It sounds like fireworks are going off inside the Junior Seau Beach Community Center in Oceanside. The crash of metal upon metal — punctuated by shouts and the shrill of a referee whistle — draws spectators from the nearby boardwalk.
In the gymnasium, Kory Puderbaugh clutches a volleyball to his stomach as he hurls his wheelchair down the court. Without slowing, he slams into an opponent's wheelchair, knocking him to the side. Puderbaugh sees his opening, maneuvers through it and pushes in for the goal.
It's that "fire in the belly" — as his teammates call it — that the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team counted on when Puderbaugh competed in his first Paralympics in September 2016. Puderbaugh, 20, was one of three athletes at the Paralympics in Rio from San Diego Sharp, a wheelchair rugby team sponsored by Sharp HealthCare. Teammates Lee Fredette and Jason Regier joined him.
"I'm humbled and honored to be selected for the U.S. team," says Puderbaugh, who was born without his lower legs, a lower left arm and most of his right hand. "It's a dream come true."
Sharp HealthCare formed the San Diego Sharp team in 1993 as a way to support patients returning to the community after suffering a catastrophic injury, as well as those born with physical disabilities. Since then, the team has won eight national championships, more than any other team in the country.
"We've seen this wheelchair rugby team transform lives," says David Brown, director of Rehabilitation Services for Sharp HealthCare. "It opens up new possibilities to people who use a wheelchair, especially those who've recently become paralyzed. We are proud to support these amazing athletes."
Developed by three Canadians, the sport was introduced in the U.S. in 1981. Since then, wheelchair rugby — also called quad rugby or murderball — has grown to include more than 30 teams across the country. It was officially added to the Paralympics in 2000.
During the game, players carry a volleyball down a regulation basketball court and over an opposing team's goal line to score. The full-contact sport is hard-driving, intense and quick, with players crashing their specially made wheelchairs into each other to force turnovers and prevent scoring.
Puderbaugh's intensity on the court is one reason Andy Cohn, an assistant coach for San Diego Sharp, recruited him to join the team. Originally from Poland, Puderbaugh was abandoned by his parents shortly after birth and spent his first five years in an orphanage. He came to the United States in 2001 and discovered wheelchair rugby as a high school student in Idaho.
"He's got a lot of skill — and a lot of heart," says Cohn, a former Paralympian and gold medal winner, who will serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. team in Rio. "We're excited to see what he does out there."
Update: Puderbaugh and his teammates took the silver medal at the 2016 Paralympics. Learn more about the game on the USA Wheelchair Rugby website.