Niche Sports on the World Stage — an Interview with Patrick Gosteli, Wheelchair Rugby, and Brigitte Ziegler, Tug of War
“The World is coming” — this was the motto of The World Games 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama. Under the watchful eye of Vulcan, Birmingham’s city symbol and mascot of this year’s World Games, several thousand athletes from around the globe came together to participate in this highly anticipated international sporting event. To cheer on the just over a hundred Swiss athletes, the public diplomacy team of the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta attended competitions of the most fascinating and often lesser-known sports. A special feature of The World Games, held only every 4 years, is that all disciplines are non-Olympic. While in Birmingham, we had the pleasure to sit down with two Swiss athletes: Patrick Gosteli, wheelchair rugby, and Brigitte Ziegler, tug of war.
Patrick Gosteli is a passionate wheelchair rugby player. After a swimming accident at the age of 20 left him quadriplegic, he decided to give the sport a try while still in rehab — and has remained true to it ever since! Typically, Patrick trains 2–3 times per week in Berne and Lucerne with two of the four wheelchair rugby teams in Switzerland.
Patrick, what is particularly fascinating about this sport?
Patrick: I love playing in a team and even more when the teammates are almost like family. In fact, it is not just the players of the team, but also the support staff and the international wheelchair rugby community that contributes to a tremendous sense of cohesion and team spirit. This high level of acceptance also shows in other respects. For instance when it comes to gender or age, wheelchair rugby is played in mixed teams of men and women and allows a wide age range compared to other sports. I also find the diverse tactical possibilities offered by this sport intriguing, but let me elaborate.
Wheelchair rugby works with a point system: each player gets an individual score based on the severity of their physical limitations. To qualify for wheelchair rugby, you have to have limitations on three of your four extremities, such as cerebral palsy, amputations, or, like me, quadriplegia. Scores range from 0.5 to 3.5, with a low score indicating a high limitation; I myself have a score of 0.5. The four players on a team cannot exceed a total of 8 points. However, in Birmingham we have competed with a low-point team, which unlike 8-point wheelchair rugby is not a Paralympic discipline and therefore eligible for The World Games. In low-point teams, no player has a score higher than 1.5, so the total possible score for a team is 3.5. This point system makes wheelchair rugby an extremely tactical sport, since you can build your team with different point combinations. As one could see at the game against Japan, the Japanese chose the point distribution of their starting line in such a way that they had two very fast players, which was not easy for us.
Now that we have a general idea of wheelchair rugby, what can you tell us about the rules? And what would you say are the biggest challenges during a game?
Patrick: Similar to rugby, the ball must cross the line at the end zone of the field to score a try. To prevent our opponents from scoring, we block their specially designed wheelchairs with ours. On top of that, there are also a lot of timing rules that are very reminiscent of basketball: we are given a total of 40 seconds to start an attack, 12 seconds to get to the other half of the court, and 10 seconds to play or bounce the ball. Even though the low-point game is not quite as rough as the 8-point game, every now and then someone falls off the chair. It is a full contact sport from chair to chair. Any physical contact is forbidden, but there is a gray area (*laughs*). Again, since every single player has individual limitations and abilities, the differences in skill set between the players are much bigger than for example between the players of a soccer team. Therefore, it is extremely important to study each of the opponent’s players and the resulting tactics carefully. That is the biggest challenge, I would say.
Last but not least, could you tell us something about the objectives of your team and your personal ambitions? Is there a particular country where you would like to play your next match?
Patrick: Our next big goal is to give our best at the upcoming Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Denmark in October 2022. Before we resume practice at home however, we are excited to go on a road trip through the South and visit the cities of Memphis and New Orleans. For me personally, I hope to improve my level and maintain my fitness. While we are extremely grateful for this incredible fan base who already regularly join us at our games, it would be most rewarding to play in front of a huge enthusiastic audience — where that would be, we do not care that much.
We met Brigitte after a nerve-wracking match that already seemed to be decided in favor of Great Britain. Only a few centimeters separated the British from a victory, but then Switzerland mobilized all its forces and pulled the rope back to the center point and from there all the way to its side. Family members and friends of the Swiss team cheered along as the women’s team secured the bronze medal.
Brigitte, what do you like best about tug of war and what ultimately gave you the push for the decisive pull?
Brigitte: For me, tug of war is something like the epitome of a team sport. Where I come from, in a region in Central Switzerland, tug of war is actually quite well-known. Every year, a fun tournament is held where anyone can join in. Back around 2008, I realized that this combination of strength, agility, and mental readiness appealed to me a lot. As in all sports, mental control is absolutely crucial. That was exemplified in the match against Great Britain: once we realized that we had the power to beat the British women’s team and that it would be our very last game, we activated all our forces. For them, on the other hand, it must have been tough to see the victory that was already in their pocket suddenly closer to the opposing team, which was probably the reason why we finally won the last game. Although strength certainly has a lot to do with tug of war, what decides a game is often primarily a mental matter.
There are many other things that affect the odds of winning, for example, the firmness and condition of the ground where I might have to mention that this is the first time that the women’s category of tug of war has been held outdoors at The World Games. Another important factor is the total weight of the whole team. It is certainly an advantage to be as close as possible to the allowed body weight, in our case 540kg. With women’s teams, the games usually go much faster because the men pull more consistently and the likelihood of so called “locked-in-positions” are much higher.
Is there anything you are not allowed to do while pulling the rope? And how do you prepare as a team for competitions like The World Games?
Brigitte: Yes, there are some rules that need to be followed: a warning is usually given for sitting on the floor for too long, for leaning on the floor, or for pinching the rope. Receiving three warnings during a game means losing the game outright. As far as training is concerned, we mainly do general fitness, strength, and conditioning training in the winter, we go outside as soon as spring offers reasonably pleasant temperatures. I personally practice with the rope twice a week, sometimes even with counterweights. Since we have national championships, we also compete in matches with other local teams on the weekends. Additionally, there are world championships that provide a reference as to how we compare internationally. In fact, we are really excited that the one next year will take place nowhere else than at home in Sursee (Switzerland). For me, this is the third World Games experience as I already participated in Wroclaw (Poland) and in Cali (Colombia). However, Birmingham is the first one where I will bring home a medal.
Congratulations on this fantastic achievement! Having competed in a multitude of places such as Wroclaw, Cali, and now Birmingham, what would be the destination of your dreams for a tug of war match?
Brigitte: Whew, that is a tough question. Maybe somewhere way up in the mountains, Scheidegg (Switzerland) would be great. But it is more about the atmosphere and the vibe; a stadium full of people cheering us on would probably be even better, but those are the dreams of an athlete in a niche sport.
We wish both Patrick and Brigitte the best of luck wherever their sport takes them. Finally, we hope that more and more people will take an interest in these lesser-known sports which are at least as much fun as the ones we are more familiar with.