defensemen accomplish this task
by strategically slamming into the attacking players' chairs.
Before settling on anesthesiology, Odeh thought he might like to
be a surgeon. But the constant danger that the sport posed to his
hands left him fearing for his future whenever he strapped himself
into his chair.
"You really destroy your hands every time you play a game," he
said. "We have to tape our nails down, because they'll rip right off.
Your hands can also get caught in a chair if you're going for a ball or
something. I broke my thumb a few months ago. So I was really wor-
ried about injuring my hands badly."
But the young student believes that his chair gives him a leg up in
terms of the way his patients relate to him.
"It's affected the way I approach medicine," Odeh said. "It's hum-
bled me a lot, and I feel I can talk to people and make them more
comfortable. It's allowed me to connect with people because I've been
through a lot, and I know what patients go through?'
It could be argued that Odeh, with his articulate enthusiasm and obvi-
ous intelligence, would have triumphed over his injury just fine even if
he had forgone his experiences in wheelchair sports. He is convinced,
however, that there is no better way to get a head start on the road to
recovery than to become a part of this eclectic community of athletes.
"Whenever I see any person in a wheelchair - within 30 seconds
of talking to them - I'm asking them if they play wheelchair sports,
because it really is a great way to get involved. Especially early on when
you're just trying to get used to an injury and you don't really know how
to approach a lot of things. You don't even know how to live your life.
You can learn a lot from just being around other people in chairs"
It is possible that a residency in the next few years will take Odeh
away from Michigan. But he hopes that, even if his location changes,
he will stay in the game.
"It will be hard (to pick up and leave)," Odeh said. "I hope that I
don't let anything keep me away from playing.
This might seem a bit
extreme, but a close fit
could be the difference
between evading an oncoming
defender and losing the ball.
Apart from a snug chair, six
straps prevent the player from
coming out of his seat.
"If you're loose in the chair,
then your legs will move and
you'll lose momentum," ,Odeh
said. "You want your body to be
one with the chair."
Since requesting incorrect
chair dimensions is a potential
$3,500 mistake, the processes
of measuring for and creating the
chair can be pressure-packed.
That's where companies such
as Vesco Metal Craft come in.
Based in California, VMC is one
of the sport's most popular ven-
dors, outfitting more than half the
U.S. National Team members.
But the company has not
always produced chairs. Founded
in 1994 by the father-son team
of Tom and Neil Vesco, VCM
originally specialized in custom
fabrication - building Formula
racecar chassis, motorcycle
frames and sheet metal used for
But the company's direction
changed when a friend who was
overloaded with orders for rugby
chairs asked if VMC would fill the
"I did those first couple of
chairs and sent them out, and
then the orders just started pour-
ing in," Neil said. "Their It'was
kind of a domino effect."
Currently, the company is so
swamped that it takes about four
months to complete each order.
When he initially took on this
task, Neil, who is studying to
become a mechanical engineer,
knew nothing about the sport.
One thing in which he had exten-
sive knowledge, however, was
"With my racing back-
ground - where you have to
measure within a thousandth
of an inch - it's kind of trans-
lated over to building these
chairs," Neil said. "Everything
is just really accurate."
Tobe eligible to compete in wheelchair rugby, a player
must have impairment in all four limbs. But different
injuries to the spinal cord leave athletes with varying
levels of impairment. To acknowledge this fact, the sport
categorizes players into one of seven classifications accord-
ing to their degree of arm mobility. The classifications range
from .5 to 3.5 - .5 indicating the lowest level of movement,
and 3.5 indicating the highest level of movement.
In game situations, a team has four players on the court.
The catch is that the sum of these athletes' classifications
cannot exceed eight. This rule has implications for squads'
strategies in terms of which players they carry on their ros-
ters and who is on the floor at any given moment.
he gets the ball to a defenseman.
"If you're passing to someone who's a .5, that pass has
to be perfect," Odeh said. "You have to pretty much toss it
perfectly so it lands in their lap, or bounce it perfectly so it
lands in their lap."
One common technique to passing to a low-point player
is bouncing the ball quite hard and so it goes high in the air
and gives the defenseman enough time to get under it and
But having greater arm mobility comes with its own set of
challenges. As a 3.5, Odeh is expected to be the dominant
man on the court.
"It's probably the toughest position in the sports," wheel-
B esidesthe measurements,
there are several differ-
ent decisions to make as
far as optional features are con-
cerned. The most basic of these is
deciding whether to get an offen-
sive or defensive chair. Offensive
chairs are designed for players
with higher classification levels
(2 to 3.5), who have greater use
of their arms, and are in charge
of scoring. A player with a lower
classification (1.5 to .5) requires
a defensive chair, because his
role is to stop opponents from
getting past him. The wheels on
offensive chairs have wings over
them and use larger tubing to pre-
vent defenders from slowing the
started, people would just attach
two-by-fours to the front of their
chairs," Neil said. "People start-
ed getting faster and adding
braces. It just kind of evolved
Since changing VMC's direc-
tion, Neil has taken an interest
in the sport. He claims to know
about 80 percent of the players
in the world - which he admits
is still not a huge number. But
the personalization of the sport
has allowed him to communicate
openly with the athletes, which
in turn has enabled him to build
chairs that better meet their
"I didn't realize, initially, how