Gian Carlo Lertora De Souza is a world-class athlete, a father of two and the captain of the Peruvian Quadriplegic Rugby team.
Lertora, 50, broke his neck in a car accident 15 years ago and has since been confined to a wheelchair. But he has not allowed his level C5/C6 spinal cord injury to define who he is or how he lives his life.
Lertora is the perfect example of who the Maximus Project was designed to help.
The Maximus Project, funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and fostered by the Arcángeles Foundation of Colombia, was established in 2012 with the goal of promoting empowerment and inclusion for handicapped individuals in South America.
The project is currently active in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, with coaches from Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, where the sport has been growing for the last decade, working to nurture the sport of quad rugby around the continent.
The Maximus Project gives people with physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in athletic competition. They want to build a network of national teams with the goal of establishing a continent-wide tournament. The project arrived to Peru last year and has since spawned a team in Lima.
Some of the members of the Peruvian Quad Rugby team. (Photo: Maximus Project)
“A friend told me about the Maximus Project,” Lertora said. “I got in touch with the organization and they received me with open arms. Ever since I’ve been hooked on rugby.”
Quad rugby is a fast-paced sport that is played on a basketball court. The athletes use specially designed wheelchairs that look like “bumper cars.” Unlike traditional rugby, in which players use their bodies to collide with one another, in quad rugby players crash into each other with their wheelchairs. They pass around a volleyball and score points when their wheelchairs cross a goal line. It is a loud and exciting game.
“I had seen videos of quad rugby before, so I was thrilled when I heard that it was coming to Peru,” Lertora said.
Maximus Project chose quad rugby as the sport to use to accomplish its objective due to two important factors.
First, it gives individuals with very limiting physical disabilities the opportunity to compete, as participants must have a disability that affects both their arms and legs. Most of the athletes have severe spinal damage, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, amputations or a degenerative neurological condition.
Second, it’s a mix-gender sport that focuses more on the athlete’s physical endurance.
Lucia Ysisola became paralyzed when she was an adolescent– she was one of the last victims of polio in Peru.
“When I play rugby I leave my handicap behind and compete like any other person does,” Ysisola said. “I feel motivated and it helps tremendously to build my confidence.”
As one of two women on the team, Ysisola wants to represent her country and win a championship.
“We’re doing this work as a team,” she said. “We don’t mind playing with the boys; we’re just as good as them.”
Coach Manuel Benavides helps one of his players during a practice session. (Photo: Maximus Project)
The team’s coach, who the players describe as strict and committed, is Manuel Benavides, 33, a physical education teacher and coach from the Lima Rugby Club. He’s been playing and coaching rugby in Lima and the United States since 1996.
He says that coaching traditional rugby and quad rugby is similar.
“We’re working on teaching our players the game, ball control, and improving their strength and conditioning,” Benavides said. “Of course, our version is its own sport. It’s a combination of rugby, basketball and handball, but with contact.”
Currently, the players on the Lima team have to practice with wheelchairs that aren’t suitable for quad rugby. Until their specially designed rugby wheelchairs arrive, they have to make ends meet by using other athletic chairs that have been designed for quad tennis or basketball. This means that they can’t practice those collisions that are a big part of the game.
Benavides is hopeful that the team will receive the chairs soon.
“The chairs are coming in March,” Benavides said. “We are confident that USAID will send us the rugby chairs.”
The team has 15 players who have been training for the last five months at Eduardo Dobis Coliseum in the San Borja district, and despite not having the rugby chairs they are determined to compete.
“We can do it,” Lucia Ysisola said. “Nothing is impossible. We have to break all the obstacles that we create within our minds and continue fighting.”
Besides promoting the sport, Maximus Project is actively working to improve the players’ lives by promoting health and wellness, teaching them about their rights and changing the stigma associated with physical handicaps.
The Peruvian quad rugby team is training for their first regional tournament, and working to fight the stigma often associated with being handicapped in Peru.