Paralyzed VCU alum channels competitive spirit through wheelchair rugby

Sitting at the kitchen table of the Colonial Heights home where she grew up, Mandy Marchiano, 33, flipped through the pages of a photo album. The snapshots of memories were illuminated by the fading window light as raindrops began to patter against the glass. Lifting a page with her thumbs, she pulled it back to reveal an image of four young children, grinning in matching bright red sweaters.

Growing up with three older brothers helped shape the life and goals that Marchiano has made for herself. Her dreams and aspirations may have evolved over the years, but the main theme lives on — she was born to be competitive.

As a young child, Marchiano fed her desire to compete by playing soccer, dancing and cheerleading.

“I think just growing up in that environment ... and playing sports, being competitive was just a part of that,” Marchiano said.

For 15 years of her life, athletic competition was put on hold.

On Nov. 28, 2003, the Marchianos packed into the family van to do some Black Friday shopping. Thirteen-year-old Mandy was in the back seat. As they came to a stop to make a turn, a distracted driver crashed into their vehicle.

Marchiano spent the next 94 days in the hospital with crushed C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae. Her damaged spinal cord impairs the use of her hands and means that normal sensation and feeling stops at chest level.

“Since then, it’s just been highs and lows of learning to do everything again in a different way,” she said.

After her injury, she went into “academic mode” and tried to create as much of a normal life as she could. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Virginia Commonwealth University and began work on a doctorate of pharmacy, but ended up having to withdraw when she realized she would be limited by her physical ability.

In the summer of 2016, Marchiano noticed something while watching the Paralympics: Some of the athletes she saw were using electronically powered wheelchairs, like hers.

She had assumed that adaptive sports were only for manual wheelchair users. This discovery led to research that resulted in creating a company called Sportable.

Founded in 2005, Sportable is an adaptive sports club for people with a disability or impairment and offers 16 different sports.

“I found Sportable at a very pivotal point in my life,” said Marchiano, who had just withdrawn from her doctorate program.

“I signed up for pretty much everything that I could that first year just to try out so many things that I didn’t even know were options or available to me before.”

She tried rowing, handcycling and archery, which were great for socializing, but didn’t quite fit what she was looking for. During her second year with Sportable, it received a grant to start a wheelchair rugby team and things changed.

“Finding Sportable and getting involved in adaptive sports just really transformed my life,” she said. “Since then ... so many opportunities have presented themselves.”

As a person who used a power wheelchair, Marchiano did not think she could participate in such an aggressive sport. Rugby players use manual chairs that they have to push themselves. That can be difficult for lower-functioning wheelchair users. She was eventually convinced by a Sportable employee to give the sport a shot anyway and, with some practice, she was able to join the team and work the new chair.

The revelation that she could push her own chair on the rugby court changed her life dramatically. She began practicing with a manual wheelchair in her day-to-day life and eventually moved away from the power chair altogether. Making the switch to the manual chair had an unexpected outcome.

“It’s a smaller chair, so I feel like people see me before they see the chair. With the smaller, more compact chair, I just feel more comfortable,” she said.

In the few years since starting wheelchair rugby, Marchiano’s path has evolved incrementally from the Division III level Sportable Possums team to the Division I University of Arizona Wildcats, with which she now competes around the country. The next step, and one of her biggest goals, is to be selected for the USA training squad.

This year, she was invited to travel to Birmingham, Alabama, for the USA Wheelchair Rugby 2024 Selection Camp. The event consisted of a week of rigorous physical exercises and tests, including pushing 2 miles in one practice. Each day, the names of the players who are selected to continue are posted in a common area. Those who do not make the cut go home.

“It’s always an honor to even be invited,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t selected for the team, it still was a great experience.”

Recently, in the middle of an empty court at a YMCA in Petersburg, Marchiano sat in her rugby chair, holding a ball, head held high and smiling.

“The last 20 years, everything was OK, and the next 20 years, everything will be OK, too,” she said.