Less than year ago McQuillan had never played the sport – now he’s wearing the green and gold at the world championships
When James McQuillan was learning to use his wheelchair, he started in a shopping centre, “where it’s all flat”. Then, he says, “you’re on pavements with some gutters that are a bit tricky, and then you go out and about with your friends or to the pub”.
The now 29-year-old spent years relearning the logistics of life – and in the first 11 months after an accident on a footy field left him a quadriplegic, he was starting from scratch.
“It was not so much about getting to use your arms again,” he says. “It was more just understanding what your body can do – how to have a drink of water, scratch your nose, those sorts of things.” After that he was introduced to a manual chair, and practised bending down to pick objects up off the floor or a table.
Eight years later, McQuillan has not only refined these skills to the point he can live and work relatively independently, but has also inhaled some new ones – so swiftly that he is now in Europe representing Australia in wheelchair rugby, just 11 months after taking up the sport. In August the Victorian made his international debut in Denmark, and he is back there this week with the Steelers to contest the world championships that started on Tuesday.
To put the speed of McQuillan’s rise into context, he was watching on television as Chris Bond and Ryley Batt led the team at the Tokyo Paralympics, having never even thought about playing wheelchair rugby at a local level. “Turns out I’m in the team with them now, playing in the next major tournament after Tokyo,” he says. “How unusual.”
McQuillan had always been sporty. Growing up on a dairy farm near the country Victoria town of Echuca, winters were dedicated to footy and summers cricket. The rest of the year was marking time, waiting for the next season to start. He wasn’t, he says, “particularly outstanding at either”, but loved being part of a team.
At school he was the kid teachers said distracted his friends too much in class. A rascal, but a people person. Towards the end of year 12, he met a girl named Kathryn at a party. “She locked eyes on me and couldn’t resist,” he says. “No, it was probably the other way around.”
Through coincidence, both had applied to study physiotherapy at university in Albury-Wodonga. When they were accepted, they moved together, and McQuillan started playing footy with the Albury Tigers.
McQuillan remembers everything about his accident except for the actual collision. He knows he played the opening quarter of Albury’s first game of the 2014 season – a grand final rematch against local rivals Yarrawonga. He recalls, midway through the second term, putting his head over the footy to pick up the ball, and then running straight into an opposing player’s leg. He does not remember his neck snapping forward on impact, far enough to fracture his C5 vertebrae.
About 30 seconds later the then 20-year-old came to. “I was fully conscious, not concussed or anything like that,” he says. “I just had had this horrible burning sensation through my lower body – through my full body, really.”
Internally, McQuillan was already self-diagnosing. He knew from his physio course work that paralysis wasn’t a good sign. “I hadn’t paid that much attention in class,” he says, “but I had a fair idea it wasn’t looking particularly good. There was a voice in my head going ‘gee, I hope we’ll just pop down to Melbourne and they’ll fix it up, and we’ll be back doing the normal things in a couple of weeks’. But I think deep down I had a pretty good idea.”
So did Kathryn – his now wife – who was on the sideline as one of the match’s trainers. She was one of the first people to reach her partner. That must have been distressing for her, too? “Yeah, I think so,” he says. Then he rephrases. “It definitely was distressing for her – she’s sitting next to me and she’s looking at me going, ‘yep, it was distressing’. Mum and Dad were there, and my younger brother and one of my really good mates, so that was tricky.”
At hospital in Albury he spent five days in intensive care, before being placed in an induced coma and airlifted to Melbourne’s Austin hospital. There he spent a month, followed by 11 more months at the Royal Talbot rehabilitation centre “getting used to my new body and learning how to live”. It was where he first noticed some wheelchair rugby players having a “muck-around game” each Wednesday night.
There were some life-changing triple nerve transfer surgeries, too. “They took nerves that went to muscles that worked but didn’t do too much, and plugged them into nerves that went to bigger muscles that did more.
“Previously, I probably had enough function to do basic tasks, but now I can do things that someone with my level of function – a C5 quadriplegic – wouldn’t normally be able to do very easily.
“It doesn’t sound that exciting, but from an independence point of view it’s really helpful if you can pick up a plate of food and carry it over to the table, or shake someone’s hand, or pick up my phone off the floor easily instead of struggling with it for a couple of minutes. It definitely makes me realise how lucky I am.”
McQuillan feels positive about much of his new life. His parents and brother have been a constant support, as has Kathryn, who he married in May. And he is part of an inclusive and flexible workplace at ANZ Bank. All while playing his way into the national team. Still, he is self-deprecating. “I’m like the poor man’s Dylan Alcott, basically,” he deadpans.
His mother, a retired teacher, and his father, a farmer, have travelled to Denmark to watch their son compete at the world championships. Australia have already made light work of Brazil 57-36 and edged form team Canada 55-53, before defeating the host nation 55-43 on Thursday morning (AEDT) to remain unbeaten.
McQuillan is still learning the ropes, having played his first formal games less than a year ago filling in at a local competition, where he was spotted by a couple of Steelers players and invited to join them for training. His disability falls into the 0.5 class – the lowest level of functional ability – meaning his main role is to block and get in the way of opponents to free up his higher-functioning teammates.
“There are some crossovers with footy, in terms of positioning on the field and blocking for other people,” he says. “Sometimes I’m not where I’m supposed to be, just because I’m new and still learning. They’ve been really good at teaching me where I need to go. There’s so many different scenarios in rugby that are foreign to me, so it’s taken a bit to get on top of.
“I’m just really lucky to have had lots of support that people who were happy to come along with me and help me experience and learn things again. I’ve managed to get to a point where I feel really, really happy with how things are.”