“To be honest, playing wheelchair rugby is something people ask me about at every presentation I do,” said McKinnon, who suffered a serious spinal injury four years ago while playing for the Knights in an NRL match against Melbourne.
“Throughout my rugby league career, I was quite selfish with the amount of time and dedication I had to put in because of how good I wanted to be. That’s all I could see in the world. Even my rehab, it was all about me.
"Since my injury, I’ve challenged myself to look beyond those realms. Down the track, I’d love to focus on something. I’m not sure if wheelchair rugby is that. I’d probably like to coach rugby league. But I’ve got a good balance going on now.”
Proud moment: Australian wheelchair rugby team captain Ryley Batt (left) presents Andrew Edmondson with a Steelers jersey on Thursday.
McKinnon’s life changed forever on a Monday night at AAMI Park. Edmondson’s changed one Friday afternoon 15 years ago when he went down to Coogee Beach for a leisurely swim, caught a wave in the famous beach’s shore break, and broke his neck. He was left a quadriplegic after breaking his C4 and C5 vertebrae. Edmondson is classified as a quadriplegic because all four of his limbs were affected by his accident, but he can compete because he has limited use of his arms.
“I’d been to that beach thousands of times before,” Edmondson said. “I was just bodysurfing and went head first into the sandbank and that was it. There are probably at least four to eight major spinal injuries on Australian beaches a year. I’ve been mentoring a guy who broke his neck at the same beach, in the same area on a Friday afternoon.”
Until that moment, Edmondson had dreamed of becoming a Wallaby. He had just accepted a rugby scholarship at Scots College because of his promise as an openside flanker.
“I was a nutcase back in the day,” Edmondson said. “Just an aggressive young sportsman. My dad would take me to Wallabies games and it was my dream to play for my country. I do now – but it’s just a different sport.”
When Edmondson was in hospital days after his accident, his grandmother, Judy McMaster, looked him in the eye and told him he would one day represent Australia at the Paralympics.
In 2016, the 86-year-old grandmother from Narrabri, who had never left the country before, sat in the stands in Rio as the Steelers claimed the gold medal.
As anyone who has watched wheelchair rugby will attest, the sport is brutal. They don’t call it “Murderball” for nothing.
“That’s the best part of it: being in a wheelchair where you can beat the crap out of someone is pretty cool,” Edmondson said. “Most people in wheelchairs are wrapped in cotton wool. We are not.”
As the reigning Paralympic gold medallists, Australia expect some fierce competition at these world champs.
“The US are the team to beat,” he said. “Every time we play against them, it’s close. Japan have really stepped up. So has Great Britain.”