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11 October 2014

Wheelchair Rugby gets audience with Pope Francis

By Rufo Lannelli


The best thing Pope Francis could do for people with disabilities who have an active life and are involved in sports was to invite them to Rome, inside the Vatican walls, and ask them to speak about the sports they played, and to show how they are practiced. And that's exactly what happened in Rome on 4 and 5 October. The event was called "Believe To Be Alive", and it was all about disabled sport.


On Saturday 4 October, almost 6000 people crowded into the huge Auditorium Sala Nervi on the side of St Peter's columns. Hundreds of men, women and kids on wheels, plus sport staff, families and friends. Many Paralympic athletes spoke before the Pope, among them Colonel Di Punzo, who had just come back from the Invictus Games, and Luca Pancalli, 2.0 wheelchair rugby player and President of the Italian Paralympic Committee.


The Italian wheelchair rugby movement was there with a delegation of around 40 people, including 15 athletes from various parts of the country; proud to represent their country and the International Wheelchair Rugby Family.


Pope Francis firmly wanted the very first Paralympic Gala to be held within the Vatican walls. When he entered the auditorium the crowd was incredibly loud and he cheered everyone. The protocol that Pope Francis put in place was very respectful of all beliefs, and even of non-believers. As a matter of fact, there was no collective prayer or preaching of any sort, and his speech was incredibly modern and up to date regarding disabilities and the purpose of sport activities.


Pope Francis pointed out how vital the meaning of sharing and even simply "being together" in sport activities was. He also remarked the importance of the example that Paralympic athletes represent for others, and as Luca Pancalli said, even for those whose with disabilities that don't allow them to practice any sport at all.


The next day, Sunday 5 October, it was time for the wheelchair rugby demonstration. Two courts in front of St Peter's square. Two sessions, early morning and early afternoon, in order to give space to as many other sport disciplines as possible.


A very bumpy ground, due to the cobblestones under the plastic floor..and quite a steep hill going up towards St Peter, so that you could turn and rush downhill as a mighty crusader. Teams were made up trying to balance classification points and experience. The 15 Italian players, most of them from the National team, represented the Italian clubs of Padua, Rome and Trieste. Novice players alongside experienced players, which will be confronting group B National teams at the 2015 IWRF European Championship.


National Team Manager Claudio Da Ponte, a couple of days before the event spotted among the many tourists visiting Rome, Belgian 3.0 point wheelchair rugby player Raf Hendrix (currently playing in the US) and invited him to join the Sunday show. Happy to play, Raf took part in the sun burning afternoon session, adding a good amount of clashes and competitiveness to the game.


This event was very useful for recruiting new players and fans for the young Italian clubs, as the wheelchair rugby movement is quickly growing stronger in the country since 2010, and is aiming to reach European top levels.


Believe To Be Alive was a crucial occasion to spread the word of wheelchair rugby to the world, as it was held in such a beautiful location, which was an open window in front of a very large International audience.


For more information on wheelchair rugby in Italy email Rufo Iannelli at