Marley Robinson doesn’t consider herself a sporty person. She has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that impacts nerves and muscles, and says she was never drawn to sports because of her disability.
But on a recent Saturday afternoon in Roxbury, Robinson, who just graduated from Northeastern University last week, found herself racing around a gym floor playing volt hockey, a sport for people with physical disabilities that’s being introduced to the United States by the nonprofit Boston Self Help Center.
Robinson says volt hockey is built for people like her, who have limited upper and lower body mobility and haven’t tried many adaptive sports. She was hesitant to start playing at first because her own wheelchair is customized perfectly to her body. But once she tried volt hockey, she was “hooked.”
“It’s a perfect sport for me because it’s basically like driving my own power chair in a more competitive form,” she said before practice.
Volt hockey is played indoors on a hard surface, usually a gym floor, using specially made wooden electric wheelchairs with plastic hockey stick paddles on the end. Players can go as fast as 10 miles per hour as they swerve and loop around the court, typically playing three-on-three hockey and trying to out-score the other team. The chairs are operated by hand with a joystick, so people who have limited upper body movement can play.
Watch: Volt hockey, the new adaptive sport, comes to Boston
Organizers say the fast-paced sport originated in Denmark in the 1990s, spread through Europe and then to Canada. Jim Wice, president of the Boston Self Help Center and director of Accessibility and Disability Resources at Wellesley College, is enthusiastic about bringing volt hockey to the area.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of disability services stuff and adaptive sports. I never saw anything like this, ”he said. “A wooden wheelchair that’s low to the ground with a flipper to play hockey in a gym – totally unique to me.”
Wice, who also plays on the Boston Brakers, a power wheelchair soccer team, says the sport is filling a gap in the adaptive sports landscape.
“This isn’t wheelchair basketball, it’s not quad rugby, it’s not sit-skiing or sled hockey,” he said. “This is for folks who have, you know, some significant mobility impairments that seem to be kind of left out of adaptive sports and recreation.”
Wice discovered volt hockey from a Boston Self Help Center donor who had been traveling in Europe and came across the sport. Last fall, that donor helped the nonprofit buy eight of the specialized chairs, which are only manufactured in Denmark. Throughout the year, they’ve been hosting practices to introduce the sport to potential players, including through a partnership with Northeastern’s new disability student group, of which Robinson was president and co-founder.
“Everyone so far that’s kind of gotten in the chairs kind of falls in love with the sport,” Wice said.
Robinson has been to a few practice sessions already and brought along a group of friends, some disabled and some not, to the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury, where they ran drills and scrimmaged. And as she crashed into her opponents and passed the ball to her teammates, a smile didn’t leave her face while parents and friends cheered them on.
“I’m very competitive. So it’s nice to do something to kind of release that energy and get it out of me, ”she said. “People kind of bash into each other sometimes. So it can get violent, it can get rowdy a little bit sometimes, which is fun. ”
Juan Carlos Ramírez-Tapia, a South End resident who is paraplegic and also plays power soccer, has already fallen in love with the sport. He says the unique chairs level the playing field for players with all abilities.
“The nice thing about this sport is that as long as you’re able to move that joystick, and have some dexterity around it, the field level is leveled up for everyone and people from different ages – seniors, young adults, kids, they can participate, ”he said.
Ramírez-Tapia says that the pandemic was especially isolating for people with disabilities, and the new sport fosters a sense of community. Robinson agrees.
“It’s really great just because there [are] not a whole lot of things that disabled people can do together as a group, ”she said. “And so being able to have an active activity that you can do together is really great for team building and having like just social things to do.”
“This is for folks who have, you know, some significant mobility impairments that seem to be kind of left out of adaptive sports and recreation.”
-Jim Wice, Boston Self Help Center
At recent practice, Joey Chorzewski caught a pass from his teammate and maneuvered his chair swiftly around a defender to score a perfectly placed goal. It was the first time he had ever scored a goal while playing a sport.
“It felt amazing,” he said.
Wice hopes that as more people find joy in the sport like Chorzewski, the sport will continue to grow in Boston and across the country. If they can get enough funding together, the players plan to travel to Sweden for the Volt Hockey World Cup in September. The United States has never sent a team, and Wice hopes this Boston-based group, including Robinson, can be the first.
“One thing that I think about, I thought about with soccer, and I think about with volt hockey – is that it’s kind of like the movie ‘Field of Dreams,'” he said. “If you build it, they will come.”