Sportable Stories: Mandy Marchiano

Keep up with Mandy Marchiano if you can. “I’m a zero,” she begins, then clarifies. “I mean, technically I’m a .5, but female players subtract half a point. As a low-pointer, I can still hit, but mostly I hook, and I block, and when my positioning is good I give my high-pointers a better route to the goal.”

Mandy is describing her role as a defender on Sportable’s wheelchair rugby team, the Possums. She is soft-spoken and thoughtful, but her passion for the sport is unmistakable. And though she is a natural athlete, her path back to athletics was a long one.

Growing up, Mandy played soccer, she danced, and was a cheerleader. When she was thirteen, an automobile accident crushed her C5 and C6 vertebrae, leaving her unable to walk and with with limited functionality above the waist. For the next fifteen years, she focused on other things: healing, her faith, and education. She graduated from high school, earned an Associate’s Degree from Richard Bland, and continued on to VCU and a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and Chemistry.

Then, in 2016, while watching the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games, the old athletic impulse returned. “I wondered who all these adaptive athletes were,” says Mandy. “So I began to research adaptive sports. I learned that there was this organization, Sportable, and it was right here in Richmond.”

So she went to an expo, and she signed up for things. Lots of things. Archery. Hand-cycling. Rowing. Kayaking. “They were great,” she says. “And the volunteers were amazing.”

And then rugby happened.

Sportable launched its wheelchair rugby program in 2019 thanks to a grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mandy was at a rowing program when a volunteer suggested she give rugby a try. Mandy knew a little about the sport from watching the documentary Murderball but was still unsure.

“I didn’t know if I would have the strength,” she says. “I use a power chair and rugby is played in manual chairs.” Still, she went to try it out and, well, Mandy laughs at the memory. “Oh my goodness! We were all so bad! Someone threw me the ball and it literally hit me in the face.”

But the spark had been struck. Being a member of the Possums offered a sense of camaraderie that Mandy missed from being on teams when she was younger. Plus, the game challenged her mentally as well as physically. She describes it as high-impact chess, demanding strength and fitness, but also the mental acuity to stay one step ahead of the action in order to position herself for maximum effectiveness.

In their first season, the Possums grew together as a team, progressing from a squad just hoping to score a few points in their first game to beating the host team in their last tournament of the year. Along the way, they traveled to Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Charlotte, and some of Mandy’s best memories are being on the road with her team, playing games, spending time in the hotel, and sharing meals. Or, as she describes it, “I’ve found a whole other family.”

But the best memory is that big win in the final tournament of the year. Stands full of cheering fans, taut back-and-forth action, and, finally, a 37-33 win—the Possums’ first of the year.

“I just think about where we came from,” says Mandy. “That first practice where no one knew how to throw or catch a ball, to winning in a tournament against such an established team.”

It’s a journey Mandy is excited to continue, after COVID eases and competition can begin again. But Mandy isn’t wasting the intervening time. She is still doing fitness workouts in the Diamond parking lot with the rest of her team, and she is even getting a manual chair for her own use, since rugby has helped her build strength that she did not have before.

It’s that strength and growth that Mandy wants everyone to know is possible through Sportable programs.

To others who might wonder of Sportable is right for them, she says, “I encourage you to come out and try it. I promise they have a sport for you. Everyone is knowledgeable and if they don’t have equipment you need, they’ll find a way to get it. You’ll meet new people, make new friendships, and best of all improve both your physical and mental health.”

And to anyone who wonders why Sportable is worth their support? “The Sportable mission is perfectly worded,” she says. “Creating opportunities and transforming lives. That’s exactly what they did for me. Your support allows more people to experience this kind of life transformation.”

And with that, Mandy is off again. To the next challenge. The next opportunity. The next transformation. Keep up with her if you can.

Written by: Christopher J. Moore, writer and photographer

Photo by: Jaclyn Elizabeth Photography | jaclynelizabethphoto.com

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