Spotlight: Mixed Abilities Rugby

This week, the EORU is highlighting mixed abilities rugby that was brought to Ottawa by our very own LeeAnn Napiorkowski. She has been involved in rugby for 26 years, starting at Laurentian High School, moving on to the Ottawa Banshees, and has played for EORU regional sides, provincial Ontario squads, and Canada u20. She is an inclusion teacher with the Ottawa Catholic School Board and supports students with special needs as they navigate their high school years. She has brought rugby into the lives of many students in the OCSB, and has noticed that the values of rugby (integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline) aligned with our philosophies of inclusion in education.

More about LeeAnn:
– World Rugby Level 2 Coach
– head coach St. Peter HS Sr. Boys Rugby
– head coach Carleton Ravens Mens’ RFC
– club coach Lanark Highlanders RFC
– World Rugby Coach Educator

(LeeAnn, centre with sunglasses, posing with mixed abilities athletes and supporters.)

What is mixed abilities rugby?
Mixed Abilities Rugby is a program that provides athletes of all abilities, experiences and ages with an opportunity to play non-contact rugby here in Ottawa. There are non-contact and contact programs all around the world including in the UK, Argentina, New Zealand, USA, Spain, Ireland and Australia.

How did mixed abilities rugby start in Canada?
The Ottawa program started in August of 2017 when I was watching the Women’s Rugby World Cup being held in Ireland where the women’s players held a workshop for athletes with disabilities. When I saw this, I contacted Rugby Canada and asked how this could get started here in Canada. I then organized the first Inclusive Rugby Jamboree at Carleton University in October of 2017. Eighty-five athletes with disabilities worked with mentors from the Ravens men’s and women’s programs as well as athletes and coaches from the EORU and Algonquin College. In 2018, we hosted 115 athletes and in 2019 the Jamboree grew to include 185 athletes with disabilities. Ottawa boasts the first mixed abilities rugby program in North America!

In 2018, we started a monthly program for our athletes who wanted to learn more about rugby. We meet once a month to learn skills and play non-contact games with our friends.

What are typical training and game settings?
Practices are 1 hour long. In the winter, we train and play in gyms in the summer we play on grass or turf. Practices start off with warm up games, followed by skills games and contests and finally we play 30min of non-contact games.

What kind of community has mixed abilities rugby created for athletes?
This program has truly brought out the best in our rugby community. Athletes from uOttawa, Carleton U, Algonquin, the Bytown Blues, Ottawa Beavers-Banshees, Lanark Highlanders and Ottawa Irish have joined us for our monthly training sessions. After each training, our mentors leave with smiles on their faces commenting on how much fun they had and how they have made so many new buddies. Our athletes benefit so much from playing with experienced rugby players from the community. It is so wonderful to see that our program transcends club lines to bring rugby players together.

Athlete and Mentor/Enabler* Insight
*Note: The term enabler means “mentor/helper” in the mixed abilities world. These players enable athletes with special needs to play. 

Kendra Harrison (u17 mixed abilities player/enabler, Lanark Highlanders)

What is your favourite thing about mixed abilities rugby and why do you play?
I like learning about people with different abilities and making new friends. It’s fun! I love helping players like my friend Emily learn how to play rugby.

(Kendra, arm extended, catching the ball from a teammate.)


Jackson Veirnest (Mixed Abilities Athlete)

What do you like best about rugby practices?
I like playing the practice games the best, because we had good matchups and it prepared us for real games.

What do you think your best rugby skill is?
My best rugby skills are getting tries and kicking.

Is rugby fun? Why?
Yes, it is fun because you make new friends while you play your favourite game. I get good exercise too.

What is your favourite rugby memory?
The best memory I’ve ever had in rugby was on my first try. I celebrated with my teammates. 

Why should other people come play rugby?
People should play rugby because you make friends and learn how to be a team. It gave me confidence to try out for my rugby team at school. I made it because I had good practice with the mixed ability league practices.

(Jackson is carrying the ball towards the try line.)


Anali Stewart (Ottawa Banshees Sr. Women, Mixed Abilities Player and Enabler)

“I returned to playing rugby as an adult because it’s more than just a sport it’s joining a community. And I want to give back to this community as more than a player. Mixed abilities rugby includes everyone in the sport bringing wonderful kids into the big rugby community. Which makes me incredibly happy to be a part of.”

(Anali, left, chasing the ball carrier.)


Al Charron (former Rugby Canada senior men’s captain, World Rugby Hall of Fame Inductee, Mixed Abilities Rugby Supporter)

“I am sure every person who has coached, helped out in some manner, or just simply watched a Mixed Abilities rugby event will say it was a rewarding experience – because the simple truth is that it is! Anytime you can be part of something that brings joy to a person’s face, young or old, boy or girl, no matter their skill level –  in essence, that is a pleasurable and rewarding experience for both those playing and those coaching/facilitating.

My hat is off to LeeAnn (Nappy) and all those involved (and it is worth noting- it is representatives from all the different rugby clubs in the Ottawa area) – who take the time, patience and energy to bring this very worthwhile program of the sport of rugby to the masses.
One of the things that was further entrenched to me early in my rugby days follows along the same line as way most of us are actually brought up – and that is to look to give back. We all like playing or watching rugby and inherently we want it to be successful and to grow. There are many ways to make it grow and the onus is upon us who have benefitted from our association with the good sport of rugby is to find a way to give back and feed its growth and popularity. This mixed abilities program headed magnificently well by Nappy certainly shows that rugby can be and truly is an inclusive sport for all to enjoy and experience.

I have been fortunate enough to attend a few Mixed Abilities sessions over the years – they are well run and you can tell the majority of the participants no matter their background, no matter their abilities, find this outlet to be a fun and gratifying experience (not to mention the appreciation of their parents or caretakers). And at the end of the day, that is in fact exactly what will and should make your day each and every time,  to be involved in something (playing or coaching in this case) that is indeed fun and gratifying!”