You may have not heard of Gina Smallwood, but her track record speaks for itself. She has broken three British records in seated shot put, discus and javelin, she was the first women to play for the England Wheelchair Rugby League team in 2011 and she also plays wheelchair basketball.
She currently plays Wheelchair Rugby League for Halifax, her local club, and is preparing for their first game of the season on 13 May. Plus it is an exciting time for the England squad too.
Gina is looking forward to a busy summer with the Four Nations event in July, “we have an international game against France, we are hoping for this to be a move towards the Paralympics in 2016.” The talented star is also looking forward to the 2013 World Cup, which England is hosting.
Wheelchair rugby was first played in the UK in 2005 and it offers a unique opportunity for both disabled and non-disabled players the opportunity to compete both with and against each other. It is very much a sport for all. Gina thinks this is one of the best things about the sport, “I think that it shouldn’t matter, gender or disability, everyone should be allowed to play together if they want to. In this sport everyone is accepted.”
There are five players on each side with a match lasting eighty minutes. The object of the game is to score tries, while conversions are scored by punching the ball over the mini-posts from a tee. Tackles are made by pulling off the attached tag (like in Tag Rugby) and five tackles are followed by the handing over of possession.
The multi-talented athlete started her sporting career in 2008 in athletics, because she wanted “to be sociable and keep fit”. Although she loved athletics and was very successful, she felt it was not the sport for her,”I enjoyed it but found it quite lonely, I much prefer team sports. I love the buzz that comes with them.”
She went on to play wheelchair basketball and it was through that sport that a friend introduced her to the sport she now loves. She says: “I went along (to wheelchair rugby) and just loved it, I took to it straight away and I got a real buzz from it.”
Gina played rugby league for the first time in 2010 for Bury Jigsaw, and went on to play a pivotal role in helping them to become Super League champions. Despite that, the highlight of her career is being selected for the England wheelchair rugby league team, “it was fantastic.”
Since her debut for England against France in October 2011, making history as the first woman to be selected for the side, she has changed her attitude towards the sport. “It has inspired me to keep it up, as it would be nice to get other girls involved at a higher level and see them on the team too. Hopefully I can be an inspiration for them.”
Talking of her debut, Gina was nervous and excited but also proud to play for her country, she says: “It was nice to go out and have the national anthem playing. It is a great feeling and everyone has respect for each other.”
Being the only girl on the team, she feels that she has to make that bit more effort and train that bit harder to secure her place. She wants to show that girls can compete in mixed gender sports too, but she has never experienced any low points or negative sides to the sport.
Looking to the future Gina has a busy diary; not only is she training for the start of the rugby season, she is also finishing off her basketball season, “as one finishes the next one starts.” Her ambitious plans for the future are focused on England, but she also wants to keep playing league rugby for her local team, “I want to play sport for as long as I can. I want to get in to the national camp and represent my country in the 2013 World Cup.”
If anyone is interested in getting involved in wheelchair rugby league, they should get down to their nearest club and try it, Gina recommends the sport for everyone, “It is a fantastic sport and I’m really honoured to be selected for my country, it is truly is great fun.”
Holly Patel, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
If you’d like to get involved with rugby league as a player, official or volunteer at any level visit tryit.co.uk.